In biophysical terms, humanity has never been moving faster nor further from sustainability than it is now. Our increasing population size and per capita impacts are severely testing the ability of Earth to provide for peoples’ most basic needs. Awareness of these circumstances has grown tremendously, as has the sophistication of efforts to address them. But the complexity of the challenge remains daunting. We explore prospects for transformative change in three critical areas of sustainable development: achieving a sustainable population size and securing vital natural capital, both in part through reducing inequity, and strengthening the societal leadership of academia.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 1987)
Levin, S. A. Science and sustainability. Ecol. Appl. 3, 545–546 (1993)
Fuentes, R. E. Scientific research and sustainable development. Ecol. Appl. 3, 576–577 (1993)
Johnston, P., Everard, M., Santillo, D. & Robèrt, K. Reclaiming the definition of sustainability. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. Int. 14, 60–66 (2007)
Holdren, J. P. Science and technology for sustainable well-being. Science 319, 424–434 (2008)
Daily, G. C. & Ehrlich, P. R. Socioeconomic equity, sustainability, and Earth’s carrying capacity. Ecol. Appl. 6, 991–1001 (1996)
Campbell, M., Cleland, J., Ezeh, A. & Prata, N. Return of the population growth factor. Science 315, 1501–1502 (2007)
Spence, M. The Next Convergence: The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011)
Ehrlich, P. R. & Holdren, J. Impact of population growth. Science 171, 1212–1217 (1971)Foundational discussion of population–consumption–environment interactions.
Commoner, B. The Closing Circle (Knopf, 1971)
International Energy Agency. Key World Energy Statistics (International Energy Agency, 2011)
Rosa, E. A., York, R. & Dietz, T. Tracking the anthropogenic drivers of ecological impacts. Ambio 333, 509–512 (2004)Social scientists expand IPAT to permit hypothesis testing.
Hall, C. A. S. & Day, J. W., Jr Revisiting the limits to growth after peak oil. Am. Sci. 97, 230–237 (2009)Re-examination shows original study to be essentially correct.
Daily, G. C. & Ehrlich, P. R. Population, sustainability, and Earth’s carrying capacity. Bioscience 42, 761–771 (1992)
Arrow, K. et al. Economic growth, carrying capacity, and the environment. Science 268, 520–521 (1995)
Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009)A framework for defining preconditions for human development to avoid critical thresholds of human impact on the environment.
Rees, W. E. in Encyclopedia of Biodiversity 2nd edn (ed. Levin. S. ) (Academic, 2011)
Dobbs, R., Oppenheim, J., Thompson, F., Brinkman, M. & Zornes, M. Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Materials, Food, and Water Needs (McKinsey Global Institute, 2011)
World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Vision 2050: The New Agenda for Business (WBCSD, 2010)
Barrett, S. Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003)
Liu, J. et al. Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science 317, 1513–1516 (2007)A framework and case studies for understanding complex patterns and dynamics of coupled human and natural systems.
Levin, S. A. et al. Resilience in natural and socioeconomic systems. Environ. Dev. Econ. 3, 221–262 (1998)
Folke, C. et al. Reconnecting to the biosphere. Ambio 40, 719–738 (2011)
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation (United Nations, 2011)
Klare, M. T. The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012)Excellent overview of declining marginal returns in resource extraction.
Thurow, L. Generating Inequaltiy: Mechanisms of Distribution in the U.S. Economy (Basic Books, 1975)
Walzer, M. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1984)
Frank, R. H. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (Univ. of California Press, 2007)
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Penguin, 2009)
May, R. M., Levin, S. & Sugihara, G. Ecology for bankers. Nature 451, 893–895 (2008)
Study of Critical Environmental Problems. Man’s Impact on the Global Environment (MIT Press, 1970)
Holdren, J. P. & Ehrlich, P. R. Human population and the global environment. Am. Sci. 62, 282–292 (1974)
Ehrlich, P. R. & Mooney, H. M. Extinction, substitution and ecosystem services. Bioscience 33, 248–254 (1983)
Polasky, S. et al. Where to put things? Spatial land management to sustain biodiversity and economic returns. Biol. Conserv. 141, 1505–1524 (2008)
Kareiva, P., Tallis, H., Ricketts, T. H., Daily, G. C. & Polasky, S. Natural Capital: Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011)
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis (Island, 2005)First global assessment of natural capital and ecosystem services.
