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Sustainability Science

Environmental change drives social transformations. Societies are and will increasingly be profoundly affected by processes such as climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater scarcity, waste mismanagement, land degradation and urban air pollution.

At the same time, social transformations drive environmental change, both negatively, through unsustainable production and consumption patterns, and positively, through inclusive and sustainable lifestyles, technologies and social practices.

MOST responds to these social transformation challenges by contributing to the development and enhancement of sustainability science, which is

  • science about sustainability, to understand how complex physical, biological and social systems function, and
  • science for sustainability, to support sustainable policies and positive social transformations.

Within its general mission to strengthen connections between knowledge and action, MOST contributes to UNESCO’s efforts, within the overall framework of Future Earth, to develop sustainability science as a new kind of science by providing interdisciplinary knowledge-based input to tackle environmental challenges.

From the perspective of MOST, sustainability science is both a distinctive form of knowledge and specific approach to mobilizing and applying knowledge. In both respects, the social and human sciences make decisive contributions to improved understanding of complex systems, which are driven inter alia by human beliefs, practices and institutions, and to action capacities, which depend on policy processes and social responses.

Because sustainability science raises the question “sustainability of what?”, it relates to issues of values, imagination and creativity, which are the province of the humanities, just as much as to the theoretical and empirical constructs of the social sciences.

Within UNESCO’s intersectoral dynamic, MOST work on sustainability science combines four main strands:

  • Contributing to academic and policy agendas through headline publications such as the 2013 World Social Science Report and active participation in major international events such as the Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Strengthening capacities through innovative research programming, e.g. through engagement in the ISSC-led Transformations to Sustainability programme.
  • Connecting research to the social imagination through the development of environmental humanities.
  • Connecting knowledge to policy through mechanisms such as MOST Ministerial Forums and MOST Schools and through bilateral policy support, such as in Indonesia on land degradation and rural sustainability.


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