Sustainability Science

, Volume 11, Issue 5, pp 777–788 | Cite as

Towards an umbrella science of sustainability

Review Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Sustainability Science Innovation and Capacity Development


Sustainability research has gained scholarly attention since the 1980s as the new science investigating the changes in social, environmental and economic systems and their impacts on the future of planetary life support systems. Whilst broad literature on sustainability has expanded significantly over the past decades, academic literature developing sustainability as a distinct science has received little attention. After more than two decades of sustainability research, the time has come for us to begin asking reflective questions about what sort of science we call sustainability science. How has the broader research on sustainability contributed to developing sustainability science as a unique discipline within the past two decades? How has the label science promoted or hindered the interdisciplinary project of integrating the natural and social sciences as well as arts and humanities in addressing human nature problems? I argue in this review paper that special efforts need to be made towards the building and positioning of sustainability as an umbrella science for global sustainability research. The benefits of the new sustainability science advocated for in this paper are that; a) it offers a universal definition of sustainability that accounts for both the needs of life and the capacity of planetary life support systems to provide for those needs and b) proposes ways of bridging gaps among different research traditions, facilitating cross disciplinary communication and addressing the challenge of multiple meanings and definitions of concepts facing sustainability research today.


Sustainability science Social–ecological resilience Vulnerability, climate change adaptation Interdisciplinary research Transdisciplinary research 



I would like to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to my supervisors, Drs Maureen Reed and Toddi Steelman, and Dr Brian Walker, for their comments on early drafts of this work. I also want to thank my colleague, Issahaka Fuseini, for his feedback on the manuscript. Finally, I want to acknowledge the SSHRC grant of my supervisor, Dr. Maureen Reed, for sponsoring my research stipends. Finally, I express my sincere appreciation to two anonymous reviews for their constructive feedback that has helped shape the paper in many ways.


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© Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environment and Sustainability, College of Graduate StudiesUniversity of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada

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