Key Concepts for Teaching Sustainability

What are the essential concepts that students in various disciplines should learn? How do concepts from different subject areas overlap? Where are the opportunities for teaching about sustainability across all disciplines?

These questions were addressed by faculty at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012. Workshop participants worked with others in their discipline to generate a list of key concepts that are essential for students to learn and also allow opportunities to bring sustainability into the curricula.

Goal of this activity:
Integrate sustainability concepts, skills, and habits of mind part of courses in ways that have curricular integrity and "standing" – both for faculty members and students.

Key concepts common to many disciplines (compiled from all of the groups)

  • Systems thinking and the relationship between systems
  • Energy flow


  • Understand Earth through repeatable observations
    • show how to think and act like a geologist
    • careful observation of natural systems helps us understand processes and interactions within those systems


  • Interconnectedness, connectedness: emphasis on relationships (people and environment, different places, different systems)
  • Importance of place and scale: sustainability will look different in different places (physical and social environments vary); sustainability will also "look different" and need to have different emphases based on scale (global vs. regional vs. local)

Environmental Studies

  • Systems thinking: everything is connected, in context, and interrelated
  • Interdisciplinarity: no sustainability problem comes from a single discipline, and no solution will either

Environmental Science and Sustainability Science

  • Basic principles: (1) Principles of ecosystem sustainability; (2) Nutrient cycling in human & natural systems; (3) Energy flow in natural systems; (4) Population growth models

Engineering and Technology

  • Supply and demand - balance, optimization
  • Risk and reliability - design criteria (e.g., sizing, resistance, capacity), disaster planning and mitigation
  • Systems thinking - cradle-to-grave, cradle-to-cradle, life-cycle assessment


  • Atomic structure - isotope abundance: atmospheric composition, fossil fuel tracing, geological aging/historical climates
  • States of matter - energy: dependence on solid, liquid and gas forms of fossil fuels
  • Periodicity - abundance of elements, mineral sourcing (cell phones, lithium batteries, etc.), geo-political stability of sources


  • Diversity of life - relevance to ecosystem resilience globally. It is essential for the resilience of the ecosphere and also for agricultural resilience in an era of monocropping.
  • Unity of life - Precautionary principle: small changes can have unintended, widespread consequences. This has been an issue that has been raised with genetically modified organisms.


  • Scarcity and the coordination of scarce resources with human wants.
  • Production, costs, and technology. E.g. direct vs. indirect costs and internal vs. external costs.
  • Social institutions (rules and norms) shape incentives.
  • Incentives shape the behaviors of consumers, firms, and government.
  • Competitive environments (e.g. firms, consumers, government) impact market outcomes and resource use.

History and Philosophy

  • There are other legitimate ways of knowing outside of the scientific paradigm, that includes our bodies and our histories.
  • Introducing humanistic considerations into the conversation:values, power structures, ideology, etc.
  • Questions about who, what, when, and why are vital in discussing sustainability.