A conceptual foundation for teaching “Sustainability” courses


Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

Almost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability.

Here are a few more visual representations of this concept

These commonly depicted and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 

We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider that is larger than the natural environment?”

For some I suspect it might be the study of the universe.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?


What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  Also, you might be interested in a related blog post on this topic.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now or John M. Gerber.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Want to help design a local food hub?


Student Presentation

On December 1st, 2011, three local college students, Brian Downes, Jennifer Christian, and Tabbitha Greenough, gave a presentation at the community college downtown center in Greenfield, Massachusetts on ideas to enhance the local food system by developing more capacity to process vegetables.

Kyle Bostrom

The presentation was attended by about 50 local residents who came to see the results of a creative new class offered by Abrah Dresdale, on local food systems.  Part of their presentation focused on an idea to create a town food hub.  Their presentation is worth watching!

The very next day, an article about creating the Greenfield Food Hub in an abandoned factory building was published in the local paper.  The article was written by Kyle Bostrom, a Greenfield farmer and member of the town Agricultural Commission.

Coincidence?  Maybe…. or maybe an idea whose time has come.

Ideas like this evolve over time.  I first became aware of the concept when a regional newspaper, The Valley Advocate, published a story about a study conducted by yet more students (this time from the Conway School of Landscape Design) on how the nearby community of Northampton might create an infrastructure that was supportive of a local food system.

Recently, two Greenfield residents asked me to post a few questions to my local blog, Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts, to see who else might be working on a local food hub.  The response was encouraging.  Here are a few of the comments we received:

  • I have three friends that are part of food hubs in different parts of the country – in Hardwick VT, in the Bay Area, and in Southern CA.
  • I’m excited about the possibilities you are exploring to develop an important aspect of a more local food system.
  • There is Hardwick, VT, Intervale in Burlington, VT and there has been a group working to establish one in the Bellows Falls, VT area for the past few years and they have received a grant to do a feasibility study

And some words of caution:

  • We found a need to focus on the development of the social infrastructure first, (community gardens, surplus food and gleaning efforts, farm- to-school, cooking classes, neighborhood buying markets, etc.) and the network of organizations working on local food issues  – and build them until the need for physical infrastructure became clearer.
  • Who is the economics person to crunch the numbers on this project? It seems that if public money was used you would have to know how long until the project can pay itself back?

I was encouraged enough by the local response to bring this conversation to the global audience at World.edu.  Here are the questions we posed in the local blog (where you can find all of the previous comments).  The organizers of this project would greatly appreciate your thoughts (please put them in the comments box below).

1) Are you aware of other Food Hub examples in the U.S. or around the World?  Please share them here and let us know if there is anything that can be added or changed to make the Greenfield Food Hub most effective.

2)  Please share your knowledge relating to:

a. Laws, accreditations, compliances, etc. required to make a local hub reality

b. Infrastructure needs such as design firms, contractors, transportation businesses

c. Equipment needed to make parts of the Food Hub function and where to get it

d. Sources of funding

As you give feedback on each of these questions, please identify yourself and describe your expertise or interest in the Greenfield Food Hub.

Thanks for your help!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.