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What is Sustainability Science?
’Sustainability Science’ is a rapidly developing transdisciplinary, cross-faculty framework for studying issues with interacting cultural, ethical, political, social, legal, economic, technological, ecological and bio-physical elements, and with a time perspective beyond that of the present generation.
Achieving sustainable development, locally, nationally and globally, is an extremely wide-ranging challenge to society, and not the least to science. These challenges include assuring that the basic preconditions for human welfare are not undermined. These preconditions include that the availability of basic necessities (e.g. of food, water and energy) is improved, that poverty and inequity are reduced, that natural systems on which we depend, such as the climate system, are not destabilized, that the continued supply of ‘ecological services’ is not jeopardized, and that the erosion of biodiversity is not accelerated. In order to meet these challenges, basic and applied research, as well as a wide variety of individual disciplines, need to join forces.
While some of the global change processes involved, not the least climate change, requires that great efforts are invested in understanding the functioning of the natural and life science components of the Earth system, it is equally important that the human (economic, social, cultural, legal and health-related) components of the problem are addressed as well. Most importantly, this must take place in a coherent framework, recognizing that human and bio-physical systems interact strongly, and do so in sometimes complex and non-linear ways.
The notion of sustainability further implies that questions are raised concerning the long term impacts, on ‘future generations’ as stated in the standard definitions of ‘sustainable development’, of the way we currently manage natural resources. Scientific disciplines, studying sustainability, environment and climate, tend to differ widely with respect to the time horizons considered. While use of discounting in economics may limit the effective time horizon to few decades, geologists often consider time horizons of millions of years. There is an urgent need to bridge this gap in time scales.
‘Sustainability Science’ is a particular and most promising framework for this concerted effort of disciplines, representing different scientific cultures, having different time-perspectives, and differing also with respect to the relative weight of basic versus applied and policy relevant research. It is clear from the above that sustainability science should not be seen as a new discipline, replacing the traditional ones, rather it may be seen as a framework for collaboration between the traditional disciplines, when organizing a scientific response to the immense challenges listed above.
The concept of sustainability does not only refer to bio-physical systems, but to the political, economic, cultural and legal aspects of human life as well. An integrated sustainability science thus requires systematic attention not only to each of these subsystems, but also to the relationship between them. Since the conditions of sustainability vary between these subsystems, they are likely to provoke sharp trade-offs of interests and identities. Not only are the sustainability requirements of bio-physical systems sometimes undermined by the modus operandi of politics and markets, but sometimes the scientific worldview upon which most notions of sustainability are based is hard to reconcile with other beliefs that are crucial to the endurance and cohesion of social and cultural systems. Since no subsystem can claim analytical priority, a coherent sustainability science must not only account for how bio-physical and man-made systems interact in causal terms, but also how the former affect the latter by being incorporated in the self-understandings of the agents and institutions that ultimately possess the capacity to decide upon possible futures.
While there is no general agreement among social scientists about the causes and consequences of globalization, there is a widespread belief that globalization has made boundaries between both levels and disciplines less relevant when formulating problems of sustainable development. Problems of sustainability cut across local, national and global levels of analysis, and since most of these problems are the outcome of human decisions and practices, their solution requires systematic integration between the natural, social, and human sciences. Sustainability science thus faces a global problem of the commons: While being man-made, most problems of sustainable development are boundless by nature. Yet the political authority necessary to manage these problems largely remains confined within the bounded political systems of individual states, and can only be exercised by global institutions to the extent that states are willing to enter into binding agreements. Yet what keeps them from doing so are trade-offs between the requirements of sustainability and domestic economic and political interests. Achieving sustainability globally thus presupposes a simultaneous relocation of political authority, as well as the fostering of a global sense of community levels by emphasizing the shared habitat and responsibility of mankind in this regard.
As institutions of accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, universities have a special obligation to address knowledge gaps and needs, wherever present. Many of the less well-off countries of the world, often referred to as ‘developing countries’ (a term which, however, covers an extremely diverse group of nations) and newly industrialised countries are characterized by such knowledge gaps and needs. It is therefore a demand on universities in Denmark to look beyond national borders to enter into active partnerships with these countries in order to contribute to capacity development. The themes of sustainability and globalization are of the utmost relevance to developing countries and newly industrialised countries. Climate change exemplifies this well: While developing countries have generally contributed little to the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, they are likely to suffer most, due to their great dependence on climate-sensitive economic sectors, and their low technological capacity to adapt. Within a globally oriented ‘Sustainability Science framework’, the study of climate change impacts as well as vulnerability to climate change in developing and newly industrialised countries therefore have an important place: If these issues are not addressed effectively, sustainable development can not be realized, neither locally, in the developing countries and in our part of the world, nor globally. The same may be said to be the case for other, yet related, problems of special concern to developing countries, such as assuring food production and –security.
The vision for the ‘Sustainability Science Center’ at the University of Copenhagen is that it should make full use of the existence of strong disciplinary traditions of several faculties in order to address the key problems of sustainable development and globalization in a highly integrative manner, thereby making the University of Copenhagen a leading actor in this particular field, both in terms of research and in post-graduate education. The Sustainability Science Centre is also at the heart of the university’s efforts to ensure that research insights related to the sustainability field are disseminated through an active outreach programme, creating bridges between science, governance and the public at large.