Teaching Toward Sustainability
The CEP offers the following definitions of key sustainability concepts for instructors who may be new to sustainability, or as starting points for classroom activities (e.g., inviting students to analyze, critique, conduct further research).
A sustainable action is one that operates within the inherent limits of the economic, social, and environmental resources it draws upon, while adequately meeting its intended purpose (Farley et al., 2013/2020). All actions, like production and consumption, rely on the use of resources. These resources are limited by their initial availability, rate of consumption, and rate of regeneration. Economic and social resources are not only limited by their inherent bounds of regeneration and depletion, but also by the carrying capacity of the earth (Farley et al., 2013/2020). Furthermore, sustainable actions equitably distribute resources without trying to expand their limits, adequately providing energy, food, and jobs without harming the Earth or its communities.
Sustainable systems are networks of sustainable actions. A sustainable system is circular and regenerative, operating from production to consumption without waste. Consumption remains at levels that can be supported, products are reused, and anything that cannot be reused is recycled into new products. As Professor Sandra Goldmark of Barnard College explains, “[J]ust like in the natural world, every by-product or outcome of any process gets fed back into another process. There’s no material that is ever considered unused” (Smith, 2021).
UN Brundtland Definition
Sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN Brundtland Commission, 1987). Sustainability is at its core a systems-based and interdisciplinary approach that aims to protect the environment while strengthening communities and supporting economic prosperity (Environmental Protection Agency). The relationship between the environmental, social, and economic pillars has also become a dominant approach for defining sustainability and the interconnected impacts of climate change. The following diagrams represent some of the most common approaches for visualizing these three pillars of sustainability.
Critiques of the UN Brundtland Definition
Though central to contemporary understandings of sustainability, the UN Brundtland definition and three-pillar framework have also prompted a range of scholarly debate, including critiques that the Brundtland report assumes a capitalist modernity as its starting point (Escobar, 1995) and problematically confounds the difference between ecology and economy (Santamarina, 2016). Along similar lines, Hudler et all write that "sustainability efforts that place an ‘emphasis on the economy and environment’ have dominated applications of sustainability and sustainable development," making it "harder for people to understand how the environment and social sustainability are interrelated" (2021, p. 80).
Teaching the Debate
At the CEP, we draw from UN Brundtland’s definition as a foundation and starting point, while also leaving open the possibility that instructors and students may wish to (re)define sustainability and environmental justice through their own methods and in reference to emerging scholarship. We see dissensus within the scholarship, like dissensus in a classroom, as productive of learning. In teaching the debate, and asking students to trace the concept of sustainability in the scholarship, including scholars' resistances to the appropriation of sustainability to economic interests, could support the development of students' research skills while revealing for them the relationship between scholarship and activism.
Systems thinking is increasingly recognized as a vital approach in understanding sustainability and climate change, because it offers an interdisciplinary and de-siloed paradigm for exploring the interconnected nature of the environmental, social, and economic worlds (Ballew et al, 2019, p. 8214). In "Sustainability: If it’s everything, is it nothing?," Farley and Smith offer a useful articulation of this interdependence at the core of systems thinking: “We do not have environmental problems per se,” they write. “We have environmental consequences resulting from the way we have designed our business, social, economic, and political systems” (2013, p. 178).
Systems Thinking at Barnard
Barnard’s Climate Action Vision, the result of a campus-wide collaborative effort from 2016-2018, recognizes the impact of climate change across “all realms of social, ecological, and economic activity” and calls for “solutions [. . .] from a wide range of disciplines” (2019). Systems thinking is especially applicable to engaged pedagogy because it encourages interdisciplinary thinking and lays the foundation for an intersectional understanding of the impacts of climate change.
Intersectional sustainability argues that environmental injustices impact individuals and communities differently based on mutually informing systems of oppression, including racial marginalization, class differences, gendered discrimination, poverty, and inaccessibility and discrimination structured within the built and social environment. It is an emerging framework among climate action groups and departments and shares a critical vocabulary with Leah Thomas’s Intersectional Environmentalist (2022). Though these intersectional approaches have gained traction in activist movements and on college campuses, both terms follow and draw from a longer tradition of environmental activism and scholarship, including the movement and conceptual framework of environmental justice, which began in the Civil Rights Era and was first examined in a scholarly context in Robert D. Bullard’s Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality (1990).
Developed by the the Combahee River Collective and later popularized by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), intersectionality was first used to theorize the interlocking forms of oppression specific to Black women’s experience, and has since been adopted as a framework for analyzing overlapping systems of power in a variety of contexts. An intersectional approach to sustainability thus examines the ways in which the effects of environmental harm need to be examined along multiple axes of inequality simultaneously to understand people’s unique risks and strategies in the face of environmental degradation.
Val Plumwood's Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) offers an early articulation of the intersections at stake in a critical ecological feminism:
It is usually at the edges where the great tectonic plates of theory meet and shift that we find the most dramatic developments and upheavals. When four tectonic plates of liberation theory—those concerned with the oppressions of gender, race, class and nature—finally come together, the resulting tremors could shake the conceptual structures of oppression to their foundations. (p. 1)
By examining the habits of domination hidden in the dualism between reason and nature, Plumwood also offers a corrective to a prevailing ecofeminist tendency to situate women and people of color on the side of nature and to thus take this dualism for granted. We draw on this philosophical reading of ecofeminism to emphasize the truly interdisciplinary stakes of environmental justice, and to indicate the potential for collaboration and co-teaching within and across the disciplines at Barnard.
Intersectional sustainability at Barnard
Barnard contributes to an interdisciplinary culture of pedagogy that values collective work toward social justice across different fields. Intersectional sustainability connects issues such as the ongoing gentrification of cities, Indigenous displacement and struggle, and the devaluation of Indigenous knowledge about land. By integrating sustainability within a course, students can learn to think locally about the distinctive geological or environmental factors of NYC, the neighborhood, and the environmental racism that has resulted from economic, social, and political histories.
The Office of Community of Engagement & Inclusion has recently curated a list of Barnard student recommendations for Spring 2022 courses, in which students have the opportunity to engage in local advocacy and learn about issues affecting underserved communities.
For instructors interested in considering the role of land acknowledgements in their courses, and how we might go beyond them to engage in Indigenous pedagogy, you might find the CEP's Fall 2021 land acknowledgement workshop series summary helpful as a potential starting place.
Pedagogical models and approaches toward sustainability
InTeGrate, a peer-reviewed repository of sustainability teaching resources, recommends integrating sustainability concepts within the core content of the course. InTeGrate specifically advises faculty to think of sustainability concepts as part of the “trunk” of the course, rather than as a “branch” or “twig.” While this approach does ask instructors to widen the frame within which core concepts are taught, it also eliminates the need for faculty to make room in their curricula for new sustainability content.
Examples of sustainability as "trunk" of the course:
- An ethics or political philosophy course could consider the relationship between the impacts of climate change and ethics by asking questions, such as who survives? who gets to live well? and how do we live well together? (Siperstein, Hall, LeMenanger 2017).
- In an economics course where negative externalities are a core part of the content, an integrated approach might draw on climate change as a timely example of market failure.
- In a geoscience course centered on the Earth as a complex system, the sustainability concept of Earth as a finite resource might be examined through a comparison of the anthropogenic vs. natural carbon cycles.
- In a history course critically engaged with the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” western expansion could be understood from the perspective of environmental impact and the displacement of Indigenous people.
- In a modeling course, the principles of environmental justice can be integrated within existing content by examining the relationship between surface water flow and different demographic settlement by examining streamflow data and digital imagery tools of Google Earth.
For additional examples of how sustainability and environmental justice concepts and content have been integrated within Barnard courses, please see Sustainability & Climate Action website.
For courses where it might not be possible or appropriate to integrate sustainability within the core content of the course, another option is to invite students to engage with relevant disciplinary skills, methods, or concepts through case-based learning. In this approach, sustainability, climate science, or environmental justice could serve as a frame or narrative within which core skills or concepts can be applied or examined. InTeGrate also provides this example of a case study for classroom use.
Place-based learning focuses on “how the local landscape, community infrastructure, watersheds, and cultural traditions all interact and shape each other” (Burns, 2011). In addition, place-based learning actively connects learners to the local community (Sobel, 2004), and provides a way to explore and question economic, ecological, social, and political relationships from the perspective of their surrounding community (Burns, 2011).
For example, in a community with a high mosquito population in residential areas, students in a genetics course could breed native guppies which prey on mosquito larvae and release them into local stagnant ponds as a way of controlling mosquito population without aerial pesticides (Sobel, 2004). While these students study the genetics of the guppies, students in statistical courses can study population growth of the guppies and the mosquitos; students in ecological courses can study the impact of the guppies on the local environment.
Bibliography & further reading
- ADEC ESG Solutions. (2022). What is Social Sustainability? ADEC Innovations. https://www.adecesg.com/resources/faq/what-is-social-sustainability/
- Bullard, J.D. (1990/1994/2000). Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality (3rd ed.). Routledge.
- Burns, H. (2013). Meaningful Sustainability Learning: A Research Study of Sustainability Pedagogy in Two University Courses. Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 25(2). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1016542.pdf
- Burns, H. (2011). Teaching for Transformation: (Re)Designing Sustainability Courses Based on Ecological Principles. Portland State University: Educational Leadership and Policy, (2).
- Climate Action Vision 2019. (2019). Barnard College. https://barnard.edu/sites/default/files/inline-files/ClimateActionVision-2019-final-6.pdf
- Escobar, A. (1995) Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Farley, H. M. & Smith, Z.A. (2020). Sustainability (Critical Issues in Global Politics) (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351124928
- Goodstein, E. (n.d.). Courage and Climate. Bard Graduate Programs in Sustainability: Lead the Change. https://leadthechange.bard.edu/blog/courage-and-climate
- Gough, A. (1997). Education and the Environment. Policy, Trends and the Problems of Marginalisation. Melbourne: The Australian Council for Research Ltd, 204 pages. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.14221/ajte.1998v23n1.7
- Hudler, K., Dennis, L., DiNella, M., Ford, N., Mendez, J., & Long, J. (2019). Intersectional sustainability and student activism: A framework for achieving social sustainability on university campuses. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 16(1), 78–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/1746197919886860
- InTeGrate. (2022). Service Learning: Connect Classroom Learning with Societal Issues. Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/teaching_materials/themes/connect_world/service_learning.html
- "Intersectional Sustainability" (n.d.). Swarthmore Sustainability. https://www.swarthmore.edu/sustainability/intersectional-sustainability
- Lozano, R., Barreiro-Gen, M., Lozano, F., & Sammalisto, K. (2019). Teaching Sustainability in European Higher Education Institutions: Assessing the Connections between Competences and Pedagogical Approaches. Sustainability, 11(6), 1602. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11061602
- Maxson, J. (n.d.). Science and Other Stories: Reading the Mississippi River. Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/workshops/sustainability2012/courses/65957.html
- McCarthy, J. (1996). Economics of Sustainability. Stanford Engineering. http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/economics.html
- McDaniel, R. (1970, May 6). Teaching Sustainability. Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/teaching-sustainability/
- Oglesby, C. (2021). The generational rift over ‘intersectional environmentalism’. Grist. https://grist.org/justice/intersectional-environmentalism-justice-language/
- Perez, A., Schneiderman, J.S., Stewart, M., & Villalobos, J. (2021). Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources. InTeGrate, https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/teaching_materials/freshwater/index.html
- Santamarina, B. I. Vaccaro & O. Beltran (2015). “The Sterilization of Ecocriticism: From Sustainable Development to Green Capitalism.” Anduli (14): 13-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.12795/anduli.2015.i14.01
- Scarff Seatter, C., & Ceulemans, K. (2017). Teaching Sustainability in Higher Education: Pedagogical Styles that Make a Difference. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 47(2), 47–70. https://doi.org/10.47678/cjhe.v47i2.186284
- Sibbel, A. (2009). Pathways towards sustainability through higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 10(1), 68–82. https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370910925262
- Siperstein, S., Hall, S., & LeMenager, S. (2016). Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (1st ed.). Routledge.
- Smith, A. (2021, April 22). "Stuff is broken. Let's fix it": Sandra Goldmark on why we need the circular economy. NationSwell. https://nationswell.com/stuff-is-broken-lets-fix-it-sandra-goldmark-on-why-we-need-the-circular-economy/
- Stevenson, R. B. (2007). Schooling and environmental education: contradictions in purpose and practice. Environmental Education Research, 13(2), 139–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620701295726
- Svanström, M., Lozano‐García, F. J., & Rowe, D. (2008). Learning outcomes for sustainable development in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9(3), 339–351. https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370810885925
- Thomas, L. (2022). The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. Voracious, Little, Brown and Company.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2021.). Learn About Environmental Justice. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/learn-about-environmental-justice
- Villanova University. Sustainability Teaching Resources. www1.villanova.edu/sustainability/Resources/For_Faculty/Sustainability_Teaching_Resources.html
- “Yale Experts Explain Intersectionality and Climate Change” (2022, July 28). Yale Sustainability. https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-intersectionality-and-climate-change