News Story

October 26, 2011

William Clark, Sustainability, and Why People Aren’t Like Microbes

People don’t have to be like microbes in a Petri dish, says William Clark, Harvard Kennedy School’s Harvey Brooks Professor of International 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 approach that sits at the crossroads of the natural and social sciences, medicine and engineering, 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 to parse the sustainability field 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 of sustainability science’s hallmarks. As Clark explains, 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 people of the planet articulate desired outcomes and suggest ways—through technology, behavioral change, and social policy—to achieve those outcomes in a world that “meets the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the future.” 

This mission often places Clark between the devil and the deep blue sea:  ecological fundamentalists 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 erection 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 globalization that is leaving too many people behind, Clark manages to keep his head up, relying on a basically sunny disposition.

“I prefer a hopeful attitude that gets you up in the morning because there’s so much work to be done,” he says. “But that’s a personal matter of how you conduct yourself; it’s not a conclusion from the science. The good news,” Clark continues, “is that relative to when I was in college, there’s a growing understanding—except, of course in the denialst 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.

Note: This article originally appeared on page 10 of Environment@Harvard Volume 3, Issue 1.

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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