What is sustainability anyway?

Photo credit: Bud Helisson, Unsplash CC0

In this first post for April’s issue on “Embedding sustainability in the curriculum”, Dr Sarah Ivory, Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change, and Sustainability, lecturer and winner of the prestigious Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Awards, explains what teaching through the lens of sustainability really means…

As a researcher and lecturer focused on sustainability issues I often hear: We know we should include more sustainability in the curriculum. But should we offer a course on sustainability, or should we include sustainability in existing courses?

To me, this question misses the point. It categorises sustainability as a ‘topic’.

Imagine the law school asking: should we offer a course on justice, or should we include issues of justice in existing courses? Or the med school asking: should we offer a course on patient care, or should we include issues of patient care in existing courses?

Sustainability – as with justice and patient care – are not ‘topics’, they are lens through which we understand the world around us, our role in it, and impact on it.

So yes, in some ways it would be valuable to teach a course on sustainability (or justice, or patient care) to understand what it means, how we can (and can’t) measure it, and how it impacts all parts of our lived world. But unless we then use it as a lens to study that lived world we miss both an opportunity for greater insight generally, and a responsibility to our students and to society for turning out graduates who have nurtured such an understanding.

While the ‘sustainability as a lens to see the world’ perspective may resonate with some, others will want a more concrete answer: yes, but what does it actually mean and how could it be related to my curriculum? As with many terms, ‘sustainability’ contains baggage, mis-interpretation, and uncertainty. Originally appropriated from the natural sciences and forestry in particular, it was picked up by the UN’s Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, in the term ‘sustainable development’, which attempted to join the development communities (focused on, among other things, poverty alleviation) and the environmental communities (focused on, among other things ecosystem protection). It focused on ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987). And while the academic in me likes this idea, the realist accepts that this is still rather abstract. However, the business world didn’t particularly help with their simplistic articulation of the ‘social, environmental, and economic’ bottom lines, sometimes reduced further to the misleading adage of ‘people, profit, planet’. As with many terms if we define them too specifically or too generally we lose clarity and impact.

A more recent and much more inclusive and useful conceptualisation comes from an economist. After an undergraduate degree and Masters in economics, Kate Raworth felt let down by the theoretical nature of her field. They did not (and would not) teach her ideas that mattered for the greater good. So she came up with them herself. The resulting internationally-acclaimed Doughnut Economics sees a ‘Regenerative and Distributive Economy’ as the aim, and identifies the overshoot of necessary ecological ceilings, as well as the shortfalls of important social foundations which affect this aim. Take a look at the donut below and apply it to your own field of research or learning. Most of us will be impacted by, or are impacting, at least one, and more often multiple, categories.

Figure 1: Donut Economics, Kate Raworth, Available at: www.kateraworth.com

Studying engineering? What are the implications of your designs for climate change? How can innovations transform the energy or housing systems? Studying chemistry? How have industrial chemists contributed to ozone layer depletion or chemical pollution? Or how could a new generation of chemists address these issues? Studying law? What is justice and how does it link to peace and a stable society? Studying psychology? What is the impact of identity on an individual’s place in society, a society’s acceptance of difference, and community cohesion? Studying history? How did any of the social foundations impact that era and what can we learn for our current challenges?

Put simply – what are the ideas that matter for the greater good in your field? What are the ideas worth teaching? These are likely to be sustainability issues, without the title.

What I’m suggesting here is that we move away from the ‘topic’ of sustainability, and towards the lens of ideas worth teaching. But isn’t this too normative, you ask? After all, who decides the ‘worth’ of an idea?

Of course it is normative. But then, virtually all of academia is, to some degree. As universities, we employ academics into fields we think are ‘worth’ studying. As academics, we publish research into questions we think are ‘worth’ answering or understanding. As educators, we design curriculum around ideas we think are ‘worth’ teaching and we respond to students’ views on what ideas they think are ‘worth’ learning. The only step further that I am taking here is to suggest that the ideas ‘worth’ teaching become so because they contribute to a greater good. A more just and peaceful society. A stable climate. Regenerative ecosystems. Widespread access to food and water. If these things are worth having, they are worth teaching.

My own flagship course called Global Challenges for Business is taught to all the first year cohort in the Business School. It is structured around ideas I think are worth teaching and that the students believe (as their feedback has told me year on year) are worth learning. These include the role of business in society, the impact of business on – and on business of – disruptions to the natural, social and digital systems which form a foundation for our society, and issues surrounding new forms of work, leadership, and global inequality as they relate to business. These are ideas worth teaching.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. I was thrilled to see the course and the university recognised in 2019 with a prestigious Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award, one of only two winners outside of North America in that year. The judging panel noted that the course:

….represents the creative and courageous teaching that inspires students to visionary leadership. Aspen Institute staff, along with a group of academic advisors, selected this course for its exploration of the impacts of business beyond the walls of the firm. By examining topics such as inequality, globalization, and digital disruption, students develop the critical skills to understand, analyse and make decisions in a complex world.

Many of these are ‘sustainability’ issues.

But more than that, they are truly ideas worth teaching … for the greater good.

Sarah Ivory

Dr Sarah Birrell Ivory is Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change, and Sustainability and Lecturer in the Business School. After almost ten years working in the business world she transitioned to an academic career. She has been working at the University of Edinburgh for over a decade, teaching MBA, Masters and Undergraduate students. Her research explores sustainability, social enterprise, and more recently, the pedagogy of critical thinking. She has a B.Com (Hons) from the University of Melbourne, an MBA from Melbourne Business School, and a MSc (By Research) and PhD from the University of Edinburgh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *