Initial Publication Date: October 22, 2014

What Do We Mean by Sustainability?

Geoscience literacy and expertise play a role in all societal issues that involve the Earth. Issues that range from environmental degradation and natural hazards to creating sustainable economic systems or livable cities. Human health also involves the Earth. For instance, diseases are carried on vectors that involve water and wind, natural and human toxins in the environment impact health, and treatments for many diseases come from natural ecosystems thriving in specific Earth environments. InTeGrate supports teaching and learning about the full spectrum of issues in which geoscience plays a part.

Societal issues and geoscience

Geoscientists often think of the intersection of geoscience and societal issues in terms of:

  1. Resource issues (food, water quantity, mineral/aggregate resources, energy)
  2. Environmental stability (environmental degradation, environmental justice)
  3. Health and safety issues (natural hazards, climate change, water quality)

The American Geosciences Institute outlines the role of geoscience expertise in many of these issues in its document: Critical Needs for the Twenty-first Century: The Role of Geosciences.


The following material is largely derived from Pamela Matson's presentation at the 2012 Programs that Bring Together Geoscience and Sustainability workshop. Dr. Matson's slides can be accessed via theworkshop program.

Today we understand that these issues are linked to one of the grand challenges that we face: living sustainably on the planet. While there are many different definitions of sustainability, most share the commonalities in attention to both people and their environment and the well-being of future generations as well as the well-being of people today. We conceptualize sustainability as meeting the needs of people today and in the future while sustaining the life support systems of the planet.

"In a sustainable world, human needs would be met without chronic harm to the environment and without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This incorporates four topical themes: environment, energy, materials and resilience." Killeen, 2012, A Focus on Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability, EOS v. 93, no 1, pg 1-3

"Business sustainability is often defined as managing the triple bottom line - a process by which firms manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet. However, this approach relies on an accounting based perspective and does not fully capture the time element that is inherent within business sustainability. A more robust definition is that business sustainability represents resiliency over time – businesses that can survive shocks because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems. These businesses create economic value and contribute to healthy ecosystems and strong communities." Financial Times Lexicon

What will it take to transition to sustainability?

The challenge we face today is moving to a civilization where we can meet the needs of people while sustaining the atmosphere, water, climate and ecosystems that sustain human life. To this end, transitioning to sustainability will require:

  • New knowledge, tools and approaches
    • focus on interactions in the human-environment system (or human-technology-environment interactions)
    • focus is on development and use of fundamental knowledge not just for understanding but for problem solving
    • usually interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary
    • often place-based; attention to scale and cross-scale interactions
  • Knowledge linked to action
    • promote multi-directional, on-going information flow and dialogue
    • promote collaborative production of trusted knowledge, involve stakeholders in its creation
  • Educated leaders and the public who learn from each other
  • Hope, inspiration, and motivation
  • The will to change and to 'walk the walk'
  • Leadership by corporations, citizens, governments, non-profits, universities

InTeGrate supports teaching about geoscience and societal issues as broadly as possible. However, when we talk about teaching about sustainability, we are focusing on teaching that integrates learning about problems with learning about solutions. Creating a cornerstone with the ideas above and the Grand Challenges documents is the basis for the materials InTeGrate produces. It is this cornerstone on which the InTeGrate project aims to prepare students for addressing current and future sustainability challenges by engaging and empowering them with an inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborative approach to problem-solving.

Grand Challenges Documents:

Related publication: