Knowledge history of sustainability science

Project leader Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang

As described earlier, sustainability science emerged as “a room of its own” (Clark 2007) based on the fact that society has been faced with dramatically accelerating challenges such as climate change, extinction of species, or insufficient food supply/distribution for a exponentially growing population (see e.g. Steffen et al. 2007) over the past decades. The rising awareness of and discussion about environmental pollution (see e.g. Carson 1962) and a potential shortage of essential resources such as energy (Meadows et al. 1972), demonstrated the need for better understanding the co-evolutionary processes between the anthropogenic systems and the natural environment in order to cope with these challenges at least since the mid of the last century. In the scientific discourse on how to approach these challenges an increasing consensus arose especially over the last years that the research required needs to be problem oriented and to go beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries and even beyond academia as such (see e.g. Holm et al. 2012, Lang et al. 2012, Mauser et al. 2013).

The idea of ‘a’ sustainability science was broadly introduced the latest with the seminal Science article by Kates and colleagues in (Kates et al. 2001) in which they defined core questions for this emerging research field. The momentum that this field gained in the years afterwards is indicated by the following quote by Clark and Dickson: “…something different is surely “in the air,” something that is intellectually exciting, practically compelling, and might as well be called “sustainability science.” (2003, p. 8060). Originally a in sustainability science and its related fields such as environmental sciences or earth system sciences major focus was on the better understanding of the dynamics in social-ecological or human-environment systems, which can be described as an “analytic descriptive” mode. An underlying assumption of many of these approaches has of been that such an understanding will help developing means to managing these systems (see e.g. Schellnhuber 1999). In the last years there has been an increasing call for a more solution oriented and transformational mode in sustainability science (Spangenberg 2011, WBGU 2011, Miller et al. 2013, Sarewitz et al. 2012) in order to contribute to concrete sustainability transformations. Though these different modes can be conceptually delineated and somehow differentiated in various research practices, a comprehensive and systematic reconstruction of the development of different sustainability research paradigms and strategies is, to the best of our knowledge, still missing. This reconstruction would however essentially contribute to answering the question which practices of knowledge production and societal transformation are needed in order to address the grand challenges of the 21st century and in so doing provide essential insights for further fostering a transformational research praxis in sustainability science.