Population Reference Bureau. 2011 World Population Data Sheet (Population Reference Bureau, 2011)
Lee, R. The outlook for population growth. Science 333, 569–573 (2011)
Harte, J. Human population as a dynamic factor in environmental degradation. Popul. Environ. 28, 223–236 (2007)
Potts, M. Where next? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3115–3124 (2009)
Sedgh, G., Hussain, R., Bankole, A. & Singh, S. Women with an unmet need for contraception in developing countries and their reasons for not using a method. Report No. 37 (Guttmacher Institute, 2007)
Bongaarts, J. Human population growth and the demographic transition. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2985–2990 (2009)
Singh, S., Sedgh, G. & Hussain, R. Unintended pregnancy: worldwide levels, trends, and outcomes. Stud. Fam. Plann. 41, 241–250 (2010)
Campbell, O. M. R. & Graham, W. J. Strategies for reducing maternal mortality: getting on with what works. Lancet 368, 1284–1299 (2006)
Lutz, W. & Samir, K. C. Global human capital: integrating education and population. Science 333, 587–592 (2011)
Hill, M. A. & King, E. M. Women’s education and economic well-being. Fem. Econ. 1, 21–46 (1995)
Brown, L. R. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (Norton, 2009)
Foley, J. A. et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011)
Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J. & Befort, B. L. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20260–20264 (2011)
Gleick, P. The World’s Water Vol. 7 (Island, 2012)
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)
World Health Organization. World Health Statistics 2011 (World Health Organization, 2011)
Daily, G. & Matson, P. Ecosystem services: from theory to implementation. Special feature. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 9455–9456 (2008)
Sukhdev, P. Costing the Earth. Nature 462, 277 (2009)
Perrings, C. et al. Ecosystem services for 2020. Science 330, 323–324 (2010)
Heal, G. Nature and the Marketplace: Capturing the Value of Ecosystem Services (Island, 2000)
Mäler, K.-G., Aniyar, S. & Jansson, A. Accounting for ecosystem services as a way to understand the requirements for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 9501–9506 (2008)
Dasgupta, P. The Place of Nature in Economic Development 4977–5046 (Elsevier, 2010)Integrating natural capital into mainstream economics.
Daily, G. C. et al. The value of nature and the nature of value. Science 289, 395–396 (2000)
Balmford, A. et al. Economic reasons for preserving biodiversity. Science 297, 950–953 (2002)
NRC (National Research Council). Valuing Ecosystem Services: Toward Better Environmental Decision-Making (National Academy Press, 2005)
Kinzig, A. P. et al. Paying for ecosystem services: promise and peril. Science 334, 603–604 (2011)
Chapin, F. S., III et al. Ecosystem stewardship: sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 241–249 (2010)
Daily, G. C. & Ellison, K. The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable (Island, 2002)
Pagiola, S., Arcenas, A. & Platais, G. Can payments for environmental services help reduce poverty? An exploration of the issues and the evidence to date from Latin America. World Dev. 33, 237–253 (2005)
Mace, G., Norris, K. & Fitter, A. Biodiversity and ecosystem services: a multilayered relationship. Trends Ecol. Evol. 27, 19–26 (2012)
Tallis, H., Goldman, R., Uhl, M. & Brosi, B. Integrating conservation and development in the field: implementing ecosystem service projects. Frontiers (Boulder) 7, 12–20 (2009)
Goldman-Benner, R. et al. Water funds and PES: practice learns from theory and theory can learn from practice. Oryx 46, 55–63 (2012)
Liu, J., Li, S., Ouyang, Z., Tam, C. & Chen, X. Ecological and socioeconomic effects of China’s policies for ecosystem services. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 9489–9494 (2008)
Li, J., Feldman, M., Li, S. & Daily, G. C. Rural household income and inequality under payment for ecosystem services: The Sloping Land Conversion Program in Western China. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 7721–7726 (2011)
Li, J. et al. Rural Household Livelihoods and Environmental Sustainability in the West of China (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2012)
Ostrom, E. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009)Foundation for integrating social and ecological dimensions of sustainability.
