Between several academic disciplines and professional fields now in existence, we have the foundation of a science of sustainable human civilization. Economists have the theory of utility and the framework of cost-benefit analysis. Originally, “utility” was not exclusively about money. It was about whatever an individual person thinks are the main keys to living a good life. “Goodness” might be a better term than either utility or happiness, having the double meaning both of living a prosperous and comfortable life and living up to some ethical responsibility of being good to others. The current trends of “behavioral economics” and “science of happiness” are a step back in the right direction. People can make choices that are rational in terms of maximizing whatever it is they think is important in their own lives, whether or not that results in maximum money in their pockets. The basic idea of trying to identify and quantify all the costs and benefits of a given course of action is a sound one. Once we find ways of defining goals, costs, and benefits in terms other than money, we can use this theory to examine choices people make in many fields, from economics to politics to science and technology policy to sociology and crime.
For better or worse, economics is the single field we look to most to guide the course of our civilization. It is the accepted system science of our time. If the field of economics makes these course corrections, it will be on the path toward guiding society much better than it does now. However, it will need to drop its obsession with algebraic solutions to steady state mathematical problems. Economists tend to define problems in a way they know they can solve analytically (symbolically) using algebra and calculus. However, the real world is much too complex for this and it does not make sense to pick the problems to be solved on the basis of which ones can be simplified to the point that they have simple solutions. The economists’ beloved theory of discounting is not an adequate substitute for dealing with time as an actual variable, and anyway it is simply not intuitive enough to be used for decision making by most people.
Engineers have a better idea of how to write and solve equations adequately describing a system. Engineering is, in fact, the original system science. Most engineers, for example in my field of water resources, long ago abandoned analytical solutions to simple equations in favor of numerical approximations to more complex equations that can account for changes over distance and time. Only computers can do these computations, of course. Engineers try to understand a system and figure out what variables within the design of that system they can manipulate to make it function the way they want it to function, in service of some goal or set of goals. This framework of engineering problem solving could be the savior of civilization, except that engineering as typically practiced tends to define the system of interest, the time frame of interest, and the goals to be accomplished much too narrowly.
Another discipline that appropriates many of the best features of engineering system thinking (although they don’t credit engineers, they think they thought of it) is the self-styled system thinking discipline and the dynamic system modeling approach they recommend. This discipline has shown how to apply dynamic system modeling to diverse fields ranging from engineering to economics to public policy. There is a school of ecologists who advocate and practice a similar brand of system thinking, but there are also many ecologists focused on very narrow problems and simply describing what they see in nature.
So, in summary, the economists have a good framework but use the wrong tools. Engineers have the right tools but often lack the imagination to apply them to the right problems. The system thinkers have the right idea in terms of how to formulate problems broadly, set big goals, and think long term. They also have some good tools that economists desperately need to adopt, and might make some engineering work easier.
What could be the discipline that integrates all these fields into a true science of solving 21st-century problems? Maybe the self-styled system thinkers, although they have been trying with limited success to gain traction for decades. Maybe social scientists, who have been pretty much pushed out of the way by economists when it comes to guiding social policy. Maybe the urban planning profession, which at its best can act as a bridge between the natural sciences, the social sciences, the business community, and the political system. Maybe the economics or engineering professions themselves, but not without major reforms from the way these academic disciplines and professional practices are conducted now.