Visioning a Sustainable World

Bill Stigliani, Center for Energy & Environmental Education, University of Northern Iowa


Students will learn why the present industrial system is unsustainable, and envision key attributes of a sustainable society. The class creates a sustainable vision based on study and conversation about renewable energy systems, low-input and organic agriculture, sustainably designed cities, new sustainable products inspired by nature, emerging strategies for sustainable businesses, and restoring and maintaining ecosystem services.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It is now an elective in the Liberal Arts Core courses, for which each student has to acquire 45 credit hours. We are working on establishing a Certificate in Sustainability, and when we achieve this goal, the course will be a required introductory course for all students seeking the Certificate. About 25%-40% of the students are science majors.

Course Content:

The course includes a lecture component in which the interactions between the environment, economy, society, and technology are studied, and students are encouraged to envision a sustainable world in year 2050. They prepare team reports in the areas of renewable energy systems, low-input and organic agriculture, sustainably designed cities, new sustainable products inspired by nature, emerging strategies for sustainable businesses, and restoring and maintaining ecosystem services. Near the end of the semester the students present their vision of a sustainable world at a Public Forum.

They are required to calculate their carbon and ecological footprints, and provide a list of measures to lower their footprints. They also must conduct an out-of-class "action to enhance sustainability," and prepare a report including quantifying the amounts of energy and CO2 saved by their action.
Although I do not go into great detail, topics of geoscience already Integrated into my sustainability courses include:
- Plate tectonics causing the separation and movement of the continents.
- Measurements dating and estimating long-term historical global temperatures and CO2 compositions from ice cores.
- Mechanisms of melting and movement of land-based glaciers to the sea, causing sea-level rise.
- Geothermal energy systems.
- CO2 sequestration of power plant emissions for long-term burial in stable geological formations.
- Geological sites for ensuring the long-term storage of spent fuel wastes from nuclear power plants.
- Induced hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and gas production.
- Geological aspects of ecosystem services, for example, filtration and purification of ground waters.
Other topics of geoscience that could be integrated into sustainability courses:
- Climate adaptation assessing sensitivity and response of coastal areas to sea-level rise.
- GIS for urban geology to provide city planners with information for land use and transportation planning.
- Resource assessment of land suitability to guide the expansion of global agriculture.
- Geoscience applied to restore ecosystem services, e.g. erosion control and sediment retention.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to:
  • Gain basic understanding of "systems thinking."
  • Understand the biosphere as a system that serves as a great model for creating human sustainable systems.
  • Learn that maximizing one sustainability domain at that expense of the others ultimately leads to instability and decline in all domains, and that the best solutions are those that "solve for pattern", i.e.,simultaneously benefit all domains.
  • Learn potential for achieving sustainability in the five areas of energy, business, urban life, agriculture, and ecosystems.
  • Articulate visions of a sustainable world through experience of Public Forum.
  • Be motivated to actively participate in creating a sustainable future as an individual and as a civic-minded citizen by engaging effectively in public discourse and policy debate on matters related to sustainability.
  • Experience how to make informed, rational decisions that enhance sustainability in daily activities as individual consumers.
  • Understand how individual sustainable actions are more broadly linked to and contribute to global sustainability and the welfare of future generations.
  • Course Features:

    The course allows space for the students to envision sustainable solutions over the long-term. I encourage them to think of a future they wish to "create," rather than react to present problems by reductive "problem solving." Through understanding the present challenges and envisioning a future where these challenges are overcome, my objective is to provide my students with skills, background knowledge, and habits of mind that will help them to understand the changing world they live in and become active contributors as society seeks to achieve sustainability.

    Their semester work culminates in a Public Forum on "Visioning a Sustainable World in Year 2050," to which students, faculty and staff, and local citizens are invited. This is a unique opportunity for the students and the audience alike to think about a new positive vision of the future that transcends current society's ambivalence, negativity, and confusion about sustainability.

    I can think of several ways in which this course is linked to geoscience. In the topic area "Sustainable Cities," GIS mapping of urban landscapes could play a huge role for achieving sustainability goals. It could optimize the patterns of land uses for minimizing traffic and transport energy; it could assist in identifying optimal siting of landfills, factories, and toxic wastes sources so that poor neighborhoods are not unfairly burdened from the health risks posed by these facilities.

    Watershed protection will be an important focus in the topic areas of "Sustainable Corporations" and "Sustainable Ecosystems." Corporations that depend on fresh, clean water are already involved in watershed protection at their factories around the world (see for example, Coca Cola). For Sustainable Ecosystems, restoration and maintenance of watersheds is a vital aspect of ecosystems and the services they render. In the topic area "Sustainable Energy Systems," geothermal energy will be an important component of the renewable energy mix adopted in the future.

    Course Philosophy:

    The sustainability work at my university has mostly focused on campus projects, for which the campus & grounds staff have done an excellent job. There has been much less development for sustainability in the curriculum. My observation was that typically students and faculty alike were not well informed about sustainability beyond popular categories such as recycling. Thus, there was a critical need to get the ball rolling, and three years ago I introduced "Introduction to Sustainability" as an experimental course. Today the course is an established Liberal Arts Core course. Also there have been a lot of discussions about establishing a Certificate in Sustainability, and this course would serve as the required introductory course.

    I was interested in teaching a multidisciplinary course at a level basic enough so that it was open to all students and all majors. My goal is for my students to be optimistic about a sustainable future. Part of the course is spent on current problems and challenges, but the major part focuses on solutions. Research in organizational learning by Peter Senge (Senge et al., 2008) and others have found that developing the potential of people and organizations to create a desirable future rests on two foundations: 1) positive visions of the future; and 2) understanding the present reality through a systems-thinking perspective. Both foundations are emphasized in my course.

    In addition to creating positive attitudes, I require students to conduct individual "actions to enhance sustainability." This assignment is especially important because it explicitly roots sustainability to their local living space and exemplifies how individual actions can really make a difference. In general, my students are amazed by how much their actions contribute to sustainability. My hope is this is a first step toward a life-long commitment to sustainability, both personally and in public discourse.

    I am delighted that Carleton is hosting this workshop, because every scientific discipline can play an important role in efforts that seek the sustainable future we wish for. Please see how my course incorporates geoscience and sustainability in the answers to "Course Content" and "Course Features."

    Senge, P., Smith, B., Kruschwitz, N., Laur, J. and Schley, S. (2008). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.


    Assessments are conducted in the following ways:
    - Student comprehension of the lecture materials assessed by three quizzes.
    - Action to Enhance Sustainability:
    o Quality and accuracy of final written report.
    o Time allotted to project.
    o Impact of action (amounts of energy, CO2 saved).
    o Number of people involved/influenced by action.
    o Poster of action (attractiveness; how well it represents major feature of action).
    - Public Forum:
    o Quality and comprehensiveness of written report on sustainability topic area.
    o Content and attractiveness of PowerPoint show.
    o Quality and effectiveness of presentations.
    - Carbon and Ecological Footprints
    o Accuracy of calculations.
    o Effectiveness of proposed actions to lower footprints.
    - Student evaluations: In addition to the standard evaluation forms, I require all students to critique my course – negative comments welcome.

    - Post-course student contacts: some students show particular interest in sustainability, and keep in touch with me after the course. Students in my Freshman Presidential Scholars Seminar class all chose sustainability projects for their required sophomore projects; some of them changed their majors to focus on sustainability.


    Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 50kB Jun19 12)

    Teaching Materials:

    Key Reading Resources (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Jun19 12)

    References and Notes:

    No specific textbook used.
    Please see "Other Key Reading Resources" in "Teaching Materials."