Definition of sustainability as it applies to courses. (STARS)

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StaffAASHE Member
Joined: Jan 6 2009

This post is related to STARS, AASHE's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

I recently received an inquiry that I thought might be of interest to folks that visit this forum.  A colleague asked if the STARS team knew of any institutional examples of a working definition for sustainability as it applies to sustainability-focused and -related courses.

Does anyone have a definition that they would like to share?

's picture
AASHE Member
Joined: Oct 5 2009

Well, there's the classic Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  (See for more on this.)

Then there is the three-e model for decision making, which argues that a decision is sustainable when it takes an appropriately balanced view of ecological, economic and equity concerns.  (See for more on this.)

 Synthesize across the two and you're close to a working defintion of sustainability, it seems to me.

livingston.28's picture
AASHE Member
Joined: Mar 11 2010

jillian wrote:

Does anyone have a definition that they would like to share?


Not an institutional definition, but a quotation from Simon Dresner's "The Principles of Sustainability"(2002), citing Nitin Desai, who worked on the Brundtland report: "the issue is not defining sustainable development, but understanding it....The value of any definition of development is simply the clue that it gives to the moral premises of the person who's giving the definition."  And Dresner goes on to comment: "The problem in agreeing on the meaning of sustainable development is not fundamentally about agreeing on a precise definition, but about agreeing upon the values that would underlie any such definition" (p. 70).

For an extensive philosophical elaboration of this point, there's Bryan Norton's monumental Sustainability (2005), which emphasizes the diverse values organized by the term and the need for ongoing conversation and social learning about the significance of sustainability. 

Joined: Nov 24 2009

Here's another definition of Sustainable Architecture:


Architecture without poetry is just merchandise; architecture with poetry that does not address climate change mitigation is bad architecture!

Joined: Nov 24 2009

Another try at the definitions for Architecture and Sustainability (thanks mostly to David Lee Smith, with a minor adaptation by yours truly:


ARCHITECTURE is the poetic and socially responsive physical answer to all-encompassing environmental concerns. 
Architectural expression varies.  It is not the expression that is critical but the overall commitment to society and the environment. 

SUSTAINABILITY -  Do not do unto the environment that which is harmful.   How to achieve sustainability is complex and integrative.  Go and learn.

AASHE MemberBoard
Joined: Dec 23 2008

I'm wondering if anybody has any examples of defining sustainability specifically as it relates to curriculum and research (in relation to the STARS credits on Education and Research).  One of the issues that we have had has been translating our working definition of sustainability (i.e. Brundtland report) into a definition that focuses on sustainability in education and academic work.  For example, should courses and/or research that don't focus on environmental issues or physical development, but address issues of social justice and equity count as sustainability courses? 

AASHE Member
Joined: Dec 23 2008

 Here is a draft our grad students put together that the faculty is now tinkering with so we can apply it to our STARS ER credits. No warrenty expressed or implied--but this is a good start.


Draft for Final Review (04.15.2010)

STARS 1.0- Education & Research- Credit 5:
Defining Sustainability in the Curriculum

The University of Colorado at Boulder has committed to expanding upon its path marking sustainability achievements at the administrative, operational, student action, and academic levels. Our approach to sustainability-enhanced curricula is based on the following fundamental premises:

 Universities are the cultivators and generators of knowledge, charged with educating the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow. As such, they play a crucial role in the creation of sustainable societies.
 Education is an essential tool for achieving sustainability: public awareness and training are vital in moving students and, by extension, society toward sustainability.
 Where practicable, sustainability should be integrated into university curricula, as appropriate.
 Each university has its own unique context, resources, and needs that influence its response to sustainability’s prominence in its curriculum.

Working from established definitions of sustainability, we have assessed how the multifarious dimensions of sustainability should be expressed through the course offerings of the University. A widely accepted definition of one aspect of sustainability was given by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The Commission defined sustainable development as "forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

The American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) also incorporates the economic, social and environmental elements of sustainability into its definition; the so-called “three-legged stool.”. The relationship between these three elements must be properly managed to ensure the long-term viability of our communities and, by extension, the planet.

Sustainability-focused courses explore a broad range of sustainability topics, or select one area to investigate in depth; they may also “approach an issue or topic using sustainability as a lens.” On the other hand, sustainability-related courses include one or more elements from this list as a discrete element in the course. Courses do not have to meet all the criteria established above in order to be classified as either sustainability-related or sustainability-focused.

Using the definitions provided above as a guide, we offer the following criteria for assaying sustainable curricula.

Courses designated as sustainability-related or sustainability-focused may contain the following elements:

 Integration of basic and applied knowledge from multiple disciplines, including the natural and social sciences, to analyze human-environment interactions;
 Analysis of the tradeoffs or co-benefits involved in managing resources for the social, economic, and environmental welfare of current and future generations;
 Development of alternative strategies for the use of natural, human, and fiscal resources that are compatible with the constraints on these resources;
 Implementation of practical solutions to socioeconomic and environmental challenges, including those that relate to energy, technology, ecosystems, social transformations, food systems, policy, and governance.

Students that successfully complete sustainability-related or sustainability-focused courses develop the ability to:

 Use and integrate knowledge and skills drawn from several disciplines;
 Understand how sustainability applies to their major, chosen career path, and everyday life;
 Apply scientific expertise to create sustainable solutions, technology, and applications;
 Communicate sustainability’s essential elements;
 Promote sustainable communities on and beyond the University's campus.

Due to the shifting nature of sustainability issues, those linked to sustainability should be prepared to adapt continually. Thus, a curriculum that integrates sustainability also demands periodic reassessment.

swtower's picture
AASHE Member
Joined: Apr 22 2009

Dave Newport wrote:

 Here is a draft our grad students put together that the faculty is now tinkering with so we can apply it to our STARS ER credits. No warrenty expressed or implied--but this is a good start:


Thank you! That was incredibly helpful.'s picture
AASHE Member
Joined: Dec 23 2008

This is a great question, especially insofar as many liberal-arts courses touch on sustainability concepts, but don't feature sustainability as a central theme.  How much attention to green concepts allows a course to be counted as "sustainability-related?" What definition can one find that delineates the concepts?

AASHE Member
Joined: Dec 23 2008

I'm part of a Five College Curriculum Committee on Sustainability that recently decided that a course needs to address at least two of the three "pillars" of sustainability to be incuded on our list of "sustainability courses." 

An interesting conversation followed this decision among our "mainstream" faculty.  In response to this discussion as well as to use for my own classes, I posted the following blog to a new global education web page 

Symbols Matter!

John Gerber



AASHE Member
Joined: Oct 29 2012

RE: Sustainability in the curriculum


Here at Minnesota State University Moorhead we had a lively discussion resulting in this formal adoption of sustainability research:

Sustainability research includes scholarly and creative inquiries into the complexity of interactions among, between, and within social, ecological, and economic systems and/or the mechanisms required to foster these systems in a healthy and resilient manner such that they are capable of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet thier own needs.

As for the definitiion of sustainability in the curriculum we're in the same boat as everyone else who posted here. I did really like the definition crafted at UC Boulder. However, I think I'll start with the boilerplate definition offered by the STARS V 1.2 Technical Manual (p. 42).