Sustainability Science

Tun Myint
Political Science, Carleton College


This course is conceived within the dual challenge of the need to understand how societal dynamics and environmental dynamics interact over time AND how they help induce or inhibit sustainability of social ecological systems. The course introduces students to theories, concepts, analytical frameworks, and research designs that will help us advance in understanding the dynamic relationship between societal changes and environmental changes.

Course URL: syllabus linked from
Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a course aimed at juniors and seniors with some previous study of political science and international relations. It also fills a requirement for the Food and Agriculture, Conservation and Development, and Water foci of the Environmental Studies major. The course attracts Political Science majors, Environmental Studies majors and other students interested in the environment.

Course Content:

Sustainability Science reviews the ontologic and epistemic foundations of "sustainability" and then examines the dynamics and diversity of natural ecosystems and human institutions. After these topics are discussed, the major focus of the course is on understanding how social ecological systems respond to change: vulnerability, resilience, adaptation, collapse.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to discuss key concepts and theories of sustainability science.
Students will be able to critically read the academic literature about environment/society relationships.
Students will be able to analyze examples of change in individual societies from the perspectives of sustainability science.
Students will demonstrate excellent oral and written skills in presenting a final project.
Students will improve their abilities to work in groups.

Course Features:

This course is discussion-based. Each group of three students leads class discussion for two class days. Students also complete two critical reviews, one of an article and one of a documentary video. Each student completes a livelihood map of a freshman at Carleton, using their recollections of ten items brought with them to college and interviews with someone who graduated at least 20 years ago. Finally, students do one of several collaborative final projects that I determine ahead of time.

Course Philosophy:

Two quotations summarize my approach to this topic:

"Just providing knowledge, even if communicated well, without offering spaces to discuss the implications, will no longer suffice. If sustainability were something we could achieve by holding hands and singing "kumbaya" despite all our differences, we'd already be there!" Susanne C. Moser, in IHDP Update, special Edition, 2008, International Human Dimensions Program (

"The big question in the end is not whether science can help. Plainly it could. Rather, it is whether scientific evidence can successfully overcome social, economic, and political resistance." Donald Kennedy, Science Magazine's State of the Planet 2006-07

The continual existence and betterment of humankind depends on the ability and intellect of human beings to make educated choices (rightly understood) in living with nature and to govern themselves. At the center of this challenge for human beings in the age of Anthropocene is the need for systematic and scientific understanding of how the dynamic relationship between societal changes and environmental changes influence change, adaptation, and evolution of coupled human-environment systems. In this class students apply the concepts they study to two practical projects.


Assessment criteria are embedded into each of the specific assignments for the course.


References and Notes:

  • Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connection: A Science for Sustainability Living
  • Simon Levin, Fragile Dominion: Complexity and Commons
  • Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World
  • Lance H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems
  • Donald Kennedy (ed), State of the Planet 2006-2007