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Do we need a new science for sustainable development? What does sustainability science contribute?


In the past few centuries, human activities have caused extensive damage to the environment. However, it is only recently that the society has begun to comprehend what some actions may mean for the environment. In today’s economy driven world, natural resources are being exploited and depleted at worrying rates that cannot be sustained (Wilbanks, 1994).

The failure to understand the relationship between the environment, people, and other necessary factors in the ecosystem has led to a near environmental and social crisis (Bansal, 2005). This has inevitably led to the development of new disciplines, such as environmental science, sustainable development, renewable energy among others (Fergus & Rowney, 2005).

This paper will concentrate on the intellectual value and practical perspectives of sustainable development as a science.  The term sustainable development has received great importance in because it holds the key to human survival. The challenges relating to the issue, and the power that surrounds the terms requires a distinct discipline in order to formulate the necessary theories and practical procedures that are necessary for the kind of sustainable development envisioned. This paper will therefore argue the case for the establishment of a new science to drive sustainable development, and also identify what a sustainable development science would contribute (Bell & Morse, 2007).

Understanding Sustainable development

The idea of sustainable development was born out of concerns by developed countries regarding economic and demographic challenges. This was pushed by a sense of crisis regarding the implications of a spiraling growth in population (Robinson, 2004).

This later led experts into digging deeper to understand the broader challenges that are posed by development. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) was established following the Stockholm conference and one of its key mandates was to promote the concept of “ecodevelopment” (Wilbanks, 1994).   In 1983, the U.N. established the world commission on Environment development. The commission released a report in 1987 that emphasized on the importance of sustainable development (Bell & Morse, 2007). The report mainly dwelt on the need to meet the basic needs of humans while recognizing the limits posed by the environment.

By early 1990s, the move towards government action, policy and research analysis in regard to climate issues was gathering momentum, and this culminated in the United Nation’s Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Bell & Morse, 2007). On behalf of all the 170 countries in attendance, the UNCED issued a declaration on the Environment and Development which detailed a comprehensive blueprint on “Global partnership for Sustainable Development” (Fergus & Rowney, 2005). Political and intellectual interests have played a major role in the development of key concepts in sustainable development (Rosehead & Mingers, 2001).

As defined in the 1987 world environmental commission report, sustainable development refers to the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Fergus & Rowney, 2005). This definition has generally captured the forward-looking nature of sustainable development but has tended to overlook many important factors that are central to sustainable development.

Currently, sustainable development is viewed upon as “economic growth that is sustainable in ecological terms and satisfies the essential needs of the lower class” (Matzdorf & Ramage, 2000).

However, to be clearer, the concept revolves around the ability to meet basic needs of the rapidly expanding world population without stretching the environment to its limits (Fergus & Rowney, 2005).  It is imperative to note that in order to achieve a sustainable economic development, particularly when this is looked at in terms of reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, it means that the physical environment is going to experience heavier impacts (Wilbanks, 1994).

Some areas of the world will soon experience economic and social problems that relate to the depletion of natural resources and an increase in pollution. And if things are not checked, then global economic development may grind to halt due to irreparable environmental price (Forsth, 2003).

Thus the idea of sustainable development is particularly important in the sense that linking long-term and equitable economic progress that has a balanced relationship with the environment is not an easy thing. This partly argues the case for the establishment of a distinctive science to deal with issues of sustainable development. Other issues of course relate to the determination of the complexity associated with different human/environmental factors, and their significance in sustainable development perspectives.

Sustainable development must be looked at as the development of the human activities and structures that can continue into the future without posing dangers to people and the environment (Andrew, Fergus, Julie, & Rowney, 2005).

The need for a new science to drive sustainable development

There are a number of things happening on sustainability science front currently with emphasis on the creation of a sustainability science and technology (Houghton & Counsell, 2004).  However, not much has been achieved on the need to create the desired prominence and acceptance. The sustainability website ( has been on the forefront in carrying the initiative (LeVeness & Primeaux, 2004). Initial steps have been developed to set the ground for the development of educational and organizational capacity for science, research training amongst different nations (Taket & White, 2000). There is also a move towards experimentation and innovation to create public and private partnerships. But all this is being undertaken with economic development “comfort zones”, though it is quite clear that sustainability must come at a good amount of cost to economic development.

