Sustainability science is an emerging field and academic discipline that addresses complex problems requiring a broad range of knowledge. This chapter addresses the basic definition of sustainability science, its characteristics, applications, and how it has evolved into a scientific practice that is used to solve complex global issues.

Sustainability Science: What it is and How it Began 

Sustainability science is an emerging academic discipline and field of research that closely examines sustainability-related interactions between social, economic, and environmental systems. It integrates knowledge, values, and perspectives from various outside participants to find solutions for sustainability challenges. Sustainability science serves as a change-maker in finding solutions that bridge the gap between the needs of humans and the needs of the planet.

Sustainability science emerged as an official field and academic discipline at the end of the 20th century. Its roots go back to 1983 when the Brundtland Commission was formed by the United Nations to address the critical threats to the environment caused by social and economic issues. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission published a report that provided a clear definition of what it means to develop in a sustainable manner. The report—titled “Our Common Future”—defines sustainable development as: “development that satisfies the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs.” Sustainable development serves as a prime motivator for the research and solutions that stand at the core of sustainability science. Since establishing this definition of sustainable development, many efforts have been made to ensure that the needs of humans and the environment are met for future decades. The first International Conference on Sustainability Science took place in Tokyo in 2009. Sustainability science has expanded into a broad field of respected research since then.

Sustainability science is not just a “science”; it incorporates scientific research, but also contains a vast range of ideas, perspectives, and knowledge from non-scientific backgrounds. As a result, there is not always agreement on certain topics or solutions; it is often unknown how to approach a problem, and different perspectives cause varying levels of disagreement. Sustainability science excels through interconnected knowledge and practice acquired by scholars and researchers, global and local perspectives, and leaders who specialize in different areas of expertise. At its core, sustainability science is an academic discipline and field of research stemming from an array of backgrounds whose collaboration with various stakeholders makes it unique and vital in solving the world’s most complex sustainability affairs. 

Applications of Sustainability Science:

 When discussing the ways in which sustainability science can be applied to complex sustainability issues, complex issues must be fully understood. Complex issues are those that contain no right answer or solution. There are many interconnected concerns related to the environment, ethics, or economy. This wide range of affairs leads to vast unpredictability throughout the entire system, where any amount of change or conflict can disrupt the whole process of finding a potential resolution. Sustainability science works to address this broad range of concerns by utilizing its knowledge from many backgrounds and collaborating to find a solution that works for everyone.

Sustainability science also addresses and attempts to solve wicked problems. Wicked problems are similar to complex problems in the way that there is often no clear solution. They relate to a social or cultural problem that is extremely difficult to maneuver for the following reasons: (1) they contain incomplete or contradictory knowledge; (2) the diversity of perspectives and opinions involved makes it difficult to reach an understanding of the problem; and (3) the interconnected nature of these problems with many other complex issues makes a solution difficult. Sustainability science is valuable in handling grand-scale wicked problems, with examples being water scarcity, climate change, and epidemics. Sustainability science thrives on its collaboration and participatory procedures that involve scientists, stakeholders, advocates, citizens, and wide ranges of knowledge. In striving to solve issues that threaten society, these collaborative approaches offer efficient means of developing promising solutions.

Characteristics of Sustainability Science:

 Sustainability science requires a solutions-oriented approach. Solutions-oriented means that research, scientific investigation, policy-making, and the like is conducted under the rationale that solutions gathered will be effective and usable with successful implementation. Similarly, sustainability science is use-inspired. This relates to generating and gathering knowledge that can be utilized by fields, disciplines, subjects, or other relevant areas. With these qualities that are intrinsic to sustainability science, relevant stakeholders can create criteria that are mutually agreed upon and the generated final goals promise an actionable outcome.

The problems that sustainability science addresses are problem-based. This means that the problems are structured around a specific issue, and require different approaches depending on what the problem entails. When using a problem-based application, it is important to define the problem and then tackle what the problem is, taking into consideration the uniqueness of that issue. The approach to begin to find possible solutions is tailored specifically to each individual problem. It also entails collaborating with those affected by the problem in order to better understand it. For example, a sustainability problem was apparent in Cobscook Bay, Maine. The once lively coastal area had a weak economy that was most reliant on the fishing industry, and had a need for renewable energy sources. Ocean Renewable Power Company recognized these problems and created a solution specific to Cobscook Bay’s needs, building a TidGen Power System that produces renewable energy while providing jobs for people in the community.

Sustainability science is context-specific. Context-specific means that problems are relative to the places where they take place. Context is important to consider when addressing sustainability problems because different factors require different approaches. Different factors include, but are not limited to: local demographics, environment, transportation, economic resources, and social contexts. For example, the problem of soil erosion at Wagon Hill Farm in Durham, NH is different to a problem at another outdoor site due to different weather conditions, social interactions, and soil types. Knowledge and research on such an identified problem must be tailored to its specific factors because what works for one area might not work for another.

A systems approach is another essential characteristic of sustainability science. This approach explores and recognizes the depth and complexity of the interaction between humans and the environment. It is commonly used when working on solutions-oriented problems.  This web of human and environment interactions is commonly known as the social-ecological system, and it is comprised of five key categories:

  • Human components, which deal with people as individuals and communities whose impact can be assessed.
  • Social processes, which are the factors that affect how humans impact their environment and include activities, demography, and available technology.
  • Ecological components, which are the plants and animals that live in an area, along with the soil and atmosphere.
  • Ecological processes, which are how an ecosystem interacts. This involves nutrient cycling, animal interactions, and evolution of plants and animals.
  • Integration, which occurs when human components and processes infringe on ecological components and processes, and vise versa. Properly maintaining integration, and finding an outcome that allows humans and natural ecosystems to coexist, is imperative in sustainable sciences.

Sustainability science is a normative science. This refers to a science that relates to a norm or behavior, an ideal standard, what is considered to be the correct way of doing something, and/or how things should be. Sustainability science is inherently normative as it works to reach the goals and needs of both the environment around us and the humans that inhabit it. Normative science looks for a preferable outcome for everyone, which is a main goal when dealing with sustainability-related issues.

Another important characteristic of sustainability science is that it is interdisciplinary. This means that information, data, techniques, tools, or theories are integrated from at least two disciplines (but often more) to allow for a broader range of knowledge from various backgrounds. Disciplines are different branches of knowledge. They often stem from academic institutions or communities with particular language and cultural systems. These branches of knowledge allow for an advanced understanding of particular topics and aid in solving problems or questions that cannot be adequately dealt with by a single discipline.

Closely related to sustainability science’s interdisciplinary characteristic is its emphasis on collaboration. Collaboration involves a process of shared decision-making where any person with a stake in a problem explores their differences and develops a collective strategy for action. The different aspects of a problem are identified, and others aid in finding a solution that goes beyond what a single individual could do on their own. Collaboration works best when problems are ill-defined, there are power differences among stakeholders, and/or different groups rely on one another to find a solution. Collaboration is not as useful when there are deep-rooted conflicts in differences, when power is unevenly distributed, or there are constitutional/legal boundaries that cannot be avoided. On the whole, sustainability science collaborates with a wide range of disciplines to resolve conflicts, develop shared visions, and work towards positive solutions.


Sustainability science is a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. Put simply, this means sustainability science is problem- based.

Sustainability science is considered a normative science, which refers to a science relating to a norm or behavior; an ideal standard; what is considered to be the correct way of doing something or how things should be. Sustainability science in inherently normative as it suggests how humans should interact with the environment. This differs from positive science, which is fact-based and more traditionally used and accepted by the scientific community. There is always a projected use for research conducted in sustainability science. This is because it is place-based or context- specific, meaning the process is focused on meeting needs related to sustainability challenges while remaining focused on a particular place or context.

Sustainability science is used to address wicked problems. A wicked problem, which can be defined as a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

In attempt to handle grand-scale issues such as water scarcity, climate change, and epidemics, sustainability science will likely prove valuable. Though being problem-based and solution- oriented, sustainability science allows for serious problems facing society to be solved in efficient and effective manners. Research conducted is always use-inspired, meaning research is performed using scientific investigation and conceptualization, with the rationale that the solutions gathered will be effective to obtain successful solutions.

Sustainability science thrives around collaboration, and the participatory procedures involving scientists, stakeholders, advocates, active citizens, and users of knowledge are critically needed. In striving to solve issues which threaten society, these collaborative approaches seem to offer the most efficient means of developing solutions.

Problem-based vs. place-based

Sustainability science can address both problem-based or place-based issues. When talking about problem-based issues, you have to acknowledge that the issues that you are trying to solve are complex and will take a multidisciplinary approach in order to solve the wicked problem at hand. This solution tries to solve a problem that can be unique to that specific issue. Problem-based issues or strategies address an issue that describes and tackles what the problem is as compared to place-based, which consists of where the problem is. Place-based focuses on a specific area that has some sort of issues that will effect that immediate location. There will be specific characteristics and strategies used based on where the problem is located and will have to be catered to that environment.

 Case Study: Eastport TidGen Project

 Summary: Eastport, Maine was once a thriving fishing community. Escalating costs of fuel created a demand for alternative energy sources while a lack of job opportunities had caused Eastport’s local economy to suffer. In 2012, Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) proposed using underwater turbine generators, called TidGen, to generate electricity from the tides in Cobscook Bay. This would provide an alternative energy source connected directly to the power grid while simultaneously presenting new job opportunities and revenue development for the community. The success of ORPC’s project was essential; Eastport’s citizens showed skepticism in its projected development after a failed attempt by Franklin Roosevelt to harness tidal power left the community hopeless and deserted in the 1930s.

The environmental impacts of the TidGens were studied by marine biologists from the University of Maine to ensure its presence would not infringe on the health and prosperity of the fish. The biologists worked in conjunction with social scientists who engaged with the community to learn about their needs and concerns. Citizens, academia, and businesses thus collaborated to create a sustainability dialogue focused on how tidal power projects could impact the shoreline, underwater ecosystems, local economy, the community, and the future of communities. The main goal of ORPC’s project was to develop a model that others could utilize if they wished to harness tidal power.

Type of Problem: The Eastport TidGen Project is a complex issue without any fully correct solution, made up of many competing ideas, and with a wide range of unpredictability. Many factors and stakeholders intertwine to make the issue truly complex.

The way communities and ecological systems interact with one another is called a social-ecological system. In this case, the interaction is between the people of Eastport, Cobscook Bay, and its oceanic ecosystem. A big question became whether the jobs created through the TidGen project was worth the possible environmental impact. The primary effect of the generators could damage the fisheries, and the secondary effect of poor fisheries could cause job losses for the fisherman.  If the research was not done properly, jobs could be created as well as lost because of how heavily the natural ecosystem provides for the locals. The Eastport TidGen Project showed the fine line between society and ecology.

Relevance: The Eastport TidGen Project is deeply rooted in the sustainability science method. It is problem-based: it addresses Eastport, Maine’s problem of a dying economy, the need for alternative energy sources, and job opportunities for its citizens while maintaining local fisheries. It is context-specific, relating to the individual needs of the Eastport community and the local ecology, both unlike the needs of any other area. The project is solutions-oriented with its main goal being utilization by the Eastport community as well as any other community that wishes to harness tidal power. Different disciplines and sectors—ranging from academia to business and the community—collaborated through research and community engagement to determine the best possible solution for the needs of the economy and community without majorly disrupting the aquatic environment. The Eastport TidGen Project also utilized a systems approach by exploring complex social-ecological interactions through various means, demonstrating its normative core belief that the needs of both humans and ecosystems are important and relevant. Thus, the project employed every key aspect involved in sustainability science as it focused on the essential interactions between both nature and society.


Sources for case study:

Technologies, T. (2020). TidGen® Power System by Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC). Retrieved April 4, 2020, from                          https://www.orpc.co/our-solutions/scalable-grid-integrated-systems/tidgen-power-system

Maine Public [PBS]. (2011, September 26). The Triple Bottom Line [Video file]. Retrieved from            https://video.mainepublic.org/video/sustainable-maine-the-triple-bottom-line/


Chapter Summary:

Sustainability science is a new field emerging to incorporate a share of knowledge across multiple disciplines to unite different intellectual frameworks in examining sustainability concerns. Sustainability science must be problem-based, context-specific, and solutions-oriented with a systems approach that is inherently a form of normative science. This branch of study continues to develop into real-world practices through new academic journals and the implementation of its method.

Comprehensive Questions:

  1. What is sustainability science?
  2. What four characteristics help define the structure and implementation of sustainability science?
  3. What are the benefits of the inclusion of other types of scientists and active citizens in addressing complex issues?
  4. Why is it necessary for solutions to be context-specific? Use an example of a problem in your town and how it may not work in another area.
  5. How are the three pillars of sustainability reflected in this scientific approach?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Sustainability Methods and Perspectives Copyright © by vanessalevesque is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book