As sustainability science matures as a field, it would benefit from expanding its historical emphasis on short term, local impacts of development on environment to focus more on the long term, large scale patterns in the coevolution of nature and society that ultimately shape the prospects for sustainability.
Efforts to explain patterns in the coevolution of nature and society should embrace the finding that the Anthropocene is a complex adaptive system, and thus systematically assess the roles played by heterogeneity, multi-level organization, partial connections, innovation and power. This also means accepting that far-from-equilibrium behavior will be the norm for the Anthropocene, and that the successful pursuit of sustainability will require research to strengthen the multiple capacities needed for society to continuously learn and adjust as it navigates its pathways of development.
First among those capacities is better ability to evaluate the likelihood that present trajectories and proposed interventions will promote human well-being over the long run. Especially important will be extending existing metrics so that they can better integrate the contributions of all relevant resources (natural and anthropogenic); capture intra- and intergenerational equity concerns; address connections within and across levels of systems organization; and monitor the adequacy of the other capacities identified in this Research Guide.
The basic elements that can contribute to adaptive capacity in complex systems have been identified, but trade-offs among those elements remain poorly understood. Research is needed that illuminates strategies and guidelines for balancing such tradeoffs in particular contexts, and shows how to rebalance them as adaptation pathways become entwined in long term system dynamics.
Transforming unsustainable pathways of development into sustainable ones is perhaps the grand challenge of sustainability science. Meeting that challenge will require above all a greater capacity to foster innovation, but also a capacity to shape the collective visions of sustainable futures needed to encourage the sorts of innovations most needed to promote sustainability.
Good governance – the capacity to work together in achieving what we can’t do alone – is essential for sustainable development, but is always an experiment. Sustainability science needs to do better at treating it that way, documenting the governance arrangements relevant to sustainability that are in place around the world, evaluating their impacts and interactions with one another, and designing better ones—all as part of a continuing exercise in reflexive learning.
The asymmetric distribution of power among stakeholders in development has profound but understudied implications for sustainability. Especially needed are more creative designs of governance arrangements aimed at mitigating the intra- and inter-generational inequities in well-being that are both the cause and consequence of power asymmetries, together with systematic evaluations of the efficacy of those arrangements when they are put into practice.
Because knowledge itself is power, efforts to mobilize it for sustainability are inescapably intertwined with politics. The sustainability science community must therefore work actively to assure that its agenda reflects not just the interests of those who are doing well from current development pathways and thus have the money and influence to support our research, but also the interests of those who are losing out and most need our support.