Our common journey: A transition toward sustainability

Report provides strategy for transition to sustainability and actions required over our next two generations.

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:


  • Overpopulation. Achieving a 10 percent reduction in the population of 9 billion now projected for 2050 is a desirable and attainable goal, the report says. Having nearly 1 billion fewer people on the planet would ease the transition toward sustainability. This can be done by meeting the widespread need for contraceptives globally, by helping women to postpone childbearing through education and job opportunities and to reduce family size overall, and by encouraging society to increase the care and education of smaller numbers of children.
  • Urban systems. It should be possible to accommodate the projected massive growth of urban areas in a habitable, efficient, and environmentally friendly manner. Cities are faced with meeting the needs for housing, nurturing, educating, and employing the 4 billion more people expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, while providing them with adequate water, sanitation, and clean air. These cities should be able to meet human needs and preserve the environment by building modern facilities and developing systems for delivering services more efficiently.
  • Agricultural production. An achievable goal is to reverse declining trends in agricultural production in Africa while sustaining historic trends elsewhere. The most critical near-term step is to reverse the decline in sub-Saharan Africa, the only region where population growth has outpaced growth in agricultural production. A collaborative effort involving governments, the scientific community, farmers, and nongovernment organizations will be needed in Africa. At the same time, meeting the challenge of feeding the burgeoning world population as a whole and reducing hunger while sustaining life-support systems will require dramatic overall advances in food production, distribution, and access over the next two generations. Sustainable increases in output per hectare of two to three times present levels will be required by 2050. Productivity must be increased on farmlands, reduced on fragile land areas, and restored to degraded terrain.
  • Energy and materials. Efficiency in energy and materials use, including reductions in the amount of carbon produced by unit of energy and the amount of energy used per unit of product, should be accelerated to at least double the current rate of improvement. Research and development should continue on the many efforts under way to lower household energy use, build low-polluting and energy-efficient automobiles, and reduce waste, as well as to minimize the consumption of energy and materials for industrial processes through reuse, recycling, and the substitution of services for products.
  • Living resources. Many ecosystems are being degraded by the demands and stresses of human use. The goal should be to work toward restoring and maintaining their function and integrity so that their services and human uses can be sustained over the long term. Greater understanding is needed of how biological systems work, how to stem the continued loss of habitats, and how ecosystems can be restored and managed at the local or regional scale. This will require knowledge of the socioeconomic aspects of overexploitation, the appropriate valuation of ecosystem services, and sustainable management and harvesting techniques. Ecosystems still not degraded by human activities represent the last reserves of the Earth's biodiversity. For these systems the goal should be to protect and conserve biological diversity, both by dramatically reducing current rates of land conversion and by planning for conservation.

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