Sustainability: science or fiction?

Posted by sustainable on January 30, 2012 

What is sustainable development?
The essence of sustainable development is simply this: to provide for the fundamental needs of mankind without doing violence to the natural system of life on earth. This idea arose in the early eighties of the last century and came out of a scientific look at the relationship between nature and society. The concept of sustainable development reflected the struggle of the world population for peace, freedom, better living conditions and a healthy environment [1]. During the latter half of the 20th century, these four goals recurred regularly as world-wide, basic ideals.

With the end of the Second World War in 1945, it was widely believed that the first goal of peace had actually been achieved. But then came the arms race and, although a kind of global peace was maintained, the Cold War led to a range of conflicts fought out at the local level. When one looks today at many parts of the world – the Middle East, Middle Africa, for example – it is all too evident that peace is still a long way off.

Under the banner of freedom, people fought for the extension of human rights and for national independence. Today, the poorest two thirds of the world population sees ‘development’ as the most important goal, by means of which they hope to achieve the same material well-being as the wealthy one third.

But this ideal, upon which so much emphasis has been laid recently, has to reckon with the earth itself. This reckoning began with concern over the exhaustion of our natural resources and only later did it dawn on us that a disturbance of the complex systems upon which our lives depend can have enormous consequences.

The last twenty five years have been characterized by an attempt to link together the four ideals cited above – peace, freedom, improved living conditions and a healthy environment [1], an ambition which stems from the realization that striving for one of these ideals often means that the others must necessarily also be striven for. This struggle for ‘sustainable development’ is one of the great challenges for today’s society.

Sustainable development is a complex idea that can neither be unequivocally described nor simply applied. There are scores of different definitions, but we shall restrict ourselves to the most frequently quoted, that of the Brundtland Committee (1987) [2]:

Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If we look at the lowest common denominator of the different definitions and interpretations of sustainable development, we note four common characteristics [3]. The first indicates that sustainable development is anintergenerational phenomenon: It is a process of transference from one to another generation. So, if we wish to say anything meaningful about sustainable development, we have to take into account a time-span of at least two generations. The time period appropriate to sustainable development is thus around 25 to 50 years.

The second common characteristic is the level of scale. Sustainable development is a process played out on several levels, ranging from the global to the regional and the local. What may be seen as sustainable at the national level, however, is not necessarily sustainable at an international level. This is due to shunting mechanisms, as a result of which negative consequences for a particular country or region are moved on to other countries or regions.

The third common characteristic is that of multiple domains. Sustainable development consists of at least three: the economic, the ecological and the socio-cultural domains. Although sustainable development can be defined in terms of each of these domains alone, the significance of the concept lies precisely in the interrelation between them.
The aim of sustainable social development is to influence the development of people and societies in such a way that justice, living conditions and health play an important role. In sustainable ecological development the growth of natural systems is the main focus of concern and the maintenance of our natural resources is of primary importance.

What is at issue here are three different aspects of sustainable development which in theory need not conflict but which in practice often conflict. The underlying principles are also essentially different: with sustainable economic development the concept of efficiency has a primary role, whereas with sustainable social development the same may be said of the concept of justice and with sustainable ecological development it is the concepts of resilience or capacity for recovery that are basic.

The fourth common characteristic concerns the multiple interpretation of sustainable development. Each definition demands a projection of current and future social needs and how these can be provided for. But no such estimation can be really objective and, furthermore, any such estimation is inevitably surrounded by uncertainties. As a consequence, the idea of sustainable development can be interpreted and applied from a variety of perspectives.

As will be apparent from the above, a concept like sustainable development is difficult to pin down. Because it is by its nature complex, normative, subjective and ambiguous, it has been criticized both from a social and from a scientific point of view. One way of escaping from the ‘sustainability dilemma’ is to begin from the opposite position: that of non-sustainable development. Non-sustainable or unsustainable development is only too visible in a number of intractable problems entrenched in our social systems and which cannot be solved through current policies. These intractable problems are characterized by the involvement of multiple interests as well as their great complexity, lack of structure, structural uncertainty and apparent uncontrollability.

