Sustainability science: what are the key topics?

By Joern Fischer

For the first time this year, I’m teaching a Masters level course in “sustainability science”. I was pretty free in designing this course. As I was putting it together, I often wondered what are the key aspects of sustainability science that students really should know about?

That, combined with some thinking about my own expertise and which colleagues I could draw on, then led me to develop the curriculum. Here are some key things that I think anyone doing “sustainability science” needs to know at least a little bit about:

– Origin of the notion of sustainability, including alternative definitions and the history of sustainable development;

– Global change, the Anthropocene, and the Great Acceleration;

– Systems thinking: including the role of feedbacks and different types of leverage points to intervene in a system;

– Resilience thinking: key concepts such as resilience, thresholds, regime shifts, and transformation;

– Social-ecological systems, human-environment systems, or coupled human and natural systems (depending on whose jargon you prefer…); and

– Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity — how to integrate science and problem solving.

In addition, I felt it was useful to know something about how to measure sustainability (e.g. via various indicators) and specifically about the role of participation. And the course I have now put together also involves a couple of in-depth case studies. (I’m very glad that some of the teaching is done by others, including Daniel Lang, Jacqueline Loos, Jens Newig, and Dave Abson.

By necessity, this is my biased view of what matters in sustainability science. If people have strong opinions on what is missing here, I’d be interested to hear those thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Sustainability science: what are the key topics?

  1. Hello Jörn, thanks for your overview on sustainability-related topics. The first thing I was missing on this mainly conceptual level are economic viewpoints on sustainability (humans as rational vs. bounded rational decision maker) and valuation techniques (e.g. willingness to pay for non-material ecosystem services). This would lead to different views on how humans with their needs and decisions are represented in social-ecological systems. It seems to me that you have focused on ecological sustainability. In order to reconcