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Students everywhere are seeing dramatic changes in Earth—and they’re demanding that their educations be made relevant to the world they see emerging around them.

They are asking about sustainability and looking for sustainability, and increasingly seeking their answers not just in the sciences, but in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

They want to be able to read and interpret as well as observe and examine these changes in the Earth, and they’re looking for the skills to do so in all of the disciplines.

They are looking for systemic alternatives and transformational solutions. And they believe these are both possible and necessary.

In this introduction, we will help provide teachers with the basic approaches in Sustainability Studies, and with materials for taking their work to the next level in a progression of approaches leading to what we will term “Critical Sustainabilities,” below.

“Sustainability” and “Sustainable Development”

“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are terms that point to new paths for societies in contrast to business-as-usual. The global discourse using these terms dates to 1972, when Donella Meadows and other MIT researchers first discussed sustainability in relation to human development in their book Limits to Growth (visit for her 30 year update on the concept).

In 1987, the report of a United Nations-sponsored commission, chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, produced the best-known definition of sustainable development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”(read the 1987 Report – Our Common Future)

However, this definition is not perfect, since it is anthropocentric (what about other species and ecosystems?) and raises the difficult question of defining the concept of needs in the first place.

Despite its imprecision, the concept of sustainability does usefully point to several powerful underlying themes that speak to the unique demands of our current environmental situation. These include the demands for:

  • a long-term perspective
  • a holistic approach to problem-solving
  • proactive strategies that can actually meet needs such as for carbon neutrality

Although its long-term connotation is important, the notion of sustaining human societies can be somewhat misleading. After all, we do not want not to sustain the flawed status quo, but rather to actively bring about a better, more sustainable world. People want sustenance in all the main aspects of their lives, and in this sense there are also echoes of nurturance and cultivation embodied in the discourse as well.

Since its birth in the 1970s, writers have approached the concept of sustainability from numerous perspectives:

  • Environmentalists have emphasized ecological threats and environmental restoration
  • Economists have emphasized the need to reform economics and reconsider systems such as capitalism
  • Social justice advocates have argued that environmental protection is impossible without greater social equity and the centering of climate and environmental justice
  • Activists in the global South have pointed to problems of First World over-consumption and the historical exploitation of other societies through colonialism, conquest, and extraction
  • Indigenous peoples and their allies have emphasized the need to learn from traditional environmental knowledge
  • Feminists have pointed out that exploitation of nature closely parallels exploitation of women within patriarchal systems
  • Ethicists have called for a new Earth Ethics that goes beyond traditional conceptions of moral behavior
  • Spiritual and religious leaders have stressed the importance of changes in spiritual awareness and values

In the end, each of us must develop our own understanding of sustainability, and one or more of the above perspectives may speak to us in useful ways.

On a day-to-day level, we can practice the skill of viewing situations in a long-term, holistic, and proactive manner and seek to design and implement sustainability strategies each in our own unique professional and personal lives.

Critical Sustainabilities

At NXTerra, we see the genius of sustainability studies and the term sustainable development, and we credit the work that practitioners do for their great ingenuity and positive interventions in the unfolding climate crisis.

But climate science is now telling us with increasing urgency that development moving dangerously slowly toward sustainability, despite decades of sustainability discourse efforts at every scale—so it follows that sustainability, as a concept institutionalized in university discourse as well as in corporate practices and governmental policies, must now be subjected to additional constructive criticism.

For an informal proof of this assertion, try finding a single extractive multinational corporation engaged in the most harmful carbon extractive industries whose web site mission statement does not proclaim a guiding sustainability doctrine.

We urgently need fresh approaches that more directly confront the climate crisis at every scale, with more diverse actors (what conventional sustainability studies calls “stakeholders”) in all fields of human endeavor.

And we must answer the demands of our students’ questions to take sustainability further and more forcefully in to the critical, theoretical domain of the humanities and social sciences.

Critical race, class, and gender analysis will be required, as will be critical environmental justice and climate justice studies [see also David Naguib Pellow 2016 and 2017].

This demand for intersectional analysis of the climate crisis is loud and clear in the voices of the ongoing global student uprising for climate action that really took off in 2019.

Greta Thunberg, for example, the 16-year-old Swedish high school student and founder of School Strike for Climate, always leads with the science of climate change, its near universal consensus, and with the common sense understanding that this consensus means that nations and institutions should be taking action now.

But she and like-minded students around the world always go further than the science in demanding that sustainability can and in fact must be understood in terms of intergenerational climate justice.

Yes, sustainability means energy efficiency, building codes, and carbon emissions—but it also means empathy and love for the children of today, and for the unborn children of future human generations and all living beings whose fate is to struggle to live with the sustainability decisions and policies we are making today.

Students and youth are demanding systemic changes in society and culture, in production and consumption, changes to ensure that something remains for the future Earth, the next Earth that they and all of us are building right now:  “Use resources,” they say, “but don’t use them up, don’t damage the planet’s ability to provide for future generations.” Save something for our children and their children—something of the natural world, and something of and for the species that we all rely on for so much in every way, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breath to the animals that nourish our experience and befriend us.