Such problems can be recognized in many national and global economic sectors. One sees them in agriculture, for example, with its many facets of unsustainability becoming manifest in the form of protein-related diseases such as BSE (mad cow disease), and in foot-and-mouth disease. The water sector has to deal with such symptoms as flooding, droughts and problems related to water quality, while the energy sector produces energy in a one-sided manner and – as a direct result – affects the environment. One sees the same symptoms in traffic and transport systems, where atmospheric pollution and traffic queues can be seen as symptoms of unsustainability; and as far as our health is concerned, the spread of SARS, the global increase in the incidence of malaria, malnutrition and its counterpart – the increase in obesity – are all far from sustainable.

These unsustainable developments reflect systemic faults embedded in our society. In contrast to market faults, systemic faults derive from deep-seated lacks or imbalances in society. They cannot be corrected through the ‘market’ and form a serious impediment to the optimal functioning of our social system. Systemic faults operate at various levels and can be of an economic, social or institutional nature. If such intractable problems are a sign of an unsustainable development, they can only be solved through fundamental changes in our society. Only thus can non-sustainable conditions be transformed and put on a more sustainable basis.

Sustainability science: a new paradigm

It is clear that in making the concept of sustainable development concrete, one has to take into account a number of practical elements and obstacles. Thus there is little doubt that integrated approaches are needed to support sustainable development. Questions as to exactly how such integration – underpinned by the right research – should be conceived and put into effect have so far been the preserve of a select group.

On a global scale, great progress has been achieved, within the framework of the international ‘Global Change’ research programme, in the integration of previously separated disciplines. Fifteen years ago, atmospheric chemists and biologists were not sharing the knowledge emerging from their studies of atmospheric change – despite the fact that biological processes are such an important factor in regulating the composition of the atmosphere. Nor was either discipline well integrated with atmospheric physics, oceanography or climatology. Today these disciplines are much more closely linked and together, on the basis of integrated research and risk analysis, they form the core of our knowledge about global climate change.

The international research community concerned with global change has thus made huge progress in coupling the various relevant natural sciences. Unfortunately, however, despite great national and international commitment, there has been far less progress in understanding the interactions between mankind and environment.

In order to realize the high level of expectations, a new research paradigm is needed that is better able to reflect the complexity and the multidimensional character of sustainable development. The new paradigm must be able to encompass different magnitudes of scales (of time, space and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults).

This new paradigm emerges from a scientific sub-current that characterizes the evolution of science in general – a shift from mode-1 to mode-2 science (see Table 1) [4]. Mode-1 science is completely academic in nature, monodisciplinary and the scientists themselves are mainly responsible for their own scientific performance. In mode-2 science, which is at core both inter- and intra-disciplinary, the scientists form a part of a heterogeneous network. Their scientific tasks are part of an extensive process of knowledge production and they are also responsible for more than merely scientific production.

Another paradigm that is gaining increasing influence is what is known as post-normal science. It is impossible to eradicate uncertainty from decision-making processes, and therefore it must be adequately managed through organized participatory processes in which different kinds of knowledge – not only scientific knowledge – come into play. As a result, those making policy are as well informed as possible about complex social problems of major importance.






The research programme that is beginning to emerge from this movement is known as Sustainability Science[5]. The virtual Forum on Science and Technology for Sustainability is at the moment one of the motors behind this programme [6]. Sustainability science, however, is not an independent profession, let alone a discipline. It is rather a vital area in which science, practice and visions of North and South meet one another, with contributions from the whole spectrum of the natural sciences, economics and social sciences. Sustainability is characterized by a number of shared research principles. ‘Shared’ here implies a broad recognition by a growing group of people who – in a steadily extending network – are active in the area of sustainability science. The central elements of sustainability science are:

•    inter- and intra-disciplinary research
•    co-production of knowledge
•    co-evolution of a complex system and its environment
•    learning through doing and doing through learning
•    system innovation instead of system optimalization

Simply stated, this new model can be represented as co-evolutionco-production and co-learning. The theory of complex systems can be employed as an umbrella mechanism to bring together the various different parts of the sustainability puzzle.

