Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 1 | Pages 12
DOI: 10.12924/cis2013.01010001
Sustainability: A Path-breaking Idea, but Still Associated
with Huge Challenges
Juergen Peter Kropp
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Telegraphenberg A 31, 14473 Potsdam, Germany;
Submitted: 3 May 2013 | Published: 10 May 2013
Sustainability science is a young discipline that started
emerging in the late 20th century, although Hans Carl
von Carlowitz had already introduced ideas about sus-
tainable management of forests in the early 18th cen-
tury. In recent times, the Club of Rome report in 1972
and the Brundtland report in 1987 developed these
concepts further, and subsequently the sustainability
idea became prominent in political debates as well. In
both reports it was recognized that growth would
have certain limits and a different style of resource
utilization was therefore necessary. However, despite
numerous approaches dealing with sustainability, it is
still an important issue.
Nowadays humanity increasingly interferes with
natural systems on a planetary scale. This holds for
many subsystems of the Earth including the climate,
soil and water bodies, and marine systems. During the
20th century, rapid technological development and
demographic pressure advanced to a degree that we
caused radical and unintended changes in the Earth's
integrity. This is observable in certain subsystems, for
example in the atmosphere (global warming), in mar-
ine systems (overexploitation of fish stocks), or in
soils (degradation). One crucial element of sustainabil-
ity is the capacity of natural resources to sustain hu-
man demands. It is foreseeable that parts of the sys-
tem are overburdened beyond their capacity. This
holds likewise for waste disposal, as for the atmo-
sphere (greenhouse gases) and the utilization of re-
sources like ores and renewables like trees and fish.
To sum up, one can state that the overexploitation of
natural resources and economic growth causes envir-
onmental impacts which may lead several systems to
the brink of collapse. In other words, humanity causes
a multitude of problems and most of them are not
grounded in one sector, region, either can they be de-
scribed by one scientific discipline.
Thus, sustainability science is a discipline that can
be placed as the one at the meeting point of different
scientific disciplines. However, during the last four
decades, science made remarkable progress in regard
to an assessment on how climate and global change
will affect livelihood conditions, and how humanity is
accelerating the above mentioned changes. The ques-
tion is how we can avoid certain human activities that
destroy the functionality of certain subsystems of the
Earth and how we can develop potential solutions. It
is a major challenge to understand the dynamics of
man-made environment systems as a basis for the de-
velopment of sustainable transition pathways in the
sense of planetary engineering and management. In
other words, sustainability science addresses the
man-made environment interface.
Although all these points have been well-known for
decades, we need to ask why it is so difficult to
achieve pathbreaking scientific results, which may
help us to develop clear visions of real sustainable de-
velopment. It is well-known that resource consump-
tion is an accompanying factor of economic prosperity
and global resource consumption is still steeply grow-
ing. In some countries we observe—mainly the ad-
vanced ones—that resource consumption stabilizes or
© 2013 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
even decreases, while their high material intensity is
still managed by exporting it to developing countries.
Thus, the challenge to decouple resource consump-
tion from economic development remains, and it is
not only a question of a green economy, technological
progress, or how natural resources are being utilized.
It is indeed also a societal challenge. Human lifestyle
changes might be a further catalyst for making head-
way towards sustainability. Nevertheless, current pro-
gress into this direction is slow, moreover, in large
parts in the developing countries, we can see a tend-
ency just to copy westernized lifestyles. A real innova-
tion for the world would be a strategic approach for a
sustainable economy that results in social equity and
fairness, risk resilient livelihood conditions, sustainable
resource use, and the avoidance of ecological scarcit-
ies—all these under consideration of planetary bound-
Nevertheless, sustainability is still an elusive
concept. It is hard to define what sustainability
really implies in terms of environmental constraints
or societal development, in particular on a regional
scale. Consequently, at the beginning of the 21st
century, scientific bodies called for a more system-
atic sustainability science, e.g. International Council
for Science defined sustainability as a major goal in
its research strategies. Despite these efforts, con-
cepts still lack real meaning. Thus, the aim should
be to underpin activities dealing with the general
aspects of sustainability with stronger and sounder
scientific concepts. Questions, like: what exactly is
sustainability? How can we achieve sustainability
targets? And, what does 'being sustainable' mean?
need to be in the foreground. Thus, sustainability
science is environmental systems science.
Although all these points have been intensely dis-
cussed in recent decades, a thrilling and demanding
journey still lies ahead for sustainability science. In re-
gard to methodological terms, we need to encompass
the different magnitudes of scales in terms of time,
space and functions. Thus, sustainability science still
invokes a lot of questions, i.e. we have to tackle, in
particular, the following three challenges: 1) The pro-
vision of a methodological arsenal that allows the de-
scription and analysis of questions of sustainability in
a comparable and transferable manner, i.e. we per-
manently have to ask ourselves what we can learn
from singular cases in terms of the overarching sus-
tainability challenge; 2) Options for solutions at differ-
ent levels, e.g. regional and global, need to be as-
sessed systematically in order to develop pathways
which allow us to achieve predefined environmental
targets, like the 2 °C target agreed in the Copenhagen
Accord 2009; 3) As a lot of strategies are included un-
der the term 'sustainability', there is a need to de-
velop a concept which allows assessment and meas-
urement of success of implemented sustainability
However, sustainability itself is a challenge, be-
cause it needs ethical decisions from humankind itself
whether we want to live in a safe environment or not.
But how we achieve these safe limits is an issue of
sustainability science, i.e. in terms of how to achieve
these limits and what potential trade-offs there might
be. The new journal Challenges in Sustainability
provides a perfect platform for these goals.