The Sustainability Triangle: How Do We Apply Science to Decision Making?

Brian Naasz, Pacific Lutheran University


This writing assignment uses the "Sustainable Development Triangle" as a framework to critically evaluate an environmental issue of the student's choice. This learning activity provides an opportunity for an introductory chemistry student to use the sustainability's "Triple Bottom Line" as a tool to use material learned in the classroom to look at how environmental science helps inform economic and social/cultural factors in the development of sustainable solutions to our environmental challenges.

Learning Goals

This activity allows the student to pick an environmental challenge that is of interest to them and develop an informed opinion about what they believe is a sustainable solution to the challenge.

This writing assignment uses the "Sustainable Development Triangle" as a framework to critically evaluate an environmental issue of the student's choice. This learning activity provides a framework for an introductory chemistry student to use the sustainability's "Triple Bottom Line" as a tool to use material learned in the classroom to look at how environmental science helps inform economic and social/cultural factors in the development of sustainable solutions to our environmental challenges.

Context for Use

The target class for this activity is an introductory level environmental chemistry course. Many students may be taking the course as an introductory college chemistry course to prepare for a GOB course; or, to continue on to the general freshman chemistry sequence. There are also significant numbers of students that are taking this course as their only college natural science course.

A challenge for any introductory science course is to provide a context that encourages the students to be able to apply the material to issues, events or problems that are meaningful to the student. Environmental chemistry courses provide a rich template of examples that can help establish these contact points for students.

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment is a term paper that needs to be integrated into the overall syllabus structure as a core component of the syllabus.

The actual assignment is very straightforward. The framework used is adapted from the "sustainable development triangle" that was introduced by Munasinghe (see References and Resources).

The Core Assignment

Using the structure from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), students write a term paper on an environmental topic of their choice. The paper should include an outline of the pertinent chemistry that is being discussed. It should focus on the environmental, social and economic factors that contribute to the complexity of the issue. The paper needs to present the student's position on how to best manage these sometimes competing issues that surround their topic.

The Learning Activities

To enable the students to work through this activity step by step, a couple of introductory lectures are helpful.

Introductory Lectures
Discussion of "space and time" boundaries for notions of sustainability.
This is a class period lecture and discussion. It focuses on the need to establish the place and time boundaries of the sustainability challenge that you are evaluating. Nearly any environmental issue can work as a framework for this discussion. This lecture time needs to be incorporated early into the semester. This provides a starting point to introduce the "sustainability triangle". As it is early in the course choosing an issue that the students already have some familiarity with is a good choice.
Example: Climate Change
"What is your view of climate change if the only thing you are concerned about is the Puget Sound for the next 50 years?"
This discussion can focus on data from the UW Climate Impacts group CIG - PNW Climate Maps. This develops a discussion focusing on snowpack, rainfall, water management issues in the Northwest bioregion over the next 50-75 years.
This can be followed with a discussion of global climate change impacts. A good resource is the IPCC AR4 Report's summary for policymakers. This gives a broad overview of the projected global impacts of climate change over roughly the same period of time.
Classroom discussion can focus on how a very different picture of climate change is developed if an individual's perspective is limited to only a particular bioregion.
After comparison of the two different "places", this provides a good opportunity to invite the students to discuss impacts that are 500 years out to stretch the time horizon. This discussion is closed with a brief introduction to Munasinghe's sustainable development triangle.
Example discussion(s) using the sustainability triangle to critically evaluate a sustainability challenge. Throughout the course the sustainable development triangle can be used to provide a framework for discussions about how the chemistry that the students are learning can be used in the context of understanding the broader issue of sustainable development and solutions to environmental problems. Use examples that fit a particular syllabus need. A few examples to consider follow.
Nuclear Sources Electrical Power:
Nuclear power creates a strong example for discussing this framework. The chemistry detail can be developed in as much detail as needed, but should include at a minimum the basic details of nuclear change reactions and basic power plant design. It needs to also include the basic discussions about isotope decay and half life. A convenient time to invite the discussion of the sustainability triangle would be after a planned unit on nuclear chemistry. Strategies for long term high level waste management should be included.
The economic discussion around nuclear power should include a discussion about cost comparisons for the actual power plant. A comparison to coal technology is a helpful discussion. Assigning a cost to waste disposal, reprocessing, storage is an interesting outcome for this part of the lecture.
The social and governance component of this analysis can range as broadly as time allows. Some discussion elements might be:
  • Environmental Justice Concerns for Mining and Storage of Radioactive Materials.
  • Social fear and controversy concerning anything "nuclear"
  • How do we deal with the waste that already exists?
  • Understanding the extent to which nuclear power is used today.
  • Waste from energy production vs. historical weapons manufacturing.
Clean Coal Technology:
Chemistry: Themes for this section can be: Combustion, SOx and NOx, CO2, Particulate Matter, Emerging Technologies.
Economics: A few examples that work well are: CO2 sequestration, Mining and extractive processes, Cap and Trade (S first, C examples), Comparison with Nuclear.
Social: Many of the chemistry and economic discussion points have social and/or political consequences that can be discussed.
Biofuels: Example to be Developed.
Class period with research librarian- This is a very helpful extension of this activity. If this activity is not included, then at some other point in the process a detailed discussion of primary vs. secondary literature and peer review needs to be included.
Paper conference with faculty during writing process- This is also an extension activity that will help the quality of the final project. In my class I make this optional, the students who take advantage of it generally benefit from it.
Class presentation- If time and class size allows this is a wonderful finale. In reality I have found it hard to fit in my own syllabus.