Critical sustainability is one potential answer to this demand—it is a concept uniquely appropriate to our current predicament, in which any chance of success in solving the climate crisis requires that everyone, including universities, educators, corporations, and governments quickly begin adopting deeper and more urgent understandings of sustainability ethics as guiding axioms and transformational sustainability practices as standard procedures.

To answer this call we must learn to teach and work with our students in new ways.

The NXTerra Network steps in to this breach to present this digital platform for educational, aiming to renew and advance our common discussions, teaching tools, and community practices of sustainability throughout our pages.  We invite you to contact us and get involved.

  • Updated — June 7, 2020


A Short Bibliography of Sustainability:

Some Recent and Classic Sources

Compiled by John Foran and Stephen Wheeler

Agyeman, Julian, Robert Bullard and Bob Evans, eds. Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan. 2011.

Beatley, Timothy and Kristy Manning. The Ecology of Place: Planning for Environment, Economy, and Community. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 1997.

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, John Foran, Priya A. Kurian, and Debashish Munshi. Feminist Futures:  Re-imagining Women, Culture and Development.  Second revised edition.  London:   Zed Press.  2016.

Brown, Lester R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York: Norton. 2009.

Brown, Lester R. World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. New York: Norton. 2011.

Caradonna, Jeremy L. Sustainability: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014.

Chatterton, Paul. Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change. London: Pluto Press. 2019.

Daly, Herman and John B. Cobb, Jr. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future.  Boston: Beacon Press. 1989.

Ellwood, Wayne. The No-Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability. Oxford: New Internationalist. 2014.

Ferreira, Felipe de S. Critical sustainability studies: A holistic and visionary conception of socio-ecological conscientization. Journal of Sustainability Education. Volume 13 (March 2017).

Greenberg, Miriam. What on Earth is Sustainable? Toward critical sustainability studies. BOOM: The Journal of California 3 (4) (2014): 54-66.

Jacques, Peter. Sustainability: The Basics. New York: Routledge. 2015.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William H. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates.

Meadows, Donella, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green Publishing. 2004.

Mitlin, Diana. “Sustainable Development: A Guide to the Literature.” Environment and Urbanization 4 (1) (1992): 111-124.

O’Connor, Martin, ed. Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology.  New York: The Guilford Press. 1994.

Orr, David. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 2004.

Parr, Adrian. Hijacking Sustainability. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009.

Redclift, Michael. Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions. London: Methuen. 1987.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press. 2015.

Satterthwaite, David, ed. 1999. The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities. London: Earthscan.

Stibbe, Arran. Editor. The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World. Cambridge: Green Books. 2019.

Thiele, Leslie Paul. Sustainability. Key Concepts series. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2013.

Wheeler, Stephen. Planning for Sustainability: Creating Livable, Equitable and Ecological Communities. Second edition. New York: Routledge. 2013.

Wheeler, Stephen and Timothy Beatley, eds. The Sustainable Urban Development Reader. Third edition. New York: Routledge. 2014.

World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission). Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987.

Defining Sustainable Development

Many different themes have been used to help define the term.

Theme: Meeting the Needs of Future Generations

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

— Brundtland Commission (1987)

Theme: Carrying Capacity of Ecosystems

Sustainable development means “improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.”

— World Conservation Union (1991)

Theme: Maintain Natural Capital

“Sustainability requires at least a constant stock of natural capital, construed as the set of all environmental assets.”                                                                 ¾  David Pearce (1988)

Theme: Maintenance and Improvement of Systems

“Sustainability … implies that the overall level of diversity and overall productivity of components and relations in systems are maintained or enhanced.”

— Richard Norgaard (1988)

Theme: Not Making Things Worse

Sustainable development is “any form of positive change which does not erode the ecological, social, or political systems upon which society is dependent.”

— William Rees (1988)

Theme: Sustaining Human Livelihood

Sustainability is “the ability of a system to sustain the livelihood of the people who depend on that system for an indefinite period.”

— Otto Soemarwoto (1991)

Theme: Protecting and Restoring the Environment

“Sustainability equals conservation plus stewardship plus restoration.”

— Sim Van der Ryn (1994)

Theme: Oppose Exponential Growth

“Sustainability is the fundamental root metaphor that can oppose the notion of continued exponential material growth.”

— Ernest Callenbach (1992)

Theme: Nurturing the Health of Systems

“Sustainable development is development that nurtures the long-term well-being of human and ecological systems.”

— Stephen Wheeler (2004)

Theme: Biological Systems Resiliency

“In ecology, sustainability is how biological systems endure and remain diverse and productive.”

Wikipedia (2014)

Theme: Meeting Multiple Objectives

“Sustainable development seeks … to respond to five broad requirements: (1) integration of conservation and development, (2) satisfaction of basic human needs, (3) achievement of equity and social justice, (4) provision of social self-determination and cultural diversity, and (5) maintenance of ecological integrity.”

— International Union for the Conservation of Nature (1986)




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