Understanding complex and adaptive socio-ecological systems (SES) to deal with our most challenging and overlapping problems such as global climate change, biodiversity loss, and rising consumption rates requires sustainability theory that is commensurate with these problems’ size and complexity. The received United Nations-based sustainability framework aims to achieve a balance among three pillars—economics, environment, and social equity—for today and for future generations. Yet, despite applying this sustainability framework for over a quarter of a century, the Earth is less sustainable, not more. Theoretical trade-offs between environmental conservation and economic growth have often reinforced business-as-usual practices and educational paradigms, and emphasized economic values over ecological limits.
How can the principles of foundational naturalists help clarify, enhance, and advance sustainability discourse? I propose that the principles of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), Rachel Carson (1907-1964), and Edward O. Wilson (1927-), express a worldview that captures and integrates a range and depth of historical, normative, economic, ecological, scientific, and social values for a viable and applicable discourse of sustainability.
This analytical study relies on (i.) textual analysis and interpretation of four key naturalists and humanists, (ii.) analysis of secondary sources that illuminate their proto- ecological and sustainability principles, and (iii.) interviews with leading sustainability scholars. Because these thinkers integrate science and ethics, natural history and philosophy, ecology and society, and environmental and economic problems within a holistic worldview, I call them systems naturalists. Their transdisciplinary worldview of one holistic system, with economics subordinated to environmental limits, links important values from the natural sciences and the humanities. The writings and examples of systems naturalists provide more robust historical sustainability principles that can help solve our most challenging SES problems by synthesizing a broad range of knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities to inform sustainability paradigm, practices, and pedagogy.