The goals of sustainable development have been debated through a multi-decade deliberative process spanning the globe. The particular constituents of the goals that are given the most weight vary across groups, places, and times. But a widely shared common vision has emerged focused on equitable improvements in human well-being within and across generations.
The ultimate foundations or determinants of sustainable development are the suite of natural and anthropogenic resources on which people draw to produce the goods and services that are consumed to create well-being. Development paths that deplete the ability of the resource base to generate well-being are not sustainable.
Interactions between nature and society in the Anthropocene constitute a globally interconnected, complex adaptive system in which heterogeneity, nonlinear relationships, innovation, and power play formative roles.
The complex adaptive dynamics of the Anthropocene give rise to a system that is inherently unpredictable and subject to deep uncertainty. Decisive collective action is nonetheless essential to confront the sustainability crisis. Needed are strong, polycentric, and reflexive strategies capable of advancing collaborative action agendas at all scales of social organization, even while continuously reexamining their own core commitments.
Such strategies for the pursuit of sustainability can be strengthened by fostering a set of six essential capacities: i) the capacity to measure sustainable development; ii) the capacity to promote equity; iii) the capacity to adapt to shocks and surprises; iv) the capacity to transform the system onto more sustainable development pathways; v) the capacity to link knowledge with action; vi) the capacity to devise governance arrangements that allow people to work together in exercising the other capacities.
The advantage of focusing sustainability efforts on the six capacities identified here is that society has already built a significant understanding of how to foster each of them. Even as we conduct further research and experimentation to strengthen and integrate these six capacities, they can be put into action today by diverse actors across levels and between action situations to support the pursuit of a more just and sustainable world.