Sustainability Science: Toward a Synthesis

This is the background document for the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine virtual workshop, Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science convened on November 30, December 1, and December 2, 2020.


This review synthesizes diverse approaches that researchers have brought to bear on the challenge of sustainable development. We construct an integrated framework highlighting the union set of elements and relationships that those approaches have shown to be useful in explaining nature–society interactions in multiple contexts. Compelling evidence has accumulated that those interactions should be viewed as a globally interconnected, complex adaptive system in which heterogeneity, nonlinearity, and innovation play formative roles. The long-term evolution of that system cannot be predicted but can be understood and partially guided through dynamic interventions. Research has identified six capacities necessary to support such interventions in guiding development pathways toward sustainability. These are capacities to (a) measure sustainable development, (b) promote equity, (c) adapt to shocks and surprises, (d) transform the system into more sustainable development pathways, (e) link knowledge with action, and (f) devise governance arrangements that allow people to work together in exercising the other capacities.

Topics of interest: 


William C. Clark and Alicia G. Harley

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