Science Wednesday: Celebrating Sustainability and the Environment

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Alan D. Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has also served as the Associate Director for Sustainable Development, White House Council on Environmental Quality (2002-2003), and the Director of International Environmental Affairs for the National Security Council (2001-2002).

Charles Perrings, a professor of Environmental Economics at the Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, recently argued that the development of discipline-based science, while the source of nearly all the scientific advances of the past century, has limited the ability of science to address problems that span more than one discipline.

Sustainability science is a new discipline of a different kind: it draws upon many existing disciplines to forge a systems approach to environmental management. Its fundamental contribution is to solve problems.

Today, few of the world’s environmental problems can simply be addressed as an issue basically restricted to air, water, or chemicals. Sustainability science is the integration of all of these disciplines to better understand how humans and society interact as a system.

Sustainability science is asking the right questions:

  • Why aim merely to reduce toxic waste when we can eliminate it with new chemicals and processes?
  • Why handle and dispose of growing amounts of waste when we can more efficiently manage materials that eliminate, reduce, or recycle waste?

When EPA was created in 1970, its focus of attention was on reducing obvious sources of pollution to the environment. When the oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in June 1969, it drew attention to other environmental problems across the country and helped to spur the environmental movement that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Since its creation in 1970, EPA has been largely successful in addressing many of the most obvious and pressing environmental issues of that time, such as the quality of air and water. But new approaches are now needed to deal with emerging and newly recognized problems:

  • the expanding population and economy and their demand for energy and materials;
  • the changing rates of urban sprawl and loss of biodiversity;
  • nonpoint, trans-boundary, and trans-media sources of pollutants such as storm water runoff;
  • genetically modified organisms;
  • the potentially harmful effects of these products as well as endocrine disruptors and nanoparticles; and
  • the cumulative impacts of all these factors on the environment and public health.

Addressing these and other environmental issues in an integrated manner will demand a greater focus on sustainability and the vital need to develop sustainability science. We will need to apply what we learn to foster policies and best practices that can help people coexist with the planet.

The development and achievements of sustainability science deserve the increasing recognitions that it is receiving great deal of credit for this progress. Among this recognition is the May 2009 celebration of the month of Sustainability and the Environment as part of the Year of Science.

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