There is so much that is being done wrongly currently, in the name of promoting sustainable development. In order to understand why there is need for the development of a sustainable development science, it is imperative that the challenges experienced in the current framework are reviewed (Dennis & Peek-Gottschlich, 2001). As currently understood, sustainable development covers a wide range of related and interacting issues that are often highly contentious in meaning (Fergus & Rowney, 2005). Sustainable development must not be looked at within the prevailing rationale where projects are often valued in regard to their tangible outputs.  Learning and participation within projects can also be a valuable output as far as various concepts of sustainability are considered (Fergus & Rowney, 2005).

According to Bell & Morse (2007), sustainable development literature must include the following:

Description of sustainability as an “end point”; This is important if sustainability has to be looked upon as an improvement of some sort or at least creating the mechanisms required to achieve improvement. For instance, reducing the number of vehicles on the road with the objective of reducing pollution to some targeted level (Bell & Morse, 2007).

Sustainability as a learning process; for this, sustainability should not be considered to be an endpoint in itself but rather an evolution of change (Bell & Morse, 2007).  Thus tangible results should not be expected in the short term but be present in the longer term.

These perspectives are important if sustainability has to improve present lives without putting future generations at risk.

Ten Items

The UN has proposed ten items for consideration in the new sustainability science approach. They were formulated to help sustain growth and environmental awareness.

Having globalization work for sustainable development – As things stand now, globalization does not work equally for all countries. Trust-based sustainable development can only work if fairness is adopted at globalization level. Areas that should be tackled include elimination subsidies that favor certain regions and improve the market access by products manufactured in developing countries (LeVeness & Primeaux, 2004).

Poverty eradication and improvement of livelihoods – Severe ecological areas are often dominated by people living in extreme poverty conditions. Sustainable development can only be achieved when efforts are made to improve living conditions of such people. This can be achieved through sustainable livelihoods, education, agricultural improvement, efforts to minimize waste, and encouraging renewable energy use (Clark, 1995).

Changing patterns of production and consumption – There is need to increase energy efficiency, and enhancing corporate responsibility through measures such as provision of incentives for cleaner energy production (Leveness & Primeaux, 2004).

Health improvement – The health of much of the world population can be improved by provision of access to fresh water and reduction of pollutants such lead in petroleum products.

Access to energythe worlds deprived economies need to gain access to energy and more so by making more use of renewable and energy efficient technologies. Established economies must also adopt measures to ensure change from unsustainable energy consumption patterns (Oldfield & Shaw, 2002).

Ecosystem and biodiversity management The problem of overfishing, marine pollution, and deforestation must be stopped. Here are other interesting presentation topics

Fresh water supply The supply of fresh water must be improved an equitable distribution of water resources attained.

Provision of financial resources There should be increased assistance in terms of official and private investment in sustainable practices and sharing of technologies that environmentally friendly.

Encourage sustainable developments in Africa There is a need for development of institutions that can address problems such as hunger, health, resource management, and environmental protection.

Strengthen international governance – There should be emphasis on the development of a sustained global approach rather than the present framework where different countries work on their own.

Although the current methods have not entirely solved global environmental issues, it is imperative to note that establishing another science might not solve every remaining challenge. The current sustainability development goals are poised on triggering a balance between the two, and the challenge has not been objective formulation rather the implementation of the same.

However, as suggested by various scholars, a new science for sustainability development might be necessary to counter new challenges that emerge every day. To formulate a new science, a rigorous process is followed, and step by step analysis of the processes involved is highlighted below.

Steps in the establishment of a new sustainability science

  1. Identifying the issues

The concept of sustainable development has led to a number of problems in developing good theory because of the various ambiguities that have surrounded the concept since its inception. It is common knowledge that many people in developed countries like the idea of sustainable growth but are only concerned with the environmental conservation that has a zero impact on economic development (Radermacher, 1999).  On the other hand, people in developing countries tend to look at economic development that can have little impact on the environment. Therefore, there are varying objectives as far as sustainable development is concerned though the general concerns are the same.  Whereas there seems to be good progress on the development of technical capabilities, there is still so much work to be done for political and organizational acceptance.

There are so many inconsistencies in terms of national practice, in the context of different political and economic systems. The varying views have led to a number of inconsistencies in the arguments on sustainable development. In a rather worrying trend, the arguments have included to form part of the growing literature on sustainable development (Bansal, 2005).

Conservation Vs Growth – There is no consensus on how conservation and development should be carried out both in industrialized countries and developing economies. In the past, biodiversity has a formed a critical part of this debate, however, there is need to consider other key things such as preserving the landscape.

Freedom Vs Control – It is currently not clear whether sustainable development can be advanced in a free atmosphere or it will always be under the control of political players and financiers.  The need to trust populists, and market oriented decision makers is key if the people involved in the drive for global sustainability are to do their jobs right. This is particularly important because is need for difficult choices if sustainability has to be advanced in the interest of future generations (Robinson, 2004).

Centralization Vs decentralization – It is not clear whether decision making action should be left within a particular country’s borders, localities or groups of countries.

Reform versus revolution – After evaluating the realities posed by climate change, resource depletion and pollution, is it necessary to adopt incremental changes in policies, preferences, and institutions or does sustainable development call for a complete overhaul of how things are done (Rosehead & Mingers, 2001)?

What emerges here is that sustainability cannot be advanced as an environmental or political science per se. The concept is ultimately a political question as there is a need for control, resource allocation, dispute resolution, and agenda setting (Bell & Morse, 2007). Therefore, sustainable development literature cannot be drawn from ecology, economics and environmental science alone, but more so from fields such as social political structures. There is a lot that needs to be done in order for sustainable development to stop being a series of temporary fixes and add-ons that are currently witnessed.

It is not however to say that not much has been achieved currently, the inclusion of sustainable development within economic paradigm has led to the achievement of some positives such as development of alternative energy sources and establishment of measures to control pollution.

  1. An inclusive decision making process

The concept of sustainability science is worth; it however needs to gain legitimacy, authority, and credibility by the inclusion of relevant stakeholders into the implementation process (Zhao, Luo, Deng, & Yan, 2008). It is very clear that meaningful sustainable development can only be achieved if correct decisions are made at both national and international political levels. Therefore, there is need to bring environmental scientists on board so that populists decisions correctly linked to what actually needs to be done. If scientific analysis is used as a basis for political decisions in as far as sustainable development is concerned then a more positive and effective sustainability will be realized. It is only by telling things as they currently are (sustainability challenges and the particular measures that should be taken), will there be a more towards politicization that is based on trust rather threats.

Politics as a center of power is very crucial for integrated and inclusive changes to be undertaken in order to create the foundational ethic value that is required for proper sustainable development. Value must be measured in terms of social, economic, and environmental as opposed to the current domination of economic value (Lertzman & Vrednburg, 2005).

  1. Adoption of analytical Frameworks

As part of the approach to addressing issues related to sustainable development Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs) can go a long way in addressing such issues. PSMs are commonly applied in small scale organizational contexts but can function well in highly complex issues such as those relating environment, sustainability, conflict and democracy (Fowler & Hope, 2007).

While the basic aspects of sustainability are science, most other aspects are prone to differential interpretation. For instance, while reducing cars on roads can be a good move towards reducing pollution, a request of such a measure cannot appeal to many car owners.

There is a lot of danger of what sustainable development wants to attain and the priorities of those who will benefit from them (Bell & Morse, 2007). This problem is even worse on the larger scale where some countries would consider sustainable development to be just another neocolonial push by the western world.

PMSs can be effective tools in managing diversity, resolving conflicts, and promoting collaboration. An analytical framework is critical for a reflective deconstruction of sustainability to allow for learning to take place within projects. The following factors must therefore be included as part of sustainable development PMS.

