What is Sustainability?

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) provides the following definitions of sustainability focused and sustainability related courses:

Sustainability Focused courses concentrate on the concept of sustainability, including its social, economic, and environmental dimensions.
Sustainability Related courses incorporate sustainability as a distinct course component or module, or concentrate on a single sustainability principle or issue.

In order to apply these to University of Windsor courses, a more precise definition is needed. The first question to be answered then is: What is Sustainability?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary does not have a definition for “sustainability” and neither does Random House. However, M-W defines “sustainable” as simply “capable of being sustained” and more appropriately “of, related to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

Modern literature on sustainability often refers to a “triple bottom line” where true sustainability has social, economic and environmental dimensions. Economic systems, which rely on nonrenewable resources, are not sustainable. Similarly, economic systems, which promote polarization of classes, have in the past resulted in revolution. Social systems, which bankrupt countries or degrade the natural environment, are not sustainable. On the other hand, people daily and willingly degrade the quality of the natural environment, in order to have food or shelter. Each of these relationships could be the subject of a whole course, but such cursory analysis supports the concept that true sustainability requires all three dimensions.

A commonly quoted and accepted starting point for defining sustainability is that put forward in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Bruntland:

“Sustainable development is development, which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The word “develop” itself has many meanings, but most of them include the concept of change for a purpose; it is understood that the change is beneficial to those immediately affected, that it involves an improvement to existing circumstances. For many people, the improvement has been growth: in the economy, in standards of living, in GDP etc. By adding the word “sustainable” to development, creation and/or preservation of a more “livable” environment, with supportive social systems, is implied as a requirement to balance growth.

It is appropriate to note that development is not synonymous with growth, although it frequently leads to growth. All growth is not related to development. Mihelcic, et al. (2003) provided more explicit detail when they defined “sustainable engineering” as the ability “to ensure that humankind’s use of natural resources does not lead to diminished quality of life due either to losses in future economic opportunities or to adverse effects on social conditions, human health and the environment.” This definition explicitly includes all aspects of sustainability and complements the WCED view.

The scope of sustainability is broad, and the implementation of sustainability varies with the context. In the developed world, we tend to emphasize the environmental dimension, perhaps because, although we seldom admit it, economically we are generally well off, and socially, we generally have systems in place to assure equity, health and justice. In the developing world, it may be necessary to alter the natural environment to create long-lasting infrastructure for social good. However, the developed world viewpoint should not preclude us, as an educational institution, from educating our students about all dimensions of sustainability and points of view.

Classifying Courses

Sustainability focused courses explore a broad range of topics, or select one topic to investigate in depth, provided that economic, social and environmental aspects are considered for each topic. In other words, the majority of the course is spent examining human issues “using sustainability as a lens.” On the other hand, a course may be considered sustainability related if it: a) includes at least one class that is sustainability focused, or b) examines one topic through a sustainability lens, or c) is entirely devoted to an interdisciplinary examination of a topic or topics, considering only two of the three dimensions of sustainability Examples of investigations that involve all dimensions of sustainability include:

  • Analysis of the tradeoffs or co-benefits involved in managing resources for the social, economic, and environmental welfare of current and future generations
  • Implementation of practical solutions to socioeconomic and environmental challenges, including those that relate to energy, technology, ecosystems, social transformations, food systems, policy, and governance.

Examples of the investigations that one would find in a sustainability related course include:

  • Integration of basic and applied knowledge from multiple disciplines, including the natural and social sciences, to analyze human-environment interactions;
  • Development of alternative strategies for the use of natural, human, and fiscal resources that are compatible with the constraints on these resources.

Owing to the shifting nature of sustainability issues, those courses and programs linked to sustainability should be prepared to adapt continually. Thus, a curriculum that integrates sustainability also demands periodic reassessment. A caveat: “A course about the environment is not necessarily about sustainability. Sustainability is an inherently prescriptive concept—it aims to achieve the goal of sustaining something (even if there is no clear agreement on what is to be sustained, or how to sustain it). Environmental courses, by contrast, may be largely descriptive—describing and explaining an issue or problem (be it water pollution or environmental injustice, etc.). To be meaningfully identified as sustainability-related or focused, a course should not simply describe human-environmental phenomena, but should also engage the important but difficult conceptual challenges of sustainability.



Barbier, E. (1987) The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development. Environmental Conservation 14(2) 101-110.

United Nations (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 - Development and International Cooperation: Environment, United Nations, NY, USA.

Mihelcic, J.R., Crtittenden, J.C., Small, M.J., Sonnard, D.R., Hokanson, D.R., Zhang, Q., Chen, H., Sorby, S.A., James, V.U., Sutherland, J.W. and Schooner, J.L. (2003) Sustainability Science and Engineering: Emergence of a New Metadiscipline. Environmental Science and Technology 37(23) 5314-5324.