A conceptual foundation for teaching "Sustainability" courses

Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

triangleAlmost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability. Sometimes these three concepts are depicted as overlapping circles.


These common and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 


We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

We might see our individual self as a part of something bigger, lets call it the “family-self”, which is part of a”community-self” etc.  Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider?”


For some I suspect it might be the study of the ecology.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?


What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment   For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

9 thoughts on “A conceptual foundation for teaching "Sustainability" courses”

  1. Hello John. For me, sustainability applies to a wider perspective (e.g. financial), so any framework should be able to cope with that. The common factor is maintaining systems within limits/budgets so I would always base a discussion in that context. For example, agriculture uses soil but to be sustainable must do so in a way that doesn't exceed the limits of soil fertility. Conversely, the farm has a financial budget that likewise cannot be exceeded in order to be sustainable.

  2. I could (speculatively) go further and claim that a common property of complex systems is that once you start to exceed certain limits or boundaries they begin to breakdown, or as you say "become sick". A spiritual approach to this for me would be the linking of the maintenence of healthy personal boundaries to those of the systems around us.

  3. Thanks John. For me, it all boils down to the concept of interdependence or, better yet, "inter-being" — a word coined by the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. How can we live and work and TEACH from a place that recognizes our fundamental connections with each other and the planet? This is a very different "story" than what is being told within academia, business, and governments today, but I believe it is the larger reality that subsumes the economy, society and environment in your diagrams. The sooner we recognize this the better! I look forward to your Sustainability Studies Seminar next week.

  4. I appreciate the conceptualization of sustainablilty you have presented. That gives me a good foundation to begin thinking more about the whole concept. I also like the balance John Kazer's and Daniel Greenberg's comments present.

  5. Enjoyed your article. And although I've spent ample time in education, I still struggle with models, in particular when they simplify concepts to the point of meaninglessness – and especially when they present things in separation, or as if there is only a wee intersect. Perhaps that has more to do with the way I see and understand things. If we have to keep making models, however, the circles within circles make more sense, and presents the reliance of one aspect upon the other, with the environment as the life-giving force at the base, (that's my interpretation anyway). That presentation also returns our thinking to the circles (and cycles) in life – which I think is imperative to ensuring our own sustainability.

    You might also appreciate watching the video found in the link below. It is a speech made at the International Permaculture Conference in Jordan (2011) by Warren Brush – a Permaculturist, Peace Activist, Storyteller and all around golden human being. He also speaks of the importance of circles and expounds on sustainability and peace in a powerful way. Take a look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embed… If that doesn't work, search for Warren Brush, Permaculture and Peacemaking in a Thirsty World.

  6. I've taken a very strict and critical view of what is sustainable at the risk of being labeled a purist. Many of the early critics of sustainability who have co-opted the word and symbolism appear to want to sustain the current system or maintain long-term trends in the consumption of natural resources. It is unpopular to question as given the economic system or current population levels, yet I do not see how either could be considered sustainable.

    So much of what is taught as 'sustainability' is really a form of greenwashing. In my own field of agricultural economics, I do not see how any system that relies on non-renewable resources such as natural gas and petroleum could possibly be labeled 'sustainable.' Yet departments teach that food grown with synthetic fertilizers, petrochemical pesticides and fossil-fuel driven equipment is just that.

    Sure, people have to make a living, but that is an anthropocentric view. As unpopular as it may be, I still think Malthus and Darwin were onto something, and Jared Diamond's Collapse also tells stories of our hubris. Technological advances buy us time and enable us to grow the population as long as the non-renewable resources and carrying capacity of the environment holds out. We are simply deferring a bigger collapse at a later date.

    Providing for current generations does not necessarily ensure that the needs of future generations can be met and indeed every economic system does not take into account the demands that future generations will have, let alone the needs of other species. When forced to choose between the present and the future, the here and now wins every time and economy and society say to hell with future generations and species that don't directly benefit us.

    So, I get marginalized as a tree-hugging, Gaia worshipping misanthrope. I may not be as spiritual as you are, John, but I definitely agree with you that sustainability going beyond the 'triple bottom line' and the economy, society and the environment.

  7. "Sustainable" has fallen victim to exploitation, corruption and down right naive foolishness. I'm waiting for the usda certified Sustainable label. Similar to what happened to "all natural", "organic", "green" etc. And now higher ed. is capitalizing on the term. How many thousands of dollars must one spend to be " taught ?" about sustainability. How many unsustainable conferences on "sustainability" must we "drive"to. Much of which talks mostly about unsustainability. The best, possibly only qualified teacher of sustainability is Mother nature. We live in her classroom. Her lessons are free and truly sustainable. Hey, maybe we need a course on an introduction to Mother nature 101!
    I've seen farmers accomplish some pretty incredible systems with their close connection with their environment.

  8. I have yet another model for considering sustainability.
    Imagine a house:
    Soil = Environment
    Foundation =Economy
    Rooms = Society
    Roof = Meaning System
    If the Environment is in poor condition, you will have a shoddy foundation (Economy). With a bad foundation, the walls that protect our Society will crumble. And without a good roof (Meaning System) over our heads, we’ll get soaking wet, and eventually the whole thing falls apart. The Meaning System is very important, without it, human sustainability will crumble, and only the environment will be left.
    This may seem like a hierarchical perspective of sustainability, but it also demonstrates a directional relationship where nothing functions without the other… except for maybe the environment itself.

    1. A year later and I still reference this entry frequently! Each time, something new sticks out to me It really helps me articulate my passion for systems thinking in a loving way. And I’ve always admired how smoothly you link everything and how easy to navigate your blog/external reference articles! Thank you, John!

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