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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research
mental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. That decade saw growth in the awareness of a linked series of environmental problems, including resource depletion, population growth, and pollution of air, water, and soil.
Initially, environmental studies focused on issues of waste management, especially on air, water, and soil pollution. The strategy for treating pollutants focused on “end-of-pipe” techniques and other local measures. As it became clear that end-of-pipe measures were merely palliative, they evolved toward the broader activities of pollution prevention, conservation, and social policies.
By 1987, a report from the UN-mandated Brundtland Commission could describe “sustainable development” as development “which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future to meet its needs.”5 That report served as a catalyst for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro. The evidence delivered at the conference made it clear that it was necessary “to integrate the physical and social science disciplines with engineering to address the ecological, economic, social, and political processes that determine the sustainability of natural and human life cycles and activities.”6 Thus arose the need to develop an interdisciplinary infrastructure, termed sustainability science and engineering. The broad goals of this field are to define major threats to sustainability, find accurate indicators of change (from children’s birth weights to atmospheric chemistry), and explore promising opportunities for circumventing or mitigating environmental threats.
Although it may be premature to define this field as a stand-alone discipline,7 some researchers have articulated a vision of a “metadiscipline.” For example, one paper defines sustainability as “the design of human and industrial systems to ensure that humankind’s use of natural resources and cycles do not lead to diminished quality of life due either to losses in future economic opportunities or to adverse impacts on social conditions, human health, and the environment.”8 It remains to be seen whether an enterprise of such breadth is a discipline in the traditional sense or whether researchers are leading us toward a new concept of the discipline.
World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
National Research Council, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability, 1999.
Clark, W. C. and Dickson, N. M. “Sustainability science: The emerging research program,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14):806, 2003.
Mihelcic, J. R. et al., “Sustainability Science and Engineering: The Emergence of a New Metadiscipline,” Environmental Science and Technology 37(23):5315, 2003.