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Teaching Sustainability


The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Essential Learning Outcome for sustainability is “knowledge of sustainability and its applications.” This includes the ability to understand local and global earth systems; the qualities of ecological integrity and the means to restore and preserve it; and the interconnection of ecological integrity, social justice and economic well-being.

The approach adopted by UW Oshkosh emphasizes the “three pillars” of sustainability–social justice, economic security, and ecological integrity. We believe that exploring the connections between and among the three pillars creates a rich avenue for intellectual inquiry that can be employed in a wide variety of departments, courses, and disciplinary approaches.

Sustainability is about working towards a future in which all human beings can enjoy decent quality of life– good health, economic security, membership in strong and inclusive communities, the list goes on– while ensuring that we do not endanger the natural resources and environments upon which we depend. At its core, sustainability is about helping us live up to our fullest potential, as individuals and as a society, in ways which do not prohibit future generations from doing the same. Making our way towards sustainability will involve addressing some very big and complicated problems– problems that will not have just single answers, or answers generated by single perspectives. Educating our students about sustainability means presenting them with multiple perspectives and teaching them how to critically evaluate the pros and cons, costs and consequences of the many options that lie before us. Sustainability is not about prescription, or about liberal or conservative points of view; it is about thoughtfully questioning, analyzing, and coming up with creative solutions. And isn’t this exactly what we want our students to be able to do?

But sustainability is a complicated and contested concept. The introductory readings and materials on sustainability below address this complicated and essential idea from a variety of perspectives.


Introduction to Sustainability course from the partnership with Center for Community Development, Engagement and Training (CCDET). To enroll, select SIRT Training on the left menu. If you would like your students or employees to take the course contact to discuss options.

Sustainability 101 (a quick introduction to key terms and concepts)
Definitions of Sustainability: a sampling of other sustainability perspectives
Definitions of Sustainability: more perspectives
Glossary of Sustainability: basic definitions for key terms and concepts

Introductory materials on sustainability (for students and/or faculty)
Ben-Eli, “Sustainability: Definition and Five Core Principles”
Fricker “Measuring Up to Sustainability”
Orr, “Four Challenges of Sustainability”
Orr, “Earth In Mind”
Rhodes, ”Sustainability: The Ultimate Liberal Art”
Lesson for Introducing Sustainability: Module for introducing students to sustainability, walking them through the three pillars and connections between them. Rubric

Social justice and sustainability: the following articles and links provide a several different perspectives on the links between social justice and sustainability. A key concept here is “environmental justice,” a branch of ethics and environmentalism that focuses on disproportionate environmental hazards faced by differing social groups and individuals.
Agyeman, “Toward a ‘Just’ Sustainability”
Bullard, “Environmental Justice in the 21st Century”
“It’s Not Just Flint. There’s an Ugly History of Lead Poisoning and the Poor in the US.”: brief introduction to a case study illustrating the link between environmental pollution and poverty
“The Principles of Environmental Justice”

Economics and sustainability: the following articles and links provide a several different perspectives on the links between economics and sustainability.
Choices for Sustainable Living, “Business and Economy”
Daly, “Beyond Growth”
Slaper and Hall, “The Triple Bottom Line”

Environment and sustainability: the following articles and links provide a several different perspectives on the links between ecology/environment and sustainability.
Rockstrom, “A safe operating space for humanity”
McCauley, “Selling out on nature”
Response to McCauley
Pearson, “Reasons to conserve nature”
Daily and Ellison, “The New Economy of Nature”

Connections between/among the three pillars: Many of the articles and readings above discuss the overlap between and among the three pillars. For example, “The New Economy of Nature” discusses the economic value of ecosystem services (the services nature provides to humans)–and thus discusses the connection between the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. Ecological economist Herman Daly’s book, Beyond Growth, addresses the need for qualitative economic development–that is, economic development that is more attentive social stability and health–an overlap between the social and economic pillars. Often, case studies can be used to effectively illustrate the overlap amongst the three pillars. Consider the ways that your own discipline might approach subjects like climate change, population growth, or consumerism and rising standards of living around the globe. These additional resources address the connections between/among the pillars more directly:
Ted Talk on the Happy Planet Index: The Happy Planet Index attempts to integrate ecological, economic, and social indicators to measure sustainability.
Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock: The recent issue illustrates the connection between ecological limits, social justice, and economic issues.
Whitty, “The Last Taboo”: discusses the social, economic, and environmental facets of population”

For additional material on sustainability related topics, please see this list of resources curated by the Campus Sustainability Office.

Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations


UW Oshkosh
800 Algoma Blvd.
Oshkosh, WI 54901

Contact Info:

(920) 424-0440
SIRT Office: 4483 Sage Hall