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New Science Looks at Big Picture for the Future

If we want to protect an endangered animal such as the woodland caribou, we have to do more than just study the animal in isolation. We must understand how it interacts with its total environment, including its habitat and other animals, as well as humans. We must then try to determine the best possible conditions for it to live in healthy numbers and study the threats that could undermine its persistence. It’s no different with humans, except that the problems we have created for ourselves – on a global scale – are even more complex.

Sometimes it seems that science is inadequate to address the myriad problems of pollution, global warming, population growth, biodiversity loss, changing ocean conditions, and so on.

Scientists don’t always take a big-picture approach. Applied science, for example, is often focused on knowledge for a specific need or to solve a practical problem, such as the invention of a new technology. The science may delve into the mechanics of the technology with little regard for its social implications. Basic or “pure” science, on the other hand, is aimed at gaining an understanding of a phenomenon or process, sometimes without considering its practical application. While both areas are valuable to society, neither alone attempts to tackle that greatest of human experiments in its entirety: our own survival!

A branch of science that has emerged over the past two decades is attempting to encompass both fundamental understanding and practical applications with a fascinating goal: to learn the degree to which humans are living in harmony with their environment and how they can continue to do so over the long term. Unlike many specialized scientific fields that might interest only a few people, this one ought to interest everyone!

Industrial society has had an enormous impact on natural ecosystems, to the point that very little of nature remains untrammelled by the human footprint. Sustainability science helps identify potential “planetary boundaries” such as the world’s available “biocapacity” compared with humanity’s collective “ecological footprint”. In short, it helps us better understand the complex challenges we face.

The terms sustainability and sustainable development get tossed around a lot, and it’s often difficult to know exactly what they mean. The most commonly cited definition is from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which defines sustainable development as ‘‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’’

Part of the difficulty is that some environmental problems are so complex and much of the science to date has addressed only fragments – dealing with one problem at a time. But the problems and their solutions are interrelated and must be looked at from a larger perspective. This is the realm of sustainability science.

As with our caribou scenario, we must first look at the scientific conditions necessary for sustainability and then look "back" to the present day, studying options for getting there. In some ways, this is opposite to the kind of forecasting that is often used in science. The U.S. National Research Council characterizes the study as a way to improve our capacity to live on the earth in a way that will "meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population, … sustain the life support systems of the planet, and … substantially reduce hunger and poverty."

That’s a pretty tall order. As the National Academy of Sciences points out, some issues to be resolved include improving access to clean water, developing cleaner energy and manufacturing systems, reducing the impact of pollution on human health, enhancing agricultural production and food security, creating more livable urban environments, and reducing poverty.

This branch of science is gaining respect in academic circles worldwide, but it’s such an important field that it should be part of science programs in all schools. In a world that is expected to reach a population of 10 billion, it’s important for science to consider how we are to survive and live in harmony with the natural systems that we are a part of and therefore depend upon. It’s a huge task that requires a broad vision. As more people – not just scientists – begin to understand the science and the complexity of the problems, and to design lasting solutions, we will start to see a brighter, more sustainable future.

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola
December 2008

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