Water and Sustainability

Robert Turner
Interdisciplinary Arts and Science Program


This course provides a framework for students to learn about sustainability as a cultural ideal and point of contention, and more specifically about our water future and ways we might define and achieve sustainability in water use and management. Given the focus on societal sustainability, students delve well past natural science perspectives on water and wrestle with broader matters of ethics, culture, economics, and politics. With regard to pedagogical approach, Water and Sustainability is a seminar style course where student contribution in the classroom is a primary goal and lectures are a minor component. The emphasis is on analysis, synthesis, debate, and reflection as students engage with the provocative ideas contained in a very wide range of readings.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a 300 level course with no pre-requisite and does not serve as a prequisite for other courses. As a popular elective that fulfills both the Natural World and Individual and Society requirements, the students tend to represent most every major on campus. The course also fulfills a core requirement for students in the Sustainability and Society track of the BA Environmental Studies major.

Course Content:

This is perhaps best shared via a list of the daily themes.
How Bad Can Our Environmental Situation Be?
Is There Really an Environmental Crisis?
What's the Prognosis For Water?
What's So Special About Water, Anyways?
What are the Local Water Issues?
Reaching the Limits of Water Resources
What Are Our Limits?
What's Our Problem and How Did We Get Here?
What is Our Ethical Status?
What is Sustainability?
How Do We Set a Course for Sustainable Development?
Are Capitalism and Sustainable Development Compatible?
Can We Make Capitalism Sustainable?
Water Footprints and Water Inequities
Water Conflicts
What are the Watery Consequences of Food?
Water Controversies
How Much for Ecosystem Services and What is the Role of Culture in Sustaining Them?
Water Sustainability: What Will it Take?
Sustainability Summit

Course Goals:

The primary course objective is to empower students by enhancing their understanding of the vulnerability of aquatic systems to anthropogenic stress and our vulnerability to water resource limitations and ecosystem degradation. This leads us to ask: Are we on an unsustainable course with respect to water and what are the ramifications? Another fundamental objective of the course is to foster a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges inherent in pursuing sustainability as both a water resource management and human enterprise goal. This requires us to ask: What philosophies underlie our actions and how compatible are they with the ideals of sustainability?

Additional specific objectives for student learning and skill development are listed below. By the end of the quarter, each student should be able to:

  • Articulate a personal philosophy on sustainability and discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with pursing it.
  • Explain how current (or future) water use and management practices threaten ecological integrity, human health, and security.
  • Discuss how pursuing different sustainable development ideals can affect our future with regard to water resources, human equity and other social factors.
  • Use a journal to enhance the value of course readings and discussions.

In a larger sense, this course serves to help students advance in their pursuit of the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (IAS) Learning Objectives. Accordingly, it gives them opportunities to make strides in Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Shared Leadership, Writing and Presentation, and Interdisciplinary Research. You can learn more about the Learning Objectives here: http://www.uwb.edu/ias/portfolio/learningobjectives

Some specific course objectives related to the IAS learning objectives are listed below. By the end of the quarter, each student should be able to:

  • Demonstrate facility in working with partners in an equitable research collaboration by producing quality work on time in a professional manner.
  • Articulate how they have improved in their abilities to: tolerate ambiguity in readings and assignments; facilitate intellectual conversations; anticipate and resolve conflict in group situations; and take advantage of diverse skills
    and perspectives in group work.
  • Document how they have improved in their abilities to: compare, synthesize, and assess multiple perspectives; and present, support, and evaluate positions and conclusions (their own and those of others) in their writing.
  • Document how they have developed in their capacity to conduct research as characterized in the IAS Assessment Rubric for interdisciplinary research.

Course Features:

Three provocative readings (or videos) are required before every class.
Each student takes part in a debate meant to highlight the controversial nature of sustainability ideals and proposals. There are two reflective essay assignments and a small group research project.

A detailed overview of the debate assignment and its value is included in the following attachment titled: Using Debates to Engage Students in Sustainability Controversies and Conundrums

Using Debates to Engage Students in Sustainability Controversies and Conundrums (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Apr11 12)


Students are assessed via the following evaluation instruments:

  • Three homework assignments
  • One reading journal Entry
  • Two reflective essays
  • One debate performance
  • A midterm exam comprised of short essay questions
  • A final exam comprised of short essay questions
  • Two progress reports on a small group research/term project
  • A final report on a small group researc/term project
  • Participation for class discussions, debate effort, and group project effort


Water and Sustainability syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 449kB Jun28 11)

Teaching Materials:

Course bibliography (Microsoft Word 100kB Jun28 11)

References and Notes: