The Transition to a Sustainable World

Humans are a true force of nature. To a greater extent than most species, we have the capability of creating the ecosystems we live in. Like the weather, forecasting the consequences of our actions is extremely complex, a result of multiple interacting drivers, and a healthy dose of stochasticity that will require highly sophisticated systems and tools to ensure the accuracy of our predications. For example, if you ask the relatively simple question -- have human activities warmed the earth? -- the answer has required a huge investment in human intellectual capital, highly advanced systems models, and a decade’s long debate to [almost?] reach consensus!

The Issue

The reconciliation of human dominance of the earth’s natural resources with the planet’s ability to provide these resources over the long-term.

NRC 2002

Humankind is not living sustainably. We extract resources (goods and services) from the ecosystems that surround us - those that we are an integral part of - faster than they can be replaced. Consequently, our actions threaten the very life support systems that sustain us.

Central Challenges to the Transition

Defining what is to be sustained, and how to get there:

  • Life Support Systems with emphasis on the provision of ecological goods and services (Natural Capital)
  • Nature with Emphasis on Sustaining Ecosystems for their Own Intrinsic Value (Ecocentric)
  • Community, vested in local cultures, and specific places (Social Capital)
  • Social Learning, vested in the slow, interactive accumulation of scientific knowledge, technical capacity, management institutions, and public concern over extended periods (generations); societies must understand the long-term, large-scale trends and transitions that have shaped past and present interactions of environment and development.

The Solution

The sustainability transition will Balance human needs with the ability of ecosystems to provide the goods and services that we all depend on. Equilibrium can be attained either by increasing those goods and services or by reducing our consumption of them. In today’s world, we must do both!

The Sustainability "Equation"



  • Biodiversity
  • Ecosystem Resilience
  • Habitat Complexity
  • Few Invasive Taxa


  • Hazard Mitigation
  • Buffering Core Technologies
  • Ecosystem Health
  • Environmental Justice
  • Recreation & Aesthetics
  • Engineering Resilience
Sustainability Equation Info-Graphic
Increasing Goods and ServicesReducing Human Demand (“Greening”)
Conservation & Preservation Land Use Planning
Ecosystem-Based Management Alterative Energy Development
Adaptive Management Energy Conservation and Efficiency
Habitat Rehabilitation, Restoration & Enhancement Reducing Greenhouse Gases
Conservation Recycling
Rebuilding Fisheries Sustainable Agriculture & Aquaculture
Conserving Biodiversity Environmental Awareness (Social Learning)
Contaminant Reduction, etc Invasive Species Management
  Social and Environmental Justice

Manage Ourselves and we can Manage the Earth!


Any transition toward sustainability must consider the dynamics evolution and interplay of social, economic and natural systems ultimately combined into and across disciplines, or transdisciplinary1 , and integrated perspective. The process goes beyond individual stakeholders and themes – populations, economy, water, food, energy, and climate – to identification of common threads, and drivers of systemic change. Citizens must better understand that achieving sustainability is an open and iterative process inclusive of science, policy and public participation. Choosing among alternative development scenarios will require new and/or enhanced skills in conflict resolution and consensus building.

1 overarching scientific and practical approach, transcending and crossing disciplines and professions, aiming together towards a common system goal ... achieved by closely interwoven cooperation between many fields of knowledge…

Naveh 2002

But We Must Understand the Consequences of Our Actions!

As the world changes, decision makers and the scientific community increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to resolve the persistent sustainability problems we face, but are in fact causing them.

Sterman 2002

Our well intentioned efforts with global initiatives, environmental “summits” and dialogue to confront environmental issues not only fail to solve sustainability issues, but often provoke reactions, and feedbacks, that become tomorrow’s problems. This is referred to as Policy Resistance (Sterman 2002), the tendency for interventions to be defeated by the response of the system to the intervention itself. As we invoke “green technology” as the panacea for the world’s sustainability ills, these same words become powerful sponsors of advice and caution.

The Nascent Field of Sustainability Science

The study of the interactions of humans and their environment, and the ability of the former to maintain those interactions along sustainable trajectories:

It has become increasingly clear that much of the workings of the world, and the challenges and opportunities these workings entail for a transition to sustainability lie in the interactions among environmental issues and human activities that have previously been treated as largely separate and distinct… in the next decade we will see research/[education] and problem-solving shift in focus from single issues to multiple interacting stresses.

US National Research Council

Sustainability science seeks real world solutions to sustainability issues and aims to break down artificial and outdated disciplinary gaps between the natural and social sciences through the creation of new knowledge and its practical application to decision making. It encompasses the overarching question: at multiple scales and over succeeding generations, how can the earth, its ecosystems and its people interact toward the mutual benefit and sustenance of both? The answer not only lies in the integrative nature of sustainability science, but it also rests in the technology transfer of new findings to practical uses; e.g., can new products and processes that result in less environmental harm be designed by the technological system? Changes in higher education that nurture the emergence of sustainability science research and education are on the horizon.

The Opportunity

There is growing opportunity to address the sustainability equation by combining an ecological lens with social and economic understanding at different scales governing the flows and cycles of critical resources. New ecosystem models that place people in the landscape, address the complexities of ecosystems characterized by their emergent properties, multi-scale interactions, nonlinearities, unexpected behaviors, and self organization are required. Because such systems are thermodynamically open, are often composed of diverse components that interact non-linearly, are often characterized by hierarchical organization, delayed response and feed-back loops, and frequently exhibit extensive temporal-spatial heterogeneity. Consequently, new approaches in spatial modeling to capture the mosaic of human environmental interactions are evolving to address these properties.

The PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies (ISS) will pursue relevant research and provide enhanced student training in sustainability science and related transdisciplinary coursework. It will serve as a platform and forum for airing sustainability issues in the community and through conducting community outreach to address current and future anticipated conflicts facing New Jersey’s economy.

It is anticipated that the ISS will become a leading home for ongoing and new research in sustainability science and offer a valuable resource for local stakeholders, coastal managers, municipalities, state resource agencies, legislators, business, industry or private sectors, other decision makers and the public.

Core Questions (“Drivers”) for the ISS

  1. How do we combine applications of the natural sciences and human dimensions to manage urban ecosystems such as the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area watershed and harbor?
  2. How do we apply sustainability science to better understand the interactions of multiple stressors in this regional environment?
  3. How can independent scholarship (research, observation, assessment, etc) and decision making be better integrated into policy formulation, adaptive management and social learning in the region?
  4. How do we strike a balance between the capacity for ecosystem services and human needs?
  5. What determines the vulnerability or ecosystem resilience of the regional, place-based, nature-society system, particularly for human livelihoods?
  6. How can current operational systems for monitoring and reporting environmental and social conditions be extended to provide more useful guidance for the sustainability transition?