National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Engineering
Institute of Medicine
National Research Council
Office of News and Public Information
National Academy of Engineering
Back | Home
News from the National Academies
Date: Nov. 9, 1999
Contacts: Barbara Rice, Deputy Director
Megan O'Neill, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EST TUESDAY, NOV. 9

Report Provides Strategy for Transition to Sustainability;
Actions Required Over Next Two Generations

WASHINGTON -- Even 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, co-chair 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, co-chair 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 lifestyles 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:

> Population. 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 birthweights 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.

Read the full text of Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Policy Division
Board on Sustainable Development

Edward A. Frieman1 (board chair)
Research Director Emeritus
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
La Jolla, Calif.

William C. Clark (study co-chair)
Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Robert W. Kates1 (study co-chair)
Emeritus Director of the Feinstein World Hunger Program
Brown University
Trenton, Maine

Lourdes Arizpe
Researcher
Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research
Mexico

John Bongaarts
Vice President
The Population Council
New York City

Ralph J. Cicerone1
Chancellor, and
Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. Professor
Earth System Science Department
University of California
Irvine

Robert A. Frosch2
Senior Research Fellow
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Malcolm Gillis
President
Rice University
Houston

Richard H. Harwood
C.S. Mott Foundation Chair of Sustainable Agriculture
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Michigan State University
East Lansing
Philip J. Landrigan3
Ethel H. Wise Professor; Chair of Community Medicine; and Director of Environmental and Occupational Medicine
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
New York City

Kai N. Lee
John J. Gibson Professor of Environmental Studies
Williams College
Williamstown, Mass.

Jerry D. Mahlman
Director, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Princeton, N.J.

Richard J. Mahoney
Distinguished Executive in Residence
Center for the Study of American Business
Washington University
St. Louis

Pamela A. Matson1
Professor
Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

William J. Merrell
President
H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment
Washington, D.C.

G. William Miller
Chairman
G. William Miller & Co. Inc.
Washington, D.C.

Berrien Moore III (ex officio)
Director, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
University of New Hampshire
Durham

M. Granger Morgan
Professor and Head
Department of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh

Paul D. Raskin
President
Tellus Institute, and
Director
Stockholm Environment Institute
Boston

John B. Robinson
Director, Sustainable Development Research Institute, and
Professor, Department of Geography
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

Vernon H. Ruttan
Regents Professor
Department of Applied Economics
University of Minnesota
St. Paul

Thomas C. Schelling1
Professor of Economics and Public Affairs
University of Maryland
College Park

Marvalee H. Wake
Professor and Chair
Department of Integrative Biology
University of California
Berkeley

Warren Washington
Senior Scientist
Climate and Global Dynamics Division
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

M. Gordon Wolman1
Professor
Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Sherburne B. Abbott
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering
3 Member, Institute of Medicine