Sustainability science emerged in the 21st century as a new academic discipline. This new field of science was officially introduced with a "Birth Statement" at the World Congress "Challenges of a Changing Earth 2001" in Amsterdam organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The field reflects a desire to give the generalities and broad-based approach of "sustainability" a stronger analytic and scientific underpinning as it "brings together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives from north and south, and disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering, and medicine". Ecologist William C. Clark proposes that it can be usefully thought of as "neither 'basic' nor 'applied' research but as a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs" and that it "serves the need for advancing both knowledge and action by creating a dynamic bridge between the two".
The field is focused on examining the interactions between human, environmental, and engineered systems to understand and contribute to solutions for complex challenges that threaten the future of humanity and the integrity of the life support systems of the planet, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and land and water degradation.
Sustainability science, like sustainability itself, derives some impetus from the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science. Sustainability science provides a critical framework for sustainability while sustainability measurement provides the evidence-based quantitative data needed to guide sustainability governance.
Consensual definition of sustainability science is as elusive as the definition of "sustainability" or "sustainable development". In an overview presented on its website in 2008 the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University described the field in the following way, stressing its interdisciplinarity:
'Sustainability science' is problem-driven, interdisciplinary scholarship that seeks to facilitate the design, implementation, and evaluation of effective interventions that foster shared prosperity and reduced poverty while protecting the environment. It is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It thus draws as needed from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, medical and engineering sciences, from the professions, and from the knowledge of practice.
Susan W. Kieffer and colleagues, in 2003, suggested, more specifically, that sustainability science is:
... the cultivation, integration, and application of knowledge about Earth systems gained especially from the holistic and historical sciences (such as geology, ecology, climatology, oceanography) coordinated with knowledge about human interrelationships gained from the social sciences and humanities, in order to evaluate, mitigate, and minimize the consequences, regionally and worldwide, of human impacts on planetary systems and on societies across the globe and into the future – that is, in order that humans can be knowledgeable Earth stewards.
It has been noted that the new paradigm
... must encompass different magnitudes of scales (of time, space, and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults).
Others take a much broader view of sustainability science, emphasizing the need to analyze the root causes of the fundamental unsustainability of the prevailing economic system, such as the emphasis on growth as key to solving political and social problems and advancing society's well-being. In a 2012 article entitled "Sustainability Science Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption," published in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Halina Brown argues that sustainability science must include the study of the sociology of material consumption and the structure of consumerist society, the role of technology in aggravating the unsustainable social practices, as well as in solving the problems they create, the macroeconomic theories that presuppose economic growth as a necessary condition for advancing societal well-being, and others.
The case for making research and development an important component of sustainable development strategies was embraced by many international scientific organizations in the mid-1980s, promoted by the Brundtland Commission's report Our Common Future in 1987, and noted in the Agenda 21 plan that emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and further developed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002.
The topics of the following sub-headings indicate recurring themes that are addressed in the literature of sustainability science. In 2010 a compendium of basic papers in this new discipline was published as Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology, edited by Robert Kates, with a preface by William Clark. The 2012 Commentary by Halina Brown extensively expands the scope of that seminal publication. This is work in progress. The 2012 Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology was created as a collaboration of over 1000 scientists to provide peer-reviewed entries covering sustainability research and policy evaluations of technology.
Knowledge structuring has been identified as an essential first step in the effort to acquire a comprehensive view of sustainability issues which are both complex and interconnected. This is needed as a response to the requirements of academia, industry and government.
The key research and data for sustainability are sourced from many scientific disciplines, topics and organisations. A major part of knowledge structuring will entail building up the tools that provide an "overview" of what is known. Sustainability science can construct and coordinate a framework within which the vast amount of data can be easily accessed.
The attempt, by sustainability science, to understand the integrated "whole" of planetary and human systems requires cooperation between scientific, social and economic disciplines, public and private sectors, academia and government. In short it requires a massive global cooperative effort and one major task of sustainability science is to assist integrated cross-disciplinary coordination.
In recent years, more and more university degree programs have developed formal curricula which address issues of sustainability science and global change:
|Bachelor of Applied Science (Sustainable Science)||Universiti Malaysia Kelantan||Jeli, Kelantan||Malaysia||Asia|
|B.A. or B.S. Sustainability||Arizona State University||Phoenix, Arizona||United States||North America|
|B.S. Ecosystem Science and Sustainability||Colorado State University||Fort Collins, CO||United States||North America|
|B.S. Sustainability Studies||Florida Institute of Technology||Melbourne, Florida||United States||North America|
|B.S. or B.S/M.S. Sustainability Science||Montclair State University||Montclair, New Jersey||United States||North America|
|B.Sc. Environmental Sciences||Leuphana University of Lüneburg||Lüneburg, Lower Saxony||Germany||Europe|
|B.Sc. Environmental and Sustainability Studies||Leuphana University of Lüneburg||Lüneburg, Lower Saxony||Germany||Europe|
|B.Sc. Environment & Sustainability||Keele University||Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|B.Sc. Sustainability Science||Solent University||Southampton, Hampshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|M.Sci. Sustainability Science||Solent University||Southampton, Hampshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|B.Sc. Global Sustainability Science||Utrecht University||Utrecht, Utrecht Province||Netherlands||Europe|
|MS/MA/MSUS/EMSL/MSL/PhD. Sustainability (with or without Energy/Complex Adaptive Systems concentration) ||Arizona State University - School of Sustainability||Tempe, Arizona||United States||North America|
|M.Sc. Regenerative Studies ||California State Polytechnic University - Pomona||Pomona, California||United States||North America|
|PhD, M.Sc. Ecosystem Sustainability||Colorado State University||Fort Collins, Colorado||United States||North America|
|M.Sc. Sustainability Science||Montclair State University||Montclair, New Jersey||United States||North America|
|M.S. Natural Resources & Environment||University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability ||Ann Arbor, Michigan||United States||North America|
|M.L.A Landscape Architecture||University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability ||Ann Arbor, Michigan||United States||North America|
|Ph.D. Resource Ecology Management and Resource Policy and Behavior||University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability ||Ann Arbor, Michigan||United States||North America|
|PhD (Sustainability Science)||Universiti Malaysia Kelantan||Jeli, Kelantan||Malaysia||Asia|
|M.Sc (Sustainability Science)||Universiti Malaysia Kelantan||Jeli, Kelantan||Malaysia||Asia|
|M.Sc (Dual Degree Programme in Innovation, Human Development and Sustainability)||University of Geneva / Geneva-Tsinghua Initiative||Geneva, Switzerland and Beijing, China||Switzerland and China||Europe and Asia|
|M.S. Sustainability: Science and Society||Brock University||St. Catharines, Ontario||Canada||North America|
|M.Sc. Sustainability Science||Leuphana University of Lüneburg||Lüneburg, Lower Saxony||Germany||Europe|
|M.Sc. in Sustainability Management Program||University of Toronto Mississauga||Mississauga, Ontario||Canada||North America|
|M.B.A Sustainability Management||Leuphana University of Lüneburg||Lüneburg, Lower Saxony||Germany||Europe|
|M.Phil. Engineering for Sustainable Development||University of Cambridge||Cambridge, Cambridgeshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|M.Sc. Sustainability||University of Southampton||Southampton, Hampshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|M.Sc. Environmental Sustainability & Green Technology||Keele University||Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire||United Kingdom||Europe|
|M.Sc. Environmental Technology||Imperial College London||Kensington, London||United Kingdom||Europe|
|M.Sc. Sustainability Science and Solutions||Lappeenranta University of Technology||Lappeenranta, South Karelia||Finland||Europe|
|M.Sc. Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science||Lund University||Lund, Scania||Sweden||Europe|
|M.Sc. Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development||Stockholm University||Stockholm, Stockholm||Sweden||Europe|
|PhD Sustainability Science||Stockholm University||Stockholm, Stockholm||Sweden||Europe|
|Master of Environment and Sustainability||Monash University||Melbourne, Victoria||Australia||Oceania|
|M.Sc. Sustainability Science and Policy||Maastricht University||Maastricht, Limburg||Netherlands||Europe|
|M.Sc. Sustainability||University of Sao Paulo||Sao Paulo||Brazil||South America|
|Ph.D. Sustainability||University of Sao Paulo||Sao Paulo||Brazil||South America|
|Ph.D. Sustainability Science||Lund University||Lund, Scania Province||Sweden||Europe|
|M.Sc. Environmental Studies & Sustainability Science||Lund University||Lund, Scania Province||Sweden||Europe|