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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2013

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Editorial - Future Earth: A Refreshed Sustainability Science

Sustainability science is more than a form of knowing. Yet science comes from the Greek word meaning knowledge. What is special about sustainability science is that it searches its way through conversation, listening and teaching. It is based on companionship. Companions are not the same as partners. Partners can walk away if they fall out. Companions are tied together in their search for common humanness, and ultimate survival in peacefulness and justice. Companions support each other through a journey that has neither beginning nor end. They progress through recognizing signposts that give them strength, courage, and determination to carry on. They may be surrounded by hostility, but more so by incomprehension. So they need to learn to communicate through humility, empathy, and courtesy, winning new friends by exemplifying their common purpose and happy destiny.

In his realistic but generally positive assessment of the United Nations “Rio process,” Derek Osborn provides a thoughtful perspective on the role of the UN in maintaining the global cause of sustainability. He also recognizes the challenge of contemporary politics to maintain, almost at all costs, the conventional battering rams of global business, international markets, investments in natural resources, and job creation that crash through the slender defenses of sustainability.

Yet he offers to the reader many important outcomes of Rio+20. The commitment to sustainable development goals, the willingness of business to audit its assault on nature and people, the strengthening of the UN Environment Programme, and the formation of a high-level policy group to drive the “green” agenda forward are all improvements on the current weaknesses of the UN machinery for promoting sustainable development.

In this context, the creation of a fresh sustainability science approach, also mentioned by Derek Osborn, is also very significant. This is called “Future Earth—Research for Global Sustainability.” It is spearheaded by all of the major global science academies as well as the big science funding organizations. Hal Mooney and his colleagues have helpfully provided a detailed history of this potentially exciting and innovative initiative.1 It is based on a brutal learning experience from past failures to create a true sustainability science. Much of this is due to the incremental complexities of international science organizations and their bulletproof bureaucratic silos. Much is also due to the difficulty facing the pioneers of sustainability science to convince the bosses of the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities, of their ultimate shared purpose. And some of the blockage is a function of the way in which young scientists are institutionally impeded from working in creative combinations, especially on “action research.”

Nowadays many of these barriers are breaking down. Interdisciplinarity is being encouraged by international and national science funding councils. Bold leaders are taking science into the streets and fields to learn from the poor and the marginalized how to improve their well-being with imaginative use of technology (especially Internet-based applications) and collective action. The concept of well-being forms a basis for generating self-esteem, physical and mental health, and personal leadership. These provide the basis of an invigorated capacity to create social enterprise and to work imaginatively and flexibly in teams. Well-being is also becoming a yardstick for auditing new economic policies. Well-being is destined to sit alongside gross domestic product as the cynosure of human prosperity.

In the right hands Future Earth must succeed. And it should reach out with the reforming UN to ensure that the fundamentals of sustainability science are universally appreciated. These fundamentals are a credible science that is forged by debate, mutual respect, and consensus: with independence from political and commercial interference, inclusiveness of genuine participation (which may involve researchers acting as sustainability ambassadors in business, government and communities), and the drive for justice and equity for all peoples in a world of ecological resilience.

1. H. A. Mooney, A. Duraiappah, and A. Larigauderie, “Evolution of natural and social science interactions in global change research programs,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110, Supplement 1 (2013): 3665-3672. Available at:, last accessed April 9, 2013.

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