Introduction to Sustainable Development and Education

Sustainability is about balancing environmental, social, and economic needs for both present and future generations.


This lecture aims to present you the fundamental knowledge for and basic principles of sustainability. 

Upcoming is the discussion of ecological principles, the ongoing ecological crisis, and a deep dive into various frameworks utilized by ecologists. On topic 3, we will see examples of people taking action and applying these frameworks in real life.

Through augmentation of knowledge with its practice, this lecture aims to equip you with the basic tools to understand sustainability issues and imagine the alternative.

Sustainability in a Nutshell

KEY POINTS: Enhancing sustainability competences

  • Sustainability is about balancing environmental, social, and economic needs for both present and future generations.
  • It recognizes three pillars: environmental, social, and economic sustainability, which are interconnected and reinforce each other.
  • Sustainable practices are crucial in various sectors like education, agriculture, energy, transportation, construction, and waste management.
  • The concept of sustainability has historical roots, with influences from indigenous knowledge, conservation movements, and landmark reports like the Brundtland Report.
  • Education plays a vital role in promoting sustainability by raising awareness, building knowledge, and encouraging sustainable lifestyles.
  • Sustainability competencies encompass critical skills like systems thinking, problem-solving, and ethical awareness.
  • Pedagogical approaches like experiential learning, project-based learning, and place-based education promote sustainability education effectively.
  • "Social Hacking of Higher Education for Sustainability" aims to reshape institutions, curricula, and practices to prioritize sustainability and create future sustainability leaders.


  • Ecology and Its Strains
  • Ecological Frameworks
  • Sustainability in Practice

Topic 1 - Overview

  • Topic 1 will delve into the basics of ecology and its contemporary challenges. 
  • Firstly, the terms ecology and biosphere will be defined 
  • Then, the term ecosystem collapse and how it relates to the idea of a tipping point will be further detailed. You will learn what a mass extinction event is as well as about the ongoing Holocene extinction event.
  • The idea of tipping point will be strengthened through discussion of feedback loops. Finally, effects of ecological collapse on human life will be explained.

Topic 2 - Overview

  • Topic 2 is a lengthy discussion about frameworks developed by ecologists to make sense of the ecology and its catastrophe.
  • Four distinct ideas will be defined, detailed and criticized. These are; shallow ecology, deep ecology, social ecology, and degrowth.

Topic 3 - Overview

  • Topic 3 is made out of two sections: SDG wedding cake and sustainability in action.
  • SDG wedding cake is a model that will be proposed as an alternative to SDGs under the light of the discussion in Topic 2. This model is suggested to be considered when going forward with rest of the event.
  • „In Action!“ aims to demonstrate how the theoretical conversation this lecture platforms can and is applied in real-life actions. It is hoped that the demonstration of real-life cases will inspire the audience to apply their knowledge in their daily life and projects.

Topic 1 - Ecology and Its Strains 

Short Activity

  • Take 5 minutes write down which non-human animals you have interacted with in the last 3 days

Discussion questions

  • What comes to your mind when the word “ecology” is mentioned?
  • How does an ecologist look like? Do they have a lab coat or are they deep in the mud with plastic boots?

What is Ecology?

Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments. Ecology is characterized by methodological holism as it studies individuals as members of their wider natural world. Some principles are as follows

  • Ecosystems are a fundamental unit in the study of ecology as facilitators of interactions among biotic and abiotic components; sum of all ecosystems is known as the biosphere
  • These components are connected through large scale cyclical mechanisms
  • The biosphere is a (mostly) closed system with finite resources; therefore, every input has implications in the same biosphere

Ecosystems have in-built homeostatic (self-stabilizing) mechanisms, any change in it is counter-balanced by a reaction

Ecosystem collapse

When changes in a given ecosystem are too drastic, returning to the old balance may be impossible after a certain tipping point is crossed

This leads to the collapse of the ecosystem: loss of defining characteristics in parallel with immense loss of life that is often irreversible

Currently, we are in Anthropocene/Holocene extinction event - meteoric biodiversity loss due to human activity. A million species are on the brink of extinction as species go extinct at a rate not seen 

UN International Resource Panel: resource use is responsible for 90% of total global biodiversity loss and water stress

"When 75% of world’s species go extinct in less than 2 million years, it is considered a Mass Extinction Event"

Tipping Point and the Climate Change

Tipping Points are thresholds that once crossed, change a given system drastically over a period of time until a new equilibrium is found

Climate change, one of the greatest drivers and results of the Holocene extinction, has imbedded feedback loops that make a tipping point a possibility

Some of these (positive) feedback loops are: 

  • Methane releases from the melting permafrost
  • Loss of solar-reflecting ice sheets
  • Ocean circulation pattern disruption
  • Increased occurrence of forest fires

Human relation to the Holocene extinction

It is an established fact that human activity is the main driver of the current extinction event.

Furthermore, this event is estimated to pose grave risks for the global human community. Some of these are:

  • Increased health risks such as skin cancer, heat strokes,  vector borne diseases, and mental health
  • People being displaced due to drought and sea level rise
  • Increased food insecurity
  • Political instability due to resource scarcity and migration

Topic 2 - Ecological Frameworks

Below are “Green Bullets”, ammunition developed by US Department of Defense to eliminate hazardous materials from smalls arms manufacturing. 

Is it possible to claim that these bullets are truly ecological? 

Is environmentalism limited to empirical research and scientific postulation, or should it delve into social and political questions?

Two broad categories: deep and shallow.

Shallow ecology is concerned primarily with natural resource degradation and pollution 

  • need to apply ecological principles to ensure better management and control of the environment for human benefit
  • environmental preservation is conceptualized purely in terms of its relation to human needs whether basic or recreational

Deep ecology posits that environmental problems arise from a belief system that places humans above rest of the nature

  • Focus on humans as part of the wider ecological system
  • Nature has intrinsic value
  • Traditionally more spiritual approach

Shallow Ecology - Steady State Economics

Within shallow ecology, steady state economics…

  • highlights the need to preserve the resource base, especially renewable resources
  • places humans as stewards of Earth with an obligation to keep resources in trust for future generations
  • economic development as presently understood and measured is not sustainable and cannot be generalized on a global scale
  • our present conception of economic development must be radically altered

Shallow Ecology - Sustainable Development

SD aims to promote economic growth while mitigating ecological impact of said growth

  • Brundtland Report
  • states that what is needed is a type of development that can meet the needs of the present without compromising those of future generations
  • retains the Western tradition's assumption that humans have a privileged role in the biosphere
  • aims to achieve a balance between the economic, social, and environmental aspects of development

Operational objectives of sustainable development

  1. Reviving growth
  2. Changing the quality of growth
  3. Meeting essential needs for jobs, energy, water, and sanitation 
  4. Ensuring a sustainable level of population
  5. Conserving and enhancing the resource base
  6. Reorienting technology and managing risk
  7. Merging environment and economics in decision making 
  8. Reorienting international economic relations 
  9. Making development more participatory 
also known as the Brundtland report

Shallow Ecology - Criticisms

Shallow Ecology is reformist, therefore, though preferred by policymakers, it largely maintains existing social norms which fall short of responding to the current ecological crises 

SD’s commitment to sustainability is limited by the extent of our scientific knowledge 

No clear guidance of how interests of human and non-human beings should be balanced

Not clear whether unsustainable practices that are nonetheless considered vital to human interests should be discontinued

Deep Ecology

Deep Ecology posits that environmental problems are caused by anthropocentric belief systems and therefore can only be addressed through the creation of an alternative ecological worldview.  

Hands-off approach towards non-human nature 

Two tenets: biocentrism and self-realization


  1. All life forms are interdependent 
  2. All species have intrinsic value 
  3. Humans are not privileged or superior
  4. Self-realization is the broadening of the self from the ego towards all living beings

Deep Ecology - Principles of Deep Ecology

  1. All life on Earth has intrinsic value 
  2. The richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves 
  3. Humans are not privileged in anyway and should not reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs  
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures as well as nonhuman life requires a substantial decrease in human population  
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive and the situation is rapidly deteriorating  
  6. Present policies affecting basic economic, technological and ideological structures must be changed
  7. Appreciating life quality rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living

Deep Ecology - Criticisms

Absence of anthropocentrism doesn’t guarantee harmony between humans and the larger ecosystem

Does not address whether implementation of new paradigms would lead to its own cultural issues, especially given it strives to borrow from non-Western philosophies

States that methods of knowing outside of science such as intuition are equally valid, does not give any guidance on how this radical shift can be applied practically

No clear political program

Social Ecology

Social ecology’s main claim is that ecological problems arise from social problems

While deep ecology focuses on belief systems, social ecology identifies institutions as the main driver of ecological exploitation and eventual catastrophe

The theory divides nature into two categories, first nature and second nature. First nature encompasses the natural world that is shaped through biological evolution whereas second nature is bound to social evolution as created by humans. 

Hierarchy is identified as a social ill that needs to be eradicated in order to wholly address environmental issues as domination of one group of people by other is thought to be the cause of domination of nature by people

Favours decentralized ecological movements over technocratic environmentalist movements

Social Ecology - Political Agenda

Social ecology is a mainly political movement

It prescribes..

  • development of a counter-imaginative
  • local governance and direct municipal democracy
  • community assemblies
  • fostering of liberatory and communitarian political culture
  • democratic control of production
  • community credit unions, community gardens, tenant unions, cooperatives


Degrowth is an economic theory which states that infinite growth on a finite planet is inherently contradictory. It proposes socially sustainable and equitable reduction of society's throughput (Kallis, 2011) as a means to combat resource depletion.

Some of the policy proposals of the degrowth movement are:

  • Reducing working hours
  • Promoting local currencies
  • Decentralizing industries
  • Universal Basic Income
  • Promotion of local commons
  • Using empty housing units and promotion of cohousing
  • Eliminating car-dependent infrastructure

Topic 3 - Sustainability in Practice

SDG Wedding Cake Model

The SDGs "wedding cake" (animation)

In light of the previous chapter, it can be said that sustainable development on its own is not a comprehensive enough framework

In order to address the need for such comprehensive and practical framework, SDG wedding cake model is proposed

In Action!

Guerilla Gardening

Guerilla gardening is the act of reclaiming vacant public space by turning them into urban gardens and food forests.

Usually created in low-income neighbourhoods, guerilla gardens help address food insecurity while creating safe hubs for non-human life in cities.

Seed bombing

Seed bombs are an easy and effective method of greening your environment with quick results. 

Native seeds are collected and made into small balls of clay to be thrown into any space with soil. Clay prevents the seeds from blooming until it rains after which the clay gets washed away and the seeds have a better chance of survival given rainwater. 

Not only does seed bombing provide native pollinators with food and cover, it also turns barren lands into thriving ecosystems and helps fight invasive species. 

Indigenous land practices

Despite making up 5% of worlds population, Indigenous people protect more biodiversity than any other group or institution. Additionally, 21% of Earth’s territory that are inhabited by Indigenous people’s lands account for 80% of its biodiversity. 

One honorable mention is the nation of Wet’suwet’en, a landlocked first nation in the so-called British Columbia who have been resisting a pipeline project through their lands for the last half decade stating that unavoidable leaks would wreak havoc on their water resources and therefore the entire ecosystem. 

Food Not Bombs

FNB is a loose-knit group of global collectives serving free plant-based food. 

They either grow their own food or collect surplus food from shops, restaurants and bakeries. 

FNB represents a comparatively small but ingenious and important community in the fight for food security, sustainability, and waste reduction. 


Squatting is the act of reclaiming abandoned housing units or buildings and often turning them into community centers.

Famous for such squats, Berlin hosts a variety of squatted community centers that give shelter to the homeless and people under threat of violence as well as provide food programs, workshops, and function as a base for organizations with social and political goals. 

These type of squats are crucial in the effective utilization of urban resources and in addressing social issues.


Solarpunk is a visual and literary art movement imagining future society and its technology oriented towards ecological living. 

By imaging utopias and fostering the counter-imaginative, artistic movements like solarpunk help ecologists envision and strive towards a greener and more harmonious future. 

(Teikoku Shōnen, n.d.)


Torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer file sharing protocol. It is calculated that P2P protocols’ carbon footprint is around 24-48% less than Content Delivery Networks used by traditional streaming services. Furthermore, torrenting is often used to bypass copyright rules which in some cases helps researchers with paywalls and makes science more accessible for everyone. Since we argued that SD’s commitment to ecology is limited by scientific knowledge, this is imperative in ensuring that policymakers are knowledgeable and held accountable.

Library of Things

Right to Destroy (jus abutendi, translit.: right to abuse) is a property relation that was passed down to modern societies through Roman law. 

Libraries are distinct in that only by abolishing the right to destroy, they make property accessible and free for all. 

Though the first example that comes to mind is book libraries, there are other kinds of libraries lending things such as tools, seeds, toys, knitting & sewing equipment, musical instruments, and kitchen equipment. 

Through libraries, communities don’t spend their resources on buying individual things as well as care better for the equipment at hand. This decreases consumption and increases equipment lifespan. 

Can you come up with any other field that can benefit from a library of things?

Activity: Case Analysis

Option 1 – Class Discussion

Critically analyze the given sustainability in action practices according to the given ecological framework.

  1. Food Not Bombs from Shallow Ecology perspective
  2. Indigenous land practices from Deep Ecology perspective
  3. Solarpunk from Social Ecology perspective
  4. Library of Things from Degrowth perspective

Option 2 – Individual Analysis

Using the template, participants individually analyze a sustainability in action practice of their choosing.

Option 3 – Role Playing Activity

The mentor chooses a sustainability in action practice.

Roles are randomly allocated.

Participants debate the ethicality and applicability of the practice given their role and the linked ecological perspective. 


Topic 1:

Kemp, L. (2023). Ecological Breakdown and Human Extinction. SJ Beard, Martin Rees, Catherine Richards and Clarissa Rios Rojas (eds). The Era of Global Risk: An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2023, click here for website

University of Maryland. (2023). The Sixth Extinction: The Holocene Extinction & Modern Defaunation. GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution: The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past. click here for website

World Economic Forum. (2023). The Global Risks Report 2023 18th Edition. Geneva, Switzerland. click here for website

City of Chicago. (n.d.). Climate Impacts on Human Health. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change Impacts. click here for website

Topic 2:

Merle, J. (1994). Sustainable development and deep ecology: An analysis of competing traditions. Environmental Management 18, 477–488. click here for website

Clark, J. (1997). A Social Ecology*, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 8:3, 3-33, DOI: 10.1080/10455759709358746

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

Kallis, G. (2010). In defence of degrowth. Barcelona, Spain.

Næss, A. & Sessions, G. (1984). Basic Principles of Deep Ecology. click here for website

Valera, L. (2018). Home, Ecological Self and Self-Realization: Understanding Asymmetrical Relationships Through Arne Næss’s Ecosophy. J Agric Environ Ethics 31, 661–675. click here for website

Topic 3:

Stockholm Resilience Centre. (2016). The SDGs wedding cake. click here for website

Matthews, C. (2019). Make wildflower seed bombs. BBC Countryfile. click here for website

Simmons, M. (2022). The complicated truth about pipelines crossing Wet’suwet’en territory. The Narwhal. click here for website

Gaglione, J. (2023). The Wet’suwet’en Pipeline & Canadian-Indigenous Legal Conflict. Amnesty International at the University of Toronto. click here for website

Slaski, J. (2020). Squats in Berlin: The city’s most famous occupied houses — in pictures. tipBerlin. click here for website

Lazarovic, S. (2021). Why “Solarpunk” Gives Me Hope for a More Sustainable Future. YES! Magazine. click here for website

A. Raman, D. Karamshuk, N. Sastry, A. Secker and J. Chandaria. (2018). Consume Local: Towards Carbon Free Content Delivery. Vienna, Austria, pp. 994-1003, doi: 10.1109/ICDCS.2018.00100.

Sprankling, J. (2014). The Right to Destroy. The International Law of Property. Oxford Academic. click here for website

Click on the image below for the full lesson in PDF format

Below you will find the templates for Unit 1. You can click on the images to access the PDF formats of these templates for download and printing.


Activity 2 Template


Blue Collar Worker Template

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