SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE by Bert J. M. de Vries

Reviewed by Peder Hjorth, Lund University, Sweden

An important and well-documented book. A very helpful guide to sustainable development and sustainability science.

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Sustainability Science, by Bert J. M. de Vries, Cambridge University Press, 2013

This book provides one of the best explanations yet of the origins and meaning of sustainable development. Quoting Seneca (3 BC – 63 AD), de Vries writes: “The society of man is like a wall of stones, which would fall if the stones did not rest on another; in this way it is sustained.” The book puts the problems of sustainable development in context, providing case examples, discussing the trajectory the concept has taken to reach the current moment, and highlighting the thinking behind it.

The book clearly states that a scientific worldview by itself cannot give meaning to our lives; nor can it resolve the ethical questions surrounding sustainability. Sustainability science has a more limited scope than sustainable development. Essentially, it is the study of what science can and cannot know. Even if thermodynamics, system dynamics and complexity theory are designated essential components of sustainability science, and it is based on the premise that studies of real-world problems must not respect the confines of artificial nineteenth-century boundaries among scientific disciplines, sustainability science can only illuminate part of what we need to know. Current complexity and uncertainty require a realistic appreciation of the predictive and explanatory powers of science and models.

Questions regarding what we ought to do are outside the scope of sustainability science, although the book opens up a panorama of possible directions we might take, offering multiple options for reflection and discussion. The discussion of sustainable development should be required reading for all university students. The section on sustainability science is much more demanding and is only suitable for students at an advanced level with strong science background. An experienced teacher prepared to jump between traditional disciplines would do well to incorporate this book into his or her classes.

The author focuses on renewable and non-renewable resources as well as the essentials of earth, land, nature and agro-industrial systems. At the end of each chapter, there are relevant book references and websites. The best news is that book has been “field-tested” for seven years. I highly recommend it.


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