I was invited to participate this week in a really great meeting sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The focus of the meeting was on the transition toward sustainability, and specifically, where we stand in advancing the scientific foundation that will be required for change.

I came away from the meeting with a bunch of ideas, based on comments from my colleagues, which are challenging how I think about sustainability, quality of life, and well-being. For example:

…We miss the bigger, systems-level picture if we think in terms of modifiers for sustainability. It’s not instructive — from the standpoint of progress toward a better world — to think about environmental sustainability or business sustainability or community sustainability. There’s just sustainability. Full stop.

Add to this the observation that our existing definitions of sustainability are becoming clumsy and antiquated. No longer is it just about three pillars: Environment, economy, and equity. Sustainability has more to do with the achievement of intergenerational and inclusive social well-being.

…Recent research tells us that universal education is a key to enhanced adaptation to the risks from global change. For example, the fastest way to reduce mortality from natural disasters worldwide is to educate women and girls. So, this begs the question: Why aren’t we spending more on funding teachers (and research on how to teach people more effectively), and a little bit less on funding engineered solutions?

…In order to enjoy a good quality of life, you actually have to be alive! Merely surviving is not enough. So, in demography, we should turn some of our attention away from international measures of life expectancy, and instead look more closely at constructs like “empowered life years” and “happy life expectancy”.

…There was a time in human history when we as a species were on the red list; Homo sapiens were pushed to the brink of extinction. To think that it can’t — or won’t — happen again is the height of arrogance.

…From the perspective of decision-making, it’s convenient to think about the triple-bottom-line as a function of tradeoffs between human, environmental, and economic well-being; in other words, the well-worn rhetoric of optimizing for people, planet, and profit. But, practically speaking, we have to ask: to what extent are most people really thinking about these tradeoffs? The sad reality is, probably not many. For most of us, it’s all about profit for people. And planet for people. We tend to be pretty selfish animals.

…And the big one: The reallocation of rights and well-being will be the most significant challenge standing in the way of progress toward sustainability. This reminds me of a quote from Robert F. Kennedy delivered in 1964 to the U.S. Conference of Mayors: “Progress is the nice word we like to use. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”

I also saw something else over the two days that I found fascinating; and, in light of a recent experience, it was more than just a little bit uplifting.

The people I spent two days with were some of the most recognizable and respected names from a variety of disciplines: ecology, economics, engineering, environmental health, geography, oceanography, sociology, etc. Also participating were representatives from government agencies, foundations, and non-profits.

The ideas they brought to the table were scholarly, and they were relevant to problems we face as a global village. At times, pointed critiques were offered, and debate ensued.

But, here’s the thing. The tone over our two days together was respectful and —importantly — hopeful. The focus of the conversations was always on how to combine perspectives to make other people’s lives healthier, safer, better. It was never about mounting an aggressive defense of our own ideas or, worse, trying to win an argument as a means of padding our own stature as scientists or as people.

All too often — and in all walks of life, including science — arrogance breeds ignorance.

Change may have its enemies. But they were nowhere to be found at this meeting.