Our common journey: A transition toward sustainability
provided by National Academies Office of News and Public Information
ven without miraculous technologies or drastic transformations of whole societies, human needs over the next two generations can be met while sustaining the Earth if the political will exists to turn new knowledge gained through science and technology into action, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. Scientific research, private actions, and public policies must be increasingly linked to promote a transition to sustainability in which people can meet their needs while simultaneously nurturing and restoring the environment.
The report argues that societies should approach sustainable development not as a destination, but as an ongoing, adaptive learning process. To that end, the report proposes an approach for monitoring progress in the transition to sustainability and a set of institutional reforms to facilitate the needed research, innovation, and social learning. It sets forth a new research agenda for sustainability science.
"A transition is under way to a world in which human populations are more crowded, more consuming, more connected, and in many parts more diverse than at any time in history," says Robert W. Kates, cochair of the study, and professor emeritus, Brown University, Providence, R.I. "Meeting the most basic needs of these populations implies greater production and consumption of goods and services, increased demand for land, energy, and materials, and intensified pressures on the environment and living resources."
"Actions to accelerate progress in a transition toward sustainability over the next 50 years must be undertaken now to avoid significant damage to the Earth's human population and its life-support systems," says William C. Clark, cochair of the study, and professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "This transition must involve harnessing science and technology to provide direction, examine alternative pathways, measure success -- or the lack of it -- along the way, and produce information and incentives for changing course."
Most population growth will be concentrated in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where efforts to reduce poverty without harming the environment must go hand in hand, the report says. Pressures on the environment and on natural resources will continue to be compounded by the heavy consumption of resources that support life-styles in industrialized nations and are sought after by others.
The report documents large-scale social and environmental change and explores tools for "what if" analysis of possible future developments and their implications for sustainability. It also identifies the greatest threats to sustainability and outlines several priorities for action in five key areas aimed at using what is already known to achieve a successful transition to sustainability. Priorities for action include:
Achievements in one of the areas outlined above, however, do not imply improvements in other or all sectors, the report cautions. For example, efforts to preserve natural ecosystems for the goods and services they provide to humans may ultimately fail if they do not account for the longer-term changes likely to be introduced by atmospheric pollution, climate change, water shortages, or human population encroachment. Understanding interactions among human activities and their multiple environmental consequences requires complementing current research programs with a new research agenda for sustainability science.
The report proposes such an agenda, emphasizing integrated approaches to research and actions at the regional scale related to water, atmosphere and climate, and species and ecosystems. It stresses the need to develop both a thorough understanding of the most critical interactions at particular places where people live, work, and govern, and an integrated strategy for planning and management. This will require evaluation of ongoing experiments in integrative research, a more focused effort on such research at all levels and dimensions, and new frameworks for improving collaborations among partners in industry, academia, foundations, and other national and international organizations.
The complexity of the earth system and society's interactions with it guarantee that surprises will emerge and policies will not work out entirely as planned. Central to a sober strategy for a transition to sustainability is therefore knowledge about how the system is performing, and what the effects of management efforts have actually been. The report also discusses what indicators of change -- from children's birth weights to atmospheric chemistry -- will be most needed in navigating a transition to sustainability.
There is no precedent for the ambitious enterprise of mobilizing science and technology to ensure a transition to sustainability, the report says. This effort is inherently international, requiring enhanced cooperation of scientific and political communities around the world. The United States, having robust scientific and technological capacities as well as being a major consumer of global resources, is particularly obligated to join, and help guide, the journey.
The study was funded by grants from Mitchell Energy and Development Corp., the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation, and the National Academy of Sciences. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter.
|Copies of Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability are available from the National Academy Press; (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242. The cost of the report is $49.95 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy|