Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. By Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press. $35.00. xi + 231 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 978-0-691-15761-0. 2016.
Sustainability in its modern incarnation is often regarded as a European phenomenon with roots in the concept of sustained yield in French and German forestry. However, before these European antecedents were rediscovered, the North American frontier was closing and the settlers were forced to face one another and work out how to live in a land with newly discovered limits. In the late 19th and early 20th century sustainability became an American question through the efforts of George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold.
In the second half of the 20th century sustainability became a global challenge with the launch of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s 1987 report for the United Nations titled Our Common Future. It has since been adopted by different academic disciplines and sectors of the economy from agriculture to energy and health care to corporate reporting. The downside of this wide embrace is that sustainability has become a fragmented concept, often compromised, at times hijacked, and occasionally astroturfed. Sustainability continues to be reinvented, most recently as ecomodernism ([Editorial]. 2015. Nature 520:407– 408), and dismissed by some as ineffective until there is root and branch reform of human values and institutions.
In Pursuing Sustainability, Matson et al. have done a great service for both students and practitioners by drawing together the disparate sectoral interests and academic concerns across land and water, food and energy, wealth, equity, and corporate responsibility. In the process they make sense of its fragmented history by presenting sustainability not as an argument but a conversation. Arguably the conversation of our times.
The authors achieve this through a simple device introduced in Chapter 2 that provides the book with its theory and structure. This framework is based on the conversion of the five capitals (human, natural, manufactured, knowledge, and social) into the constituents of well-being (material needs, health and education, opportunity, security, and community) through the agency of individuals and institutions.
In addition to its logical structure, two other features make this volume a valuable primer in sustainability. The first is the selection of case studies used to illustrate the complexity that arises when principles intersect in different settings. The second is the succinct, straightforward style. The effect is a broad and highly accessible survey that reveals sustainability as a social and environmental phenomenon, a set of objectives rather than destinations that are influenced as much by history, culture, and politics as biology and the physical environment. The case studies of a city (London), a region (Mexico’s Yaqui Valley), a country (Nepal), and a global treaty (The Montreal Protocol) have been carefully selected to illustrate how sustainability is shaped by time, space, and the needs and interests of every level of human organization from the subsistence family to the United Nations.
Through its elucidation of principles and real-world examples, this volume serves as both a guide to our evolving understanding of sustainability and a practical, diagnostic tool. Beyond its subject matter, the thoughtful structure and clear writing make this a model for textbooks in any discipline.