Comparing and contrasting the varying visions of both sustainable and unsustainable development factors

How sustainable outcomes of any given project can be maintained

How project teams and individuals can learn and apply the knowledge beyond the project’s time frame

And how the lessons learned can be carried into the future.

Thus a PMS model for can be developed through reflection, connection (linking experiences to other related areas), modeling, and acting (Bell & Morse, 2007). If new theory can be developed to include PMSs in all critical areas of sustainable development then a lot can be achieved.

The contribution of sustainability science

As things stand now sustainability science is dominated by explanations anchored on social and political framings (Carvalan, Kjellstrom, & Smith, 1999). For instance, the Kyoto protocol has put a requirement on carbon emitters to invest in reforestation as a way of justifying continued emission. The global perspectives of removal of carbon, which are often based on environmental science, are not consistent with local needs for land tenure security and development (Williams & Millington, 2004). Therefore, there is a big problem with the monitoring process that is trusted on the observation and measurement by local mechanisms (Simola, 2007).

The establishment of a sustainable development science will definitely address the gap between what environmental sciences thinks should be done and what politics says should be done. The forecast of doom that is dominates sustainability expert talks be able to attract the political response it deserves.

It is only through such initiatives will it be possible to achieve concrete partnerships between governments, citizen groups, and businesses.

It is only by changing the political perception towards what really needs to be done, will there be any meaningful trickledown effect in terms of policies, procedures, regulation, and compliance.

It is now clear that industrialized countries might be required to cut down on their living standards in order to level the playing field for underprivileged communities. Such a measure can only be achieved if sustainability development is deeply rooted in politics (Fergus & Rowney, 2005).

There is no doubt that science and research can contribute greatly to the development of sustainable science. Here is the specific ways through which science can impact on sustainable development:

Complex nature of issues – Most of the global challenges that put a lot of pressure on environmental sustainability can only be addressed through systematic approaches. Science is required to effectively strike a balance between population increase, prudent use of resources, and factors such as water supply (Bansal, 2005).

Placing climate questions in the larger context – Climate questions are often discussed in isolation and, therefore, fail to generate the desired importance. A sustainable science is very crucial in the development and improvement of literacy in regard to sustainable development.  If sustainability is adopted in the wider scientific literature, particularly in the areas such as healthcare and nutrition then people will readily accept various measures that are required to tackle the problem (Dennis & Peek-Gottschlich, 2001).

Development of the necessary energy systems – The development of efficient energy systems to drive sustainability depends a lot on science and technology. It is imperative that energy systems are evaluated on their ability to affect the environment while at the same time fulfilling energy requirements (Lertzman & Vrednburg, 2005).

Environmental Analysis – A sustainable development science plays a critical role in the development of tools that are required to analyze how different systems impact on the environment. It is important to understand how technical processes and products, and consumption patterns on impact on sustainability (Matzdorf & Ramage, 2000).

Material flow and risk assessment – A sustainable science plays a crucial role in understanding material flows (energy, raw materials, and cultivation patterns) and what they mean for the environment. Such systems can also be used to evaluate the desired practices that will have minimum impact on the environment.  Sustainability science is also crucial in the understanding of how various risks can be assessed. For instance, identification of ways that can be used to decontaminated polluted land.

Sustainable construction, transport and logistics – It is only by understanding the risk related to specific areas, will experts be in a position to adopt the required sustainable systems.  For instance, logistics and transport systems have played in leading role in pollution. Science is needed to identify the priority areas that should be tacked in the transport system to make sustainable development a reality.  The same goes for construction and urban development (Simola, 2007).


Indeed sustainable development has been a front burner issue for quite some time, and many action steps have already been put in place to map out what needs to be done. However, there is a big disconnect between what is actually being done and what can be done to effectively meet targets. The whole issue boils down to politics and economic interests. Therefore, there is need for the development of theory and analytical frameworks that can provide a way forward and make sure that needs of future generations are well taken care off. A new science for sustainability science is paramount in order to counter the current imbalances.   


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