Striking a balance between development and sustainability

Since the notion of Sustainable Development has become widespread with the publication of the UN Commission on Environment and Development in 1986, there has been the tension between the aspiration to develop on the one hand and to stay within ‘planetary boundaries’ on the other. Development often implies economic growth in order to satisfy basic needs of the poor – and less basic needs of the less poor. Sustainable meant that that which has been and is being developed can be sustained over time, at least across some generations. The two interfere in various ways, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes counteracting each other. For instance, new technology leads us into uncharted territory which by some people is almost without further reflection experienced as development (‘progress’) and by others seen as a threat for ecological, economic or social sustainability. Often, the reality is ambiguous.

What is the role of science, apart from providing the basic natural science for the new technology? Inspecting the lists of journals and books in a university library or – if still existent – bookshop, many traditional scientific disciplines have taken up the challenge and orient themselves towards ‘sustainable development’. Some researchers consider it a hype but join in response to shifting money flows – seismic modelling to understand earthquake risks or health effects from living near fast-food restaurants are relabeled and deal with sustainability. But the major part of the research is done with the genuine objective to produce new knowledge from their own and nearby disciplines in order to ‘solve’ a sustainable development problem. For instance, a large group of scientists has jumped upon the perceived ‘need’ to research and develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques to contribute to the solution of the climate change problem. Most of this research is mono -or bidisciplinary and advancing along the well-established ways of the natural sciences.

In my view, this is not what sustainability science and this journal is about. The argument is well-known: development and sustainability of human populations on a finite planet have become so interwoven, complex, value-laden and uncertain that even problem-driven and interdisciplinary thinking are no longer enough. We have to construct methods, concepts, theories and reflections that thoroughly acknowledge the ’post-normal science’ features as coined by Funtowicz and Ravetz in 1990. More specifically, one can think of numerous ways to elicit the necessary reflection. These include: system dynamics as an inherently holistic method; evolving coupled social-ecological systems (SES) as the adequate unit of study to bridge scales; common pool resource and public good management as the proper governance framework; interactions between resource systems and their users as the essence of models for sustainability, in connection to simulation-games; and explicit consideration of worldviews, i.e. sets of values and beliefs. It will bridge the natural and the social science divide and the science-policy divide, not by putting people from different disciplinary backgrounds every now and then in the same room, but by a continuous and rigorous effort to develop genuinely integrating tools and theories in interaction with their real-world implementation. This, in brief, is my hope for the Global Sustainability journal.

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