Sustaining Sustainability: Creating a Systems Science in a Fragmented Academy and Polarized World


From climate change, deforestation, and depletion of fossil fuels to overexploited fisheries, species extinction, and poisons in our food and water, our society is unsustainable and it is getting worse fast. Many advocate that overcoming these problems requires the development of systems thinking. We have long been told that the unsustainability of our society arises because we treat the world as unlimited and problems unconnected when we live on a finite “spaceship Earth” in which “there is no away” and “everything is connected to everything else.” The challenge lies in moving from slogans to specific tools and processes that help us understand complexity, design better policies, facilitate individual and organizational learning, and catalyze the technical, economic, social, political, and personal changes we need to create a sustainable society. Here I outline a design for a systems science of sustainability that rises to this challenge. Where the dynamics of complex systems are conditioned by multiple feedbacks, time delays, accumulations, and nonlinearities, our mental models generally ignore these elements of dynamic complexity; where the consequences of our actions spill out across time and space and across disciplinary boundaries, our universities, corporations, and governments are organized in silos that focus on the short term and fragment knowledge. I describe how sustainability research, teaching, and engagement with the policy process can be organized to provide scientifically grounded, reliable knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries, that engages multiple stakeholders, that grapples with unavoidable issues of ethics, values, and purpose, and that leads to action.


Sustainability System dynamics Limits to growth Ecological footprint Overconsumption Mental models 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MIT Sloan School of ManagementCambridgeUSA

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