Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability

What is sustainability?

Sustainability pervades a lot of our talk these days. But what does it mean and how can we think about it? Pims Martens writes, “Whoever says he knows what ‘sustainability’ is, in all probability does not.” We recognize that the term’s prevalence can water it down. But we also know that it has real teeth in both concept and in practice.

Penn State defines sustainability as the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations. There are many others. A quick perusal of sustainability literature yields millions of hits on the internet and thousands of slight variations on the term sustainability. Versions in wide use in different circles include the World Commission on Environment and Development’s needs-based transgenerational “sustainable development,” the triple bottom line or three pillars of economy, society, and environment. The Penn State definition more or less a merges these two dominant definitions. But these are far from the end of the story.

John Ehrenfeld points us to “the possibility that humans and all life will flourish on Earth forever.” Richard Heinberg developed five axioms of sustainability which focus on “critical resources” while the Natural Step takes a similar approach with its framework of four rules. David Orr has crafted a version by contrasting “ecological sustainability” opposed to “technological sustainability,” an approach that resonates with debates over “strong” and “weak” sustainability in economics [see diagram at left].

These definitions indicate some important things. We recognize that we have inherited a world influenced by our ancestors’ actions and beliefs and that our actions and beliefs will impact our descendants’ world. We also recognize that those actions take place across different scales from the microscopic to global and that everything is interconnected including our economies, societies, and the natural environments in which we all live. This sense of interconnection means that we have some kind of moral duty to justice, care, virtue, or utility. Finally, because we live in a society formed by institutions of government, business, education, and more, we know that the health of our societies and economies means that we need people who can effectively work and interact within those institutions. So whether we think about anthropogenic climate change, energy, and community development or agricultural systems, soil health, and the availability of fresh water, sustainability concepts and practices will be relevant. [To learn more keep reading or consult our “Resources” section.]

Consider systems: individual organisms, populations, ecosystems, biomes, or states or nations. In a changing world there are two options: sustainability (through continued adaptation or migration) or extinction. Of course there is a continuum from healthy sustainability to mere persistence above critical thresholds. So when we wonder about sustainabiltiy, we can ask not just what we are sustaining, but how and why we are sustaining it as well.

DotEarth blogger Andrew Revkin puts it this way: “Sustain what? Sustainability as a word is utterly vague until you apply it to a specific issue—sustainable ecosystem, sustainable energy system, sustainable transportation system, sustainable lifestyle. Then you can kind of get an answer.” We can–and ought to–ask “Sustain what? For who? How?” Such a question has prompted the concept of “just sustainabilities” which calls for improving our quality of life and well-being, intra- and inter- generational equity, justice and equity in terms of recognition while living within ecosystem limits.

We hope that through exploring the assignments and resources we have set up in The Field Guide, that you will be find effective ways to conceive of sustainability for yourself, your peers, and most importantly your students. We hope you will be able to answer the question, “Sustain what?” with more resources and options.