What is sustainability science?

Jianguo Wu, Xiao Chuan Guo, Jie Yang, Gui Xia Qian, Jian Ming Niu, Cun Zhu Liang, Qing Zhang, Ang Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Sustainability is the theme of our time and also the grandest challenge to humanity. Since the 1970s, the term, sustainable development, has frequently appeared in the scientific literature, governmental documents, media promotions for public goods, and commercial advertisements. However, the science that provides the theoretical foundation and practical guidance for sustainable development-sustainability science-only began to emerge in the beginning of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the field has rapidly developed in depth and expanded in scope during the past decade, with its core concepts and research methods coalescing. China, as the most populous country in the world and home to the philosophical root of sustainability science-the unity of man and nature, is obligated to take upon the challenge of our time, to facilitate global sustainability while pursuing the Chinese Dream, and to play a leading role in the development of sustainability science. Toward this grandiose goal, this paper presents the first Chinese introduction to sustainability science, which discusses its basic concepts, research questions, and future directions. Sustainability science is the study of the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment, particularly focusing on the vulnerability, robustness, resilience, and stability of the coupled human-environment system. It is a transdisciplinary science that integrates natural sciences with humanities and social sciences. It hinges on the environment-economy-society nexus, and merges basic and applied research. The key components of sustainability often change with time, place, and culture, and thus sustainability science needs to emphasize multi-scale studies in space and time, with emphasis on landscapes and regions over a horizon of 50 to 100 years. It needs to focus on the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being, as influenced by biodiversity and ecosystem processes as well as climate change, land use change, and other socioeconomic drivers. Landscape sustainability is at the core of sustainability science, and is expected to be a hot research topic in the next few decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalChinese Journal of Applied Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Coupled human-environment systems (CHES)
  • Ecosystem services
  • Human well-being
  • Landscape
  • Region
  • Sustainability science
  • Sustainable development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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