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July-August 2011

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Editors' Picks - July/August 2011

GRAND CHALLENGES OF SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE

PRESENTATION BY WILLIAM C. CLARK TO THE RESILIENCE 2011 CONFERENCE, held at Arizona State University, March 2011.

READINGS IN SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Robert W. Kates, Editor, Working Paper 213, Center for International Development, Harvard University, December 2010.

Bill Clark and Bob Kates are contributing editors to this magazine and highly respected intellectual leaders of the emerging field of sustainability science. I report here on a recent presentation by Bill reflecting on the grand challenges of sustainability science,1 and on Bob's magnificent accomplishment in assembling a working paper on Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology.2

Bill Clark was an invited speaker at the Resilience 2011 conference held at Arizona State University. His presentation “Grand Challenges of Sustainability Science” was an insightful and important analysis of the current state of sustainability science. He opened his presentation with a series of dramatic images documenting the unsustainable conditions that exist all too commonly in landscapes and among people living in poverty across our planet. The developing world, in particular, struggles with a myriad of issues ranging from extreme poverty and illiteracy to rapacious uses and extraction of natural resources.

Why is sustainability important? Economic development without concern for environmental protection, known to undermine economic growth itself, is widespread in both developing and developed countries. Industrialization and material progress seem addictive across nations and time. In the 20th and early 21st centuries the devil of scale has transformed rapidly multiplying local pollution sources into regional and global environmental threats. The rates of acceleration of environmental change, the urbanization of people, and the globalization of commerce are well documented.

Bill first emphasized the important and gratifying scientific advances in understanding the drivers and dynamics of change in human-environment systems. He then concentrated the remainder of his presentation on the lack of progress in linking new scientific knowledge to meaningful actions that would effectively advance transitions to sustainability in time, at appropriate scales. He emphasized his point by demonstrating that topics concerned with sustainability, innovation, and poverty were very poorly represented in both the Resilience 2011 conference papers and in issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—Sustainability Science.

I urge readers of this magazine to pay serious attention to Bill Clark's concern that sustainability research is largely biased toward the science of the earth system. The current lack of attention to human needs is central to his assessment of grand challenges for future research, teaching, and outreach. He notes that mobilizing science to support sustainable development is important because the alternative is an avoidable waste of human life and potential, and thus a moral failure.

Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology, edited by Bob Kates, is a set of materials recommended as appropriate to advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students of sustainability science. The Readings volume is a remarkable achievement and will be an enormous asset to both students and scholars in search of a balanced perspective of the human and environmental components of sustainability science. This working paper currently references and links to 93 articles or book chapters. These materials are organized around three domains of sustainability science: part 1: an overview of sustainable development; part 2: the emerging science and technology of sustainability; and part 3: the innovative solutions and grand challenges of moving this knowledge into action.

Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology is currently freely available online. It is hoped that users will provide feedback and recommendations for substitute or additional readings. With such community collaboration, Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology will become a living document benefiting the field of sustainability science for years to come.

Caption: The Port of Shanghai is the world's busiest port.

1. William C. Clark, “Grand Challenges of Sustainability Science”, presentation to the Resilience 2011 Conference, March 11–16, Arizona State University, Tempe. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/cid/programs/sustsci.

2. Robert W. Kates, editor, Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology, Center for International Development, Working Paper No. 213, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. http://tinyurl.com/sustsci-reader

-Robert Harriss, Houston Advanced Research Center, www.harc.edu

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