The contributions of UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme and biosphere reserves to the practice of sustainability science

  • Maureen G. ReedEmail author
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


Sustainability science as a transdisciplinary academic field has taken off since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Recent reflections have traced its practical origins back to the 1980s when sustainable development became popularized. Using academic and governmental literature as primary sources, I argue that these reflections are incomplete and that the practices of sustainability science as espoused today are embedded in the establishment of a normative and pragmatic form of ecosystem sciences that emerged in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century—informed by scientific principles of holism, conservation, and faith in scientific expertise and by social sensibilities of love of nature, morality, and pragmatism. Following World War II, years of scientific and intergovernmental debate led to the creation of an international program of applied research and education in the 1970s—the Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The most enduring legacy of the MAB Programme is the world network of Biosphere Reserves, first initiated in 1976 and now numbering 669 in 120 countries. While this program is not the only contributor to sustainability science, this network became an embodiment of sustainability science, by implementing a use-inspired, transdisciplinary research and action program at the human–environment interface. A major challenge has been to generate consistent uptake and cross fertilization by scientists internationally. Reviewing the ideas and ideals that helped found the MAB Programme uncovers enduring institutional, methodological and epistemological challenges facing sustainability scientists and suggests opportunities to transform the research and practice of sustainability science so that they better align with contemporary aspirations and values.


Sustainability science Man and Biosphere Programme UNESCO Biosphere reserve Transdisciplinarity Transformation Sustainable development Biodiversity conservation 



Data for this research included documentary materials archived at UNESCO (Paris, France), available online, and the Wilfrid Laurier Archives (Waterloo, Canada). Records of Canada’s national program include the Francis Fonds (a collection of records now 50.6 meters long), Roots Fonds, Birtch Fonds, and Canadian BRs Association Fonds. My gratitude goes out to two pioneers of Biosphere Reserves in Canada and internationally—George Francis and the late Fred Roots. Staff at the Archives at Wilfrid Laurier University, particularly Joan Mitchell and Cindy Preece, provided ongoing assistance in this project. I am also grateful to the members of the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Over the years, I have been well supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I appreciate the insights on drafts of this paper from Tim Jardine, Martin Price, Louis Reed-Wood, Toddi Steelman, and Andrew Watson and acknowledge direct assistance from Felicitas Egunyu with the references and from Colleen George and Yvonne Drebert in creating Fig. 1. Finally, I am grateful for the thoughtful comments by two anonymous reviewers and for the support of the journal’s editor and editorial assistant.


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© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environment and SustainabilityUniversity of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada

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