Introduction to Sustainable Practices

Rebeca Rivera
University of Washington, Bothell, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences


This course looks critically at a diverse arena of ideas, theories and practices around sustainability. We examine these ideas, theories practices as part of larger socio-ecological systems and look at how they fit within visions for a more sustainable future particularly for urban areas.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course and there are no prerequisites. This courts also counts towards fulfilling a Sustainability and Society requirement for majors in Environmental Studies and may fulfill credit requirements towards either Individuals and Societies (I&S) or Natural World (NW) areas of knowledge.

Course Content:

The purpose of this course is get students to think critically about sustainability and sustainable practices while applying what they learn to real world scenarios and personal lives. We begin by tackling differing ideologies and worldviews and seek to understand how they result in particular ways of thinking and acting in the world. We then explore different problems and solutions, touching on a variety of areas that are particularly relevant to urban American environments--such as politics, energy, food, housing, community, sense of place, consumption, transportation, and the economy. Each week students focus on a new topic around sustainability. Some of the questions we discuss are: What is sustainability anyway? How are different approaches to sustainability dependent on worldview and ideology? Why are Americans becoming less sympathetic to environmental concerns even as environmental impacts are rising? What is the link between justice and sustainability? What are the roles of structure (e.g. the economy and the built environment) and agency (i.e. 'free will') in developing sustainable practices? What is the role of urban populations in working towards a more sustainable world? How might we envision more sustainable future(s)?

Course Goals:

By the end of this course students will:
1. Understand how different ideological and disciplinary perspectives frame problems and solutions around sustainability.
2. Understand systems theory as a means to explain and think critically about environmental problems and sustainable futures.
3. Understand the roles of structure and agency in environmental and social problems as well as implementing sustainable practices.
4. Be aware of a variety of ideas, tools, and practices for governments, organizations, grassroots and individuals that promote sustainability.
5. Be able to think critically about arguments for sustainable practices and sustainable development.
6. Be self-reflective of their own perspectives and roles related to sustainability.
7. Conduct community-based learning or exploratory research on the integration of sustainable practices within local communities.
8. Be able to respond critically to readings on sustainability.
9. Be able to engage in thoughtful and respectful discussions around important and controversial topics

Course Features:

Student led facilitation of the readings once a week: Each student takes a turn at presenting a summary of the readings, creating discussion questions, and leading a small group discussion.

Weekly reading responses: Students respond critically to assigned readings. Weekly Reading Assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 219kB Sep13 11)

In-Class Activities: For example, students apply may apply ideas and theories learned in class to real or imagined situations. In class activities promote consensus building, active listening, and allow students to share their knowledge and experiences with others. Two in-class activities are attached: In-Class Activity: Defining Sustainability through the Consensus Process (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Sep13 11) In-Class Activity on Community Participation and Visioning (Acrobat (PDF) 583kB Sep13 11)

Socratic Method: I use the knowledge and experience of the class in order to walk them through a more thorough understanding of the material/learning goals for that day.

Community-Based Learning: Students have the option of working with a local organization over the quarter. In Spring of 2011 students worked with: Lettuce Link, Seattle Tilth, Sustainable Seattle, 21 Acres, and The City of Bothell.

Primary research on local sustainability issues.

Self-Reflection: First, students take three "quizzes" online. An ecological footprint quiz, a carbon footprint quiz, and "the political compass" which helps them identify their own political ideology. Second, through the weekly writing assignments and small group discussions students are encouraged to be reflexive about their own perspectives.

Course Philosophy:

Critical Democratic Pedagogy: I see myself as a co-learner and facilitator of learning in this course. I believe that learning occurs when we are building on and sharing our experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. In order to learn about the world we need to understand our own biases as well as the perspectives and situations of other students and readings in this class. This class takes a critical approach to sustainability through the development of critical reading thinking and respectful dialogue. I value following student interests and needs as much as possible. This means that if you have a question or are interested in some aspect of the course content we may focus on your question or interest. I expect you to be open to and respectful of other experiences and perspectives, but most importantly to be critically reflective of your own perspectives and opinions. I do not expect you to agree with all the voices put forth in this class, but I ask that you will seek gain an understanding of other perspectives, ideas, and ways of thinking about the world and sustainability.

Experiential Learning: I believe that learning also comes from direct hands-on experience and not just through reading about something. I incorporate experiential learning through field work as well as through some in-class activities that will get out of your chairs or have you engage in roll playing.


Formal: Weekly writing assignments, in-class assignments, check-ins regarding research projects and/or community-based learning, final written assignment.
Weekly Reading Assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 219kB Sep13 11)
In-Class Activity on Community Participation and Visioning (Acrobat (PDF) 583kB Sep13 11)
In-Class Activity: Defining Sustainability through the Consensus Process (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Sep13 11)

Informal: Oral questioning in class as a way to test for comprehension. Sitting in on their small group discussions to get a sense of their understanding (or misunderstanding) of the material and interest areas.

After assessments I try to address both areas students are either having difficulty with or spend more time on content that is of interest to them.


This is a 5 credit introductory course offered to undergraduates and is taught on the quarter system.

Syllabus for Introduction to Sustainable Practices (Acrobat (PDF) 323kB Oct19 11)

References and Notes:

Weekly Reading Assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 219kB Sep13 11)
In-Class Activity on Community Participation and Visioning (Acrobat (PDF) 583kB Sep13 11)
In-Class Activity: Defining Sustainability through the Consensus Process (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Sep13 11)

Required Texts:

Wessles, T. (2006). The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. Burlington, University of Vermont Press.

Hern, M. (2010). Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Edinburgh, AK Press Publishing & Distribution.

Beavan, C. (2009). No Impact Man: The Adventures of A Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life In the Process. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Other required readings:

Cronon, W. (1997). The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History. C. Miller and H. Rothman. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press:28-50.

Groom, Martha, Elizabeth Gray and Patricia Townsend. (2008). "Biofuels and Biodiversity: Principles for Creating Better Policies for Biofuel Production." Conservation Biology 22(3): 602-609 

Klingle, M. (2007). Chapter 1, "All the Forces of Nature Are on Their Side: The Unraveling of the Mixed World." InEmerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. New Haven, Yale University Press. (pages 12-43)

Leanard, Annie. (2010). "Epilogue: Writing the New Story" and Appendix 1 and 2. In The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change. New York: Free Press. (237-264)

MacKay, D. J. (2009). Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. Cambridge, UIT. (Pages: 2-18, 22-26, 109)

Maniates, Michael. (2001). "Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?," Global Environmental Politics 1 (3): 31-52.

Miles, M. (2008). Short Case Studies. Urban Utopias: The Built and Social Architectures of Alternative Settlements. New York, Routledge. Pages: 177-226. 

Miller, E. (2005). Solidarity Economics: Strategies for Building New Economies From the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out. Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective.

Miller, E. (2005). Solidarity Economy Circle and Key. Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective.

Parthasarathi, Prasannan. 2002. "Toward Property As Share: Ownership, Community, and the Environment."In Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century. Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor (eds.). Boston: Beacon Press. Pages: 141-153

Patel, R. (2007). Conclusion. Stuffed and Starved: the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishers.

Patel, Raj. (2009). "Anton's Blindess." In The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. New York: Picador. (Pages 172-194)

Rees, William E and Westra, Laura. (2003). "When Consumption Does Violence: Can There be Sustainability and Environmental Justice in a Resource-limited World?" In Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. J. Agyeman, R.D. Bullard and B. Evans eds. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd. 

Rocha, C. and I. Lessa (2009). "Urban Governance for Food Security: The Alternative Food System in Belo Horizonte, Brazil." International Planning Studies 14(4): 389-400

Sarkissian, W. and N. Hofer (2009). "Kitchen Table Sustainability." In Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability. Sterling, Earthscan. Pages: 39-71

Seyfang, G and David Elliot. (2008). Conclusions: Seedbeds for Sustainable Consumption. In New Economics of Sustainable Consumption: Seeds of Change.(Pages 168-189)

Slavin, Matthew I. and Kent Snyder. (2011). Strategic Climate Action Planning in Portland. In Sustainability in America's Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis. Matthew Slavin, ed. Washington: Island Press.

Tatum, Jesse. (2002). "Citizens or Consumers: The Home Power Movement as a New Practice of Technology." In Confronting Consumption. eds T. Princen, M. Maniates, and K. Conca. Cambridge: MIT Press.

World Health Organization, Europe. (2002). Chapter 2, "Community Participation: An Introduction." and "Community Participation in Local Health and Sustainable Development: Approaches and Techniques." European Sustainable Development and Health Series: 4