Integrated analysis of sustainability

This new paradigm has far-reaching consequences for the methods and techniques that need to be developed before an integrated analysis of sustainability can be carried out. These new methods and techniques can also be characterized as follows:
• from supply- to demand-driven
• from technocratic to participant
• from objective to subjective
• from predictive to exploratory
• from certain to uncertain

In short, previous current and future generations will be seen more as heuristic instruments, as aids in the acquisition of better insight into complex problems of sustainability. At each stage in the research of sustainability science, new methods and techniques will need to be used, extended or invented. The methodologies that are used and developed in the integrated assessment community are highly suitable for this purpose.

Roughly, there are a number of different kinds of methods for the integrated assessment of sustainability: analytic methods, participative methods and more managerial methods. Analytic methods mainly look at the nature of sustainable development, employing among other approaches the theory of complexity. In participative research approaches, non-scientists such as policy-makers, representatives from the business world, social organizations and citizens also play an active role. The more managerial methods are used to investigate the policy aspects and the controllability of sustainable transitions.

An example of an analytic instrument for the assessment of sustainability is the integrated assessment model which allows one to describe and explain changes between periods of dynamic balance. This model consists of a system-dynamic representation of the driving forces, system changes, consequences, feed-backs, potential lock-ins and lock-outs of a particular development in a specific area. Another analytic instrument is the scenario that describes sustainable and unsustainable developments, including unexpected events, changes and lines of fracture.

Participatory methods differ according to the aim of the study and its participants. Thus negotiation processes are mimicked in so-called policy exercises, whether or not these are supported by simulations. In the method of mutual learning, the analysis is enriched by the integration of the knowledge possessed by participants from diverse areas of expertise.

An example of a new kind of policy instrument is provided by transition management [7]. Transition management is a visionary, evolutionary learning process that is progressively constructed by the undertaking following steps:
(i)    develop a long-term vision of sustainable development and a common agenda (macro-scale)
(ii)    formulate and execute a local experiment in renewal that could perhaps contribute to the transition to sustainability (micro-scale)
(iii)    evaluate and learn from these experiments
(iv)    put together the vision and the strategy for sustainability, based on what has been learned (this boils down to a cyclical search and learn process that one might call evolutionary steering: a new kind of planning with understanding, based on learning by doing and doing through learning).

But now that the first steps towards an integrated sustainability science have been taken, there is a prospect of making some major leaps forward.

Towards a strategy for sustainable development

Breaking down the barriers

A research framework for sustainability science will need to be further built on existing sciences and scientific programmes. I have also shown that the principal opportunities and policies for transitions to sustainability are multiple, cumulative and interactive. We need more, however, before we can study the sustainability of the interaction between the planet and its ecosystems and peoples.

It should be clear that sustainability science will have to be above all an integrative science, a science which sets out to break down the barriers that divide the traditional sciences. It will have to promote the integration between such different scientific disciplines as economics, earth sciences, biology, social sciences and technology.
The same can be said for sectoral approaches, in which such closely linked aspects of human activity as energy, agriculture, health and transport are still dealt with as separate subjects.

The most significant threats to sustainability appear in certain regions, with their specific social and ecological characteristics. In fact, a sustainable transition will often have to occur within the local surroundings. However, sustainability science has to promote integration on a larger geographical scale in order to get beyond the sometimes easy but finally artificial division between global and local perspectives. Regardless of what spatial scale is found most suitable for the investigation of any particular sustainability issues, gaining insight into the linkages between events on both the macro and the micro scale is one of the major challenges facing sustainability science.

Finally, sustainability science must ensure the integration of different styles of knowledge creation in order to bridge the gulf between science, practice and politics.

Sustainable policy

If we look at the consequences of this new vision of sustainability for policy, we can note the following. It is important for policy-makers – both in politics and in the business community – that specific policy aims along with their associated time limits are clearly determined. Several possibilities are shown in the diagram below (Figure 1). One of the options the policy-maker has – and this is not so far from the current situation – is to go for short-term goals and simple or cheap means of achieving them. In contrast to such an approach, a more pro-active, innovative standpoint can be adopted that pursues longer-term goals, taking into account developments on different levels of scale and in different sectors. Unquestionably, sustainable development demands the latter approach.

To facilitate decision-making, sustainability scientists must assist in the task of making concrete both problems and solutions on all relevant temporal and spatial scales. This means that sustainability at the systemic level must be assessed, bringing to bear the following procedural elements: analysis of deeper-lying structures of the system, projection into the future and assessment of sustainable and unsustainable trends. Evaluation of the effects of sustainable policy and the design of possible solutions through sustainable strategies also belong here.

Fortunately, integrated approaches to sustainability issues in such areas as environment and development are not entirely new. For example, research has already been carried out into the interactions between urban, rural, industrial and natural ecosystems in order to gain more insight into policy implications for the management of water. The search for integrated theories that combine different disciplinary strengths is an excellent way of creating a better basis for decision-making on sustainability.













Sustainable education

It will hardly come as a surprise to hear that the development of a healthy, just and sustainable society demands a major shift in our thinking, our values and our actions.

Today’s students will be the business leaders, scientific researchers, politicians, artists and citizens of tomorrow. The extent to which they will be prepared to take decisions in favour of a sustainable future depends on the awareness, the knowledge, expertise and values they have acquired during their studies and in the subsequent years. For this reason, the concepts and themes of sustainability should be integrated into all levels of educational programming. Curricula must be revised so that sustainable development forms a guiding principle throughout the entire period of their studies – and afterwards too. With an increasingly widespread awareness of this need, the United Nations has now proclaimed the coming decade as the ‘Decade of Education for Sustainable Development’.

The basic qualities that future sustainability scientists will need are: analytical insight, problem-solving qualities and good skills in both verbal and written presentation. No less important is knowledge of the diversity of instruments provided by the various disciplines involved, ranging from mathematics to history, from health sciences to economics. The range of skills needed is so wide that it can only be acquired through interdisciplinary study.

Another essential quality is the capacity to break down the barriers referred to earlier between the various scientific disciplines involved, policy-makers and citizens. And, last but by no means least, there is a need to devote great attention to the philosophy and the ethics that underpin sustainability science. At the present moment, however, there is a manifest lack in sustainability science of both fundamental and applied ‘research capacity’. In addition, there is a need for a greater diversity of approaches. It is essential therefore that in the coming decades we should put everything into the effort to build up this extra capacity in both the northern and the southern hemisphere.

In conclusion

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the last century, once remarked: “Whoever say that he understands quantum theory, in all probability does not”. The same is true of sustainable development. Whoever says he knows what ‘sustainability’ is, in all probability does not. In a certain sense, a sustainable world is a fiction.
Thus, the concept of sustainable development does not contemplate any statistical state of affairs or finite stocks, but rather emphasizes a positive evolution and positive lines of development. Sustainable development can in fact be described as ‘the capacity of a society to move itself, in a certain time period, between satisfactory, adaptable and viable conditions.’[8]

As I have tried to explain above, however, it is in fact possible to lay a scientific foundation under this concept of sustainable development. And further, this can be given a practical content, which can vary from sustainable health to the sustainable use of our oceans and rivers, from sustainable tourism to sustainable enterprise and sustainable regional development.

Those in other sections of society such as the business community must also be encouraged to take responsibility for a sustainable future. They must be mobilized in such a way that they will actively participate in giving shape to sustainable development. Such a broad social front will be a necessary condition for making the abstract term ‘sustainable development’ both concrete and tangible.


1.    National Research Council, Our common journey: a transition toward sustainability. 1999, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
2.    WCED, Our Common Future. 1987, Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press.
3.    Grosskurth, J. and J. Rotmans, The scene model: getting grip on sustainable development in policy making. Environment, development and sustainability,
2005. 7: p. 135-151.
4.    Gibbons, M., The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and
research in comtemporary science. 1994, London: Sage.
5.    Kates, R.W., et al., Sustainability science. Science, 2001. 292: p. 641-642.
6.    Forum on Science and Technology for Sustainability. Available from:

7.    Rotmans, J., R. Kemp, and M.B.A. van Asselt, More evolution than revolution:
transition management in public policy. Foresight, 2001. 3(1): p. 15-31.
8.    Giampietro, M., Complexity and scales: the challenge for integrated assessment, in Scaling in integrated assessment, J. Rotmans and D.S. Rothman, Editors.
2003, Swets & Zeitlinger: Linne. p. 293-327.

Professor dr. Pim Martens –

Professor of Global Dynamics & Sustainable Development
Maastricht University/Leuphana University/Stellenbosch University

Director ICIS
International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development
Maastricht University