The Core Assignment (Microsoft Word 24kB Nov1 11)
Sample List of Student Topics from this Learnign Activity (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov1 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

A significant component of a successful paper is a topic that has appropriate scope. It is useful to have a short "paper conference" with students early in the process to help them settle on a scope that is appropriate.

A special caution is generally needed to encourage students in a chemistry course to take the writing process seriously. Some freshman students will have been conditioned that term papers in a science class somehow have a lower standard for basic grammar. Remind them to use complete sentences and appropriate punctuation. A discussion of writing expectations at some point early in the process may be useful.

A major issue with this learning activity for freshman non-science majors is their ability to critically evaluate sources of information. Many of the students will come into the class with no appreciation at all of how to filter and review information from the internet and other sources. Useful extensions can include sessions with research librarians or general overviews of literature searching capabilities.

An extension of this activity could be a short in-class presentation of the paper overview. If the syllabus and class size allows, this is an exciting "celebration" of the work invested in this project.


The grading rubric for the paper builds in the sustainable development triangle framework, and provides a specific motivation for the students to synthesize their own argument at state their results clearly. A total value for the assignment similar to a course midterm is the standard used for my course design. Here are the rubric elements.

Appropriate Reference Materials and Footnoting- 8%
Writing Style, Grammar, Presentation- 8%
Environmental Chemistry Discussion- 32%
Social Impacts/ Discussion- 16%
Economic Arguments- 16%
Synthesis and Position Arguments- 20%

References and Resources

Below is a link to a useful graphic to explain the concept of the sustainable development triangle.
Key Elements of Sustainable Development and Interconnections (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 341kB Nov10 11)

The original source of this IPCC graphic is:
Munasinghe, Mohan (Lead Author); Munasinghe Institute for Sustainable Development (Content Partner); Cutler J. Cleveland (Topic Editor). 2007. "Sustainable development triangle." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [Published in the Encyclopedia of Earth February 10, 2007; Retrieved April 10, 2009].

To help start the idea generation process, it may be useful to point the students to a few websites that provide high level, broad overviews of a number of environmental challenges. A few of these are listed here.

Union of Concerned Scientists (
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (
Washington State Department of Ecology (