What is Sustainability?
In a globalizing world of limited resources and unlimited ingenuity, colleges and universities play a vital role in preparing students to meet the sustainability challenges of the future. The imperatives of sustainability point not only to new course content, but also to new ways of teaching that content. As a project with relevance across the disciplines, sustainability presents a valuable paradigm for rethinking pedagogy.
What is sustainability? What do we want to sustain? An important part of teaching sustainability issues involves keeping these questions always open and alive. Sustainability offers a novel framework for asking enduring philosophical questions: What is the good life? How do we create a better world? Thinking and teaching about sustainability are future-oriented projects, but the relevance of sustainability principles and practices must be articulated in the present.
The term “sustainability” has an important history in development literature. In 1983, the United Nations convened the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known informally by the name of its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Brundtland Comission’s report, Our Common Future (1987), contains one of the most often cited definitions of sustainability:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
• the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
• the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
The scope of sustainability is frequently described as including three spheres – social, environmental, and economic. To use an accounting metaphor, sustainability projects must be evaluated according to a “triple bottom line” of social, environmental, and economic responsibility. A Venn diagram depicts the interdisciplinarity of sustainability as a field of inquiry:
Sustainability is at once an integrative discipline and a multidisciplinary project; it has statistical, scientific, and humanistic dimensions. With its focus on specific problems and particular solutions, sustainability suggests place-based and project-based approaches to student learning. Teaching towards sustainability also reminds us that pedagogy is a civic project; there are important ties between classroom and community.