Sustainability Science Spring 2018

Sustainability Science:
Interactions Between Human and Environmental Systems
Spring 2018 | syllabus

1. The origins of the concept of sustainability science

Speaker: Billie Turner III (ASU)

The introductory session explores the relationship between “sustainable development” and “sustainability science.” It portrays “sustainable development” as an ultimately political issue arena in which people are grappling with the appropriate long term relationships between human development and the natural environment. It portrays “sustainability science” as an emerging field of scholarly inquiry into the origins and nature of the sustainable development problem, and into possible responses to that problem. The session will review competing perspectives on sustainable development and sustainability science, and present the approach taken here as an outline and justification of the topics covered in the course. We begin with a review of the foundations of sustainability science: i.e. modern conceptualizations regarding the interactions between human and environmental systems. We highlight similarities and differences in the key assumptions, variables and relationships that have figured in alternative conceptualizations, and in the central questions that have concerned them. We then turn to a sampling of historical data and future forecasts or scenarios regarding long term trends and transitions in key attributes of human-environment systems. The session concludes with a discussion of the challenges posed by those trends and transitions for policy and the knowledge needed to support it.

2. Sustainable development and sustainability science; historical overview and long-term trends

This session presents the conceptual framework for analyzing sustainable development that we will use throughout the rest of the course. Sustainable development is argued to be development that entails non-decreasing human well-being, measured in terms of the assets that contribute to human well-being including 1) ecosystem services and biodiversity, 2) human capabilities and assets, such as knowledge, education, and health; 3) technology and infrastructure; and 4) institutions and culture. These various components link the environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. The framework helps to understand the central components of planetary and human assets that contribute to human well-being and advance sustainable development. The session will introduce the concept of stock and flows of various assets.

3. Ecosystems services, reconciling supply and demand

This session explores the concept of ecosystem services as key asset contributing to human well-being, sometimes referred to as natural capital. In this session, we review what is known about the environmental services generated by ecosystems, the ways in which humans benefit from those services, and the ways in which human activities impact natural capital and change the future flow of services derived from it. We distinguish between supply and demand for ecosystem services. The former is determined by the biophysical conditions such as climate and soils. In contrast, the demand for ecosystem services depends on stakeholders’ values. We conclude by discussing how land management results from reconciling supply and demand for ecosystem services.

4. Technology and infrastructure

Technology and infrastructure are critical in our cities, factories, transportation networks, water and sanitation systems, housing and the like. These assets power income growth and provide jobs, and represent an essential component of development strategies to improve human well-being. But manufactured technologies and infrastructure can be designed and operated in ways that are more or less conserving of natural capital and environmental services. We focus here on recent advances in “industrial ecology,” “green chemistry” and similar programs regarding how systems of manufactured capital can be constructed that achieve their aims with lower environmental “footprints” and are thus more likely to promote sustainable development.

5. Social-ecological resilience - Tipping points and uncertainty

Coupled human-environment systems frequently display thresholds, discontinuities, and multiple-equilibria. The difficulties that these complex behaviors pose for prediction, adaptation, monitoring and management are profound, and have received extensive attention under the rubrics of “resilience,” “vulnerability,” and “tipping points.” This session will review that literature and its implications for sustainability. It will explore how such complex trajectories found in nature can sometimes be captured in simple differential equations that, when coupled, lead to surprisingly complex non-linear dynamics. How such dynamics can be dealt with in models, monitoring and adaptive management regimes will receive special attention.

6. Populations and Planetary Boundaries: Is the sky falling?

“Planetary Boundaries” is a description of large scale dynamics that suggest that we are heading for a rapid collapse. This description mirrors the arguments of both Malthus and Ehrlich and to a lesser degree, Hubbert’s Peak Oil theory. Why have past predictions of collapse failed to materialize and how does this reflect on the concepts of Planetary Boundaries? How should we think about local dynamics and global dynamics when considering the overall changes to the planet? What is the effect on social and policy processes of claims of collapse?

7. Human capability: Generating knowledge for sustainability

Institutions and culture are the formal and informal rules, norms and expectations that shape human interactions with one another and the environment. We begin with a survey of the particular institutional challenges for sustainable development posed by the need to create or protect public goods (e.g. environmental services, “green” technologies) in the face of multiple externalities and opportunities for free-riding. We then review current understanding of the multiple institutions that societies have self-organized to provide such public goods at local scales, before turning to even more challenging task of designing institutions that promote cooperation in the production of global public goods.

8. Trade-offs in components of sustainability

We present an approach, developed through the course in previous years, that provides a sustainability framework derived from a synthesis of economic and ecological literature. It integrates the ecological mechanisms that underpin ecosystem services, the biophysical trade-offs that constrain management options, the preferences and values of stakeholders, and the dynamic nature of these components.

9. Institutions and culture

Institutions and culture are the formal and informal rules, norms and expectations that shape human interactions with one another and the environment. We begin with a survey of the particular institutional challenges for sustainable development posed by the need to create or protect public goods (e.g. environmental services, “green” technologies) in the face of multiple externalities and opportunities for free-riding. We then review current understanding of the multiple institutions that societies have self-organized to provide such public goods at local scales, before turning to even more challenging task of designing institutions that promote cooperation in the production of global public goods.

10. Equity and the economy

We will be discussing the interplay of sustainable development, climate change, and environmental integrity. He will focus on two particular points: (1) the relation between policy initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals and our policy responses to climate change, and (2) the way in which the idea of harm underpins our concerns over climate change, motivates sustainable development, and centers our worries over environmental degradation.

11. Energy and the economy

The nexus of government policy and the role of economic forces in the energy sector are critical to understanding the transition to a clean energy driven economy. In this session we will hear from one of the nation’s experts in energy policy. We will explore the tools needed to move the energy infrastructure to a sustainable footing.

12. Ozone-atmosphere and sustainability

This unit will address the role of chemically active gases in the atmosphere and how they relate to both the ozone hole and climate effects. There will be a look at both policies on a global scale and on scientific questions regarding the interactions of atmospheric chemistry.