Shandra, J. M., Shandra, C. L. & London, B. Women, non-governmental organizations and deforestation: a cross-national study. Popul. Environ. 30, 48–72 (2008)
Agarwal, B. Gender and forest conservation: the impact of women’s participation in community forest governance. Ecol. Econ. 68, 2785–2799 (2009)
Blackden, C. M. & Wodon, Q. Gender, Time-Use, and Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2006)
Ergas, C. & York, R. Women’s status and carbon dioxide emissions: a quantitative cross-national analysis. Soc. Sci. Res.. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.03.008 (17 March 2012)
National Academy of Sciences USA. in Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies (National Academy Press, 1993)
Union of Concerned Scientists. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993)
Miller, C. Hybrid management: boundary organizations, science policy, and environmental governance in the climate regime. Sci. Technol. Human Values 26, 478–500 (2001)
Kindon, S., Pain, R. & Kesby, M. Participatory Action Research: Approaches and Methods (Routledge, 2007)
Cottam, H. Participatory systems. http://hir.harvard.edu/big-ideas/participatory-systems (Harvard International Review, 2010)
Cash, D. et al. Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 8086–8091 (2003)
Clark, W., William, C., Mitchell, R. & Cash, D. in Global Environmental Assessments: Information and Influence (eds Mitchell, R., Clark, W., Cash, D. & Dickson, N. ) Ch. 1 15–23 (MIT Press, 2006)
Clark, W. C. & Dickson, N. M. Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 8059–8061 (2003)
Matson, P. A. The sustainability transition. Issues Sci. Technol. 25, 39–42 (2009)
Weitzman, M. L. On modeling and interpreting the economics of catastrophic climate change. Rev. Econ. Stat. 91, 1–19 (2009)
Turner, G. M. A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Glob. Environ. Change 18, 397–411 (2008)
Kates, R. W., Parris, T. M. & Leiserowitz, A. A. What is sustainable development? Goals, indicator, values, and practice. Environ. Sci. Pol. Sustain. Dev. 47, 8–21 (2005)
Ariely, D. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition (HarperCollins, 2009)
Ehrlich, P. R. & Ornstein, R. E. Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010)
Cialdini, R. B. Influence: Science and Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 2008)
Fishkin, J. S. The televised deliberative poll: an experiment in democracy. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 546, 132–140 (1996)
Harff, B. No lessons learned from the Holocaust? Assessing risks of genocide and political mass murder since 1955. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 97, 57–73 (2003)
Diamond, J. & Robinson, J. A. Natural Experiments of History (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010)
Aronson, E. & Patnoe, S. Cooperation in the Classroom: The Jigsaw Method 3rd edn (Pinter & Martin, 2010)
Perrow, C. The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton Univ. Press, 2007)
Lakoff, G. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green, 2004)
Westley, F. et al. Tipping towards sustainability: emerging pathways of transformation. Ambio 40, 762–780 (2011)
Wheeler, D. Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change: Implications for Adaptation Assistance (Center for Global Development, 2011)
Holdren, J. P. Population and the energy problem. Popul. Environ. 12, 231–255 (1991)
We are indebted to the following colleagues who were kind enough to give useful criticism: K. Arrow, P. Dasgupta, L. Goulder, R. Horn, D. Karp, S. Levin, C. Mendenhall, H. Mooney, P. Raven, E. Rosa, M. Ruckelshaus and H. Tallis. We are grateful for support from the LuEsther T Mertz Charitable Trust, the Moore Foundation, the Winslow Foundation, and Peter and Helen Bing.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Ehrlich, P., Kareiva, P. & Daily, G. Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization. Nature 486, 68–73 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11157
Trends in Plant Science (2020)
Ecological Economics (2020)
Reducing global environmental inequality: Determining regional quotas for environmental burdens through systems optimisation
Journal of Cleaner Production (2020)
People and Nature (2020)