News Story

March 2, 2011

Sustainability Science: Linking Research-Based Knowledge with Action

By David Rosenbaum

People don’t have to be like microbes in a Petri dish, says William Clark, Harvard Kennedy School’s Brooks professor of inter-national science, public policy, and human development. In a Petri dish, microbes gobble up all the food available to them and grow fat while sinking under their own waste until —oops—they’re dead. But unlike microbes, Clark says, “Humans have the potential to know what’s going on, and to act on that knowledge.”  

Understanding “what’s going on” in the Petri dish called Earth is at the core of sustainability science, a relatively new, multi-disciplinary ap-proach that sits at the crossroads of the natu-ral and social sciences, medicine and engi-neering, and the knowledge of practice. Right now, Clark, among others, is in the process of describing, defining, broadly disseminating, and bringing scientific rigor to the structures and processes of sustainability science. He is a contributing editor of Sustainability Science: A Reader, intended for teachers. That soon will be followed by the publication of Sustainability Science: An Introduction, a textbook being written by Clark and others under the auspices of the Sustainability Science Program that he co-directs at the Kennedy School.    

Linking research-based knowledge with action is one hallmark of sustainability science. Says Clark, it is a “value-and-policy-based” discipline. Its point is not only to analyze the complex web of interactions between humans  and their environment, cataloging the   depredations that result; it is also to help peo-ple articulate desired outcomes and suggest ways to achieve such outcomes in a world that “meets the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the future.”    

This mission often places Clark between a rock and a hard place: ecological fundamen-talists see sustainability science’s willingness to accept trade-offs between environmental preservation and economic development as a betrayal of the environment, he says, while the “Chamber of Commerce-types” see the erec-tion of any barriers to untrammeled growth as a species of radical environmentalism. Caught in the middle, and faced with the continual, increasing degradation of the environment due to climate change and other pollution, as well as the fast-moving economic globaliza-tion that is leaving too many people behind, Clark manages to keep his head up.  

“I prefer a hopeful attitude that gets you up in the morning because there’s so much work to be done,” he says. “The good news,” Clark continues, “is that relative to when I was in college, there’s a growing understanding—except, of course in the denialist recesses of the U.S. Congress—that you can use the environment in ways that are good for us and our grandchildren. There’s a growing sense of moral responsibility that since it is within our ken to understand what we’re doing, we owe it to ourselves to change our behavior.”   

Unlike those microbes.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Environment@Harvard.

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