In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sustainability Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Historical Antecedents
  • Emergence of Sustainability Science
  • Transdisicplinarity
  • Sustainability
  • Coevolution
  • Vulnerability and Resilience
  • Governing Sustainability
  • Urban Sustainability
  • Bridging Knowledge and Action

Geography Sustainability Science
Eric Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0100


Thought concerned with sustaining what we in the early 21st century call societal metabolism and life-support systems can be traced back through millennia. Human-environment relations have long been researched in the synthetic disciplines of geography, cultural and human ecology, environmental anthropology, and more recently in political ecology and ecological economics. The new field of sustainability science emerges in part from these antecedents but also from the rise of theory on complex adaptive systems, global environmental change, and coevolution of coupled social-ecological systems, and more broadly from social movements, policy agendas, and political debates on environmental problems, pushing sustainability issues to front stage. Geographers have been highly influential in the emergence of sustainability science, perhaps most notably William Clark, Robert Kates, Tim O’Riordan, and Billie Turner II. Sustainability is about keeping the future navigable for coming generations. Human-induced environmental problems such as degradation of land, air, water, and biodiversity threaten to reduce the scope of navigable pathways toward a sustainable future. Sustainability science aims not only to understand the dynamics of social-ecological systems and to bridge natural, social, and cultural sciences but also to forge bridges between science and society and between knowledge and action. Problem-driven, practice-oriented, and contextually sensitive, sustainability science involves linking critical research approaches with problem-solving approaches, ideally appreciative of various perspectives including local/traditional knowledge for framing problems, and for design, implementation, and evaluation of solutions. Some critical research into power relations and environmental politics argues that predominant sustainability discourse is more conducive to sustaining neoliberal ideology, neocolonial practices, and the hegemony of finance capital than to sustaining metabolic support systems and livelihoods of the poor, as hierarchies of knowledge play out beyond academia, the physical sciences and mainstream economics marginalizing political, social, and cultural issues and perspectives. The widely echoed calls in sustainability science for moving beyond multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research to transdisciplinary research—and for developing and practicing critical, deliberative, participatory, and problem-solving methodologies—indicate major challenges and signposts for sustainability science, revealing its key characteristic as “post-normal science.” This bibliography intersects with those on the Oxford Bibliographies articles Cultural Ecology and Human Ecology, Political Ecology, and Development Theory.

General Overviews

Newly emergent, sustainability science has as yet only one concise and comprehensive overview in de Vries 2013, a useful textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate-level courses. Another useful textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate-level courses is Castree, et al. 2009, with overviews of core concepts, methodologies, and contrasting perspectives. For substantive overviews of sustainability science at work on a global scale, Steffen, et al. 2004 and the edited volume Costanza, et al. 2007 provide penetrating historical analyses of earth system and socio-ecological dynamics. Scoones 1999 summarizes new approaches to ecology in the social sciences that build upon a non-equilibrium understanding of socio-ecological systems. Worldwatch Institute 2013 provides a wide-ranging and accessible overview, useful for undergraduate courses and seminar readings to spur discussion. Torsten Hägerstrand was one of the most formative geographers of the 20th century, a holistic synthesizer who struggled to unify science and geography as they disintegrated into narrow disciplines and sub-disciplines. Hägerstrand 2009 is an effort to develop a framework for contextually grasping ecological processes.

  • Castree, Noel, David Demeritt, Diana Liverman, and Bruce Rhoads, eds. A Companion to Environmental Geography. Chichester, UK: Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444305722

    Thirty-three chapters by authoritative researchers outline key concepts, approaches, practices, and core topics of environmental geography, highlighting critical analyses of sustainability, sustainable development, and sustainability science.

  • Costanza, Robert, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen, eds. Sustainability or Collapse? As Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

    Provides historical analyses integrating socio-environmental interactions at millennial, centennial, and decadal timescales and future scenarios of human-environment systems.

  • de Vries, Bert. Sustainability Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    The most comprehensive overview of sustainability science to date, primarily from a system dynamics approach, de Vries provides a historical overview and chapters covering themes such as energy, population, and human behavior, agro-food systems, and renewable and non-renewable resources, with many useful maps, diagrams, tables, boxes, and an extensive glossary.

  • Hägerstrand, Torsten. Tillvaroväven. Edited by Kajsa Ellegård and Uno Svedin. Stockholm: Formas, 2009.

    In this posthumously published book, Hägerstrand develops a conceptual framework for deepening understanding of ecological processes in the “all-ekologi” of living beings and non-living material. Building on time-geography, Hägerstrand expounds on basic concepts and core hypotheses providing guidance for sustainability. Translation to English is forthcoming.

  • Scoones, Ian. “New Ecology and the Social Sciences: What Prospects for a Fruitful Engagement?” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 479–507.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.28.1.479

    Briefly outlines articulations of a new ecology in environmental anthropology, political ecology, ecological economics, and nature-culture debates. Three approaches transcending dominant equilibrial conceptions are reviewed: historical analyses of spatial and temporal dynamics; structuration analyses emphasizing dialectical relations between structures, agents, institutions and scale; and analyses of social-ecological complexity and uncertainty.

  • Steffen, Will, Angelina Sanderson, Peter D. Tyson, et al. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin: Springer, 2004.

    Comprehensively reviews earth-system dynamics in a non-human dominated world, how human activities are changing earth-system dynamics into a modified earth-system dynamics, the consequences this has for human well-being and earth-system stability, and the move toward earth-system science and global sustainability.

  • Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.5822/978-1-61091-458-1

    Contains thirty-four chapters written by leading scholars on a wide array of themes, including fisheries, energy, cultures, corporations, agriculture, indigenous peoples, political strategies, governance, resistance, geo-engineering, climate change, and resilience.

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