Report: 01 Professor Motoharu Onuki

What shall we do at “Sustainability Science”?


Note: An important purpose of the SUSTAIN.CAFE is to provide an opportunity for casual & informal discussion on sustainability. This means that emphasis is placed not on the academic accuracy of the discussion but on sharing the personal opinions & feelings we each have.

The first SUSTAIN.CAFE was held on May 29th, 2012. The speaker was Project Associate Professor Motoharu Onuki, from the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science (GPSS), Graduate School of Frontier Sciences.

Having a background in water environmental engineering, Professor Onuki specializes in sustainability education and has lead development of the Asian Program for Incubation of Environmental Leaders (APIEL). The title of his talk was “What shall we do at Sustainability Science?”. He shared his experience and thoughts through the 6-years he has been involved in the GPSS program.

He began his talk with his understanding of the definition of sustainable development. He described how developed and developing countries had mixed reactions to the often cited definition by the Brundtland Commission (“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”). Drawing on the Millennium Development Goals, he mentioned that “development” should be “human development” and that “human development” should be sustained while sustaining the life support systems of the Earth. He positioned “sustainability science” as a response to such challenge as proposed by Kates et al. (2001) and Clark et al. (2003).

He then talked about his thoughts on “sustainability science”. He feels that in the GPSS student seminar (a weekly seminar where students in the GPSS program present about their research), the two most important things are: 1) Clearly expressing your thoughts to others who have completely different backgrounds from yours and 2) Having wide interest in a variety of fields which may not be your speciality but is important for sustainability. He feels that, if you can explain the importance or the social significance of your research to others, anything can be studied under “sustainability science” and that the ability to find and define the most important question for yourself is extremely important.

“For me… Ultimately, sustainability science is sociology”.

Professor Onuki talked about how he sees sustainability science as sociology, not resource management or environmental economics, however important they are. Sociology can cover many different topics but is focused on studying the “relationships” between people, organizations, etc.. Research methods employed by sociologists such as reviewing documents, conducting social surveys & interviews and drawing your own conclusions from them is very similar to what researchers studying sustainability science do. “But this is still not quite academic, so I cannot make a lecture on it!” His “disclaimer” attracted much laughter and nods in agreement.

To close his introductory talk, he showed the graph of the world population from AD 0 to 2005. The sharp increase in population since the industrial revolution was a stark contrast to the relatively constant population of the past several thousand years. Referring to the logistic curve, he described how, when a certain population reaches a certain point, limits of its environment will push the population to reach a saturation point. This applies to the growth of some organisms and plants. However, maintaining such a saturation depends on multiple factors. The modified logistic curve postulates that there may be factors which make population decrease after reaching its peak, resulting in a gradual or sometimes catastrophic decline. This is a more typical ecology for some species and maybe true for humans as well?

The world population exceeded 7 billion and is still growing. When the human population was limited, the impact of human activity was small; the environmental capacity of the earth was more than enough. Now, for the first time in history, human society is nearing the environmental capacity of the planet itself. This is why many say that this is a rare, first-time experience for human beings and that sustainability science should be related to this period.

“But is this really so? Is this really a first-time experience for human beings?”

This was Professor Onuki’s question for further discussion.

>> What do you think? Share your opinions by commenting on this post!

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