Call for Papers

Uncomfortable knowledge in sustainability science: Essays in honour of David Pimentel (1925 – 2019)

Sustainability science is going through a profound crisis. While the number of scientific publications in the field is exponentially increasing, tangible improvements in the sustainability of human development are yet to be achieved.  The clash of reductionism against the complexity of environmental sciences and the systemic choice of funding “politically correct” research aimed at maintaining the status quo, play an important role in the relatively poor impact of sustainability science. To get out of the impasse, sustainability science requires a more holistic approach that recognizes the complex nature of social-ecological systems, as well as more courage to embark on transdisciplinary research that, when needed, challenges politically sensitive environmental issues.       

David Pimentel (1925 – 2019) was a pioneer in the field of sustainability science (for a biography see (scientist)). His work stands out for its breadth and timeliness. Professor of entomology and agroecology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences of Cornell University (USA), David Pimentel published more than 500 scientific articles and book chapters, 3 monographs, and 34 edited books spanning a broad range of environmental issues related to socio-economic development.  In 1999, together with Luc Hens and Bhaskar Nath, he founded the multi-disciplinary journal Environment, Development and Sustainability (which guests this Special Issue).

 Most of David Pimentel’s research addressed wicked environmental problems related to the sustainability of human development, such as pesticide use (e.g., Pimentel and Lehman, 1993), biological control (e.g., Pimentel, 1968, 2002), soil erosion (e.g., Pimentel et al., 1995), loss of biodiversity (Pimentel et al., 1997), genetic engineering (e.g., Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996), alternative farming practices (e.g., Pimentel et al., 2005; Paoletti et al., 2011), biofuels and biomass energy (e.g., Pimentel et al., 1981; Giampietro et al., 1997; Pimentel and Patzek, 2005), energy dependence of the food system (e.g., Pimentel and Pimentel, 1979; Giampietro & Pimentel, 1991), and the relation between population growth and limited natural resources (e.g., Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003, 2006). To address these problems, David Pimentel used common sense combined with relatively simple quantitative reality checks rather than complicated models. In this sense, he may be considered an early exponent of ‘quantitative storytelling’ (; Cadillo-Benalcazar et al., 2021).  His vast knowledge across different scientific fields and his infallible intuition allowed him to bring “uncomfortable knowledge” to the attention of the scientific community and policy makers in a clear and unequivocal way. Note that we here use the term ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ as defined by Steve Rayner (2012): “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world … knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

Several decades after David Pimentel first drew attention to these issues, they are still on the front burner of sustainability discussions. He may therefore serve as an inspiration for young researchers in the field of sustainability science to broaden their view and embrace a more holistic and critical vision of the functioning of social-ecological systems and human development.


This special issue gathers contributions embracing transdisciplinarity in sustainability topics that build on and advance the work of the late David Pimentel and that explicitly relate to “uncomfortable knowledge” in sustainability narratives. The themes covered by the special issue include, but are not restricted to:

  • Impact of agriculture on natural resources and environment
  • Agroecology and pesticides
  • Biotechnology in agriculture
  • Biofuels and biomass energy
  • Energy use in the food system
  • Bioeconomics, agriculture and food system
  • Population pressure on agriculture and environment

Interested contributors are invited to submit a 500 words abstract to Tiziano Gomiero at <> and Sandra Bukkens at <> (both editors, please). The abstract should clearly indicate: (i) the sustainability problem covered; (ii) how it relates to David Pimentel’s work; and (iii) the uncomfortable knowledge associated with the topic.

Authors of selected abstracts will be invited to submit a full paper. The text of full papers should not exceed 7000 words (references excluded). Please format and reference your paper according to the journal’s requirements.

Acceptance of abstract does not guarantee publication. All manuscripts will go through a thorough peer review process, in line with the Environment, Development and Sustainability journal standard.

Lead Guest Editor

Mario Giampietro
ICREA professor, Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain

Guest Editors

Sandra G.F. Bukkens
Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain

Maurizio G. Paoletti
Retired professor, Department of Biology, University of Padova, Italy

Luc Hens
VITO - Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek, Belgium

Jingzheng Ren
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Hong Kong SAR, China

Tiziano Gomiero
Independent scholar, Mogliano Veneto, Italy

Deadline abstract submission (max 500 words):   15th June 2021
Notification of acceptance of abstracts:   30th June 2021
Full paper submission:    31st January 2022

How to submit?

Submit your article via Editorial Manager or by clicking on the Submit manuscript button on the home page of Environment, Development and Sustainability. Please check the Instructions for authors before submitting and select "S.I.: Uncomfortable knowledge in sustainability science: Essays in honour of David Pimentel (1925 – 2019)” as Article type. In general, manuscripts should be submitted in Word and not exceed 7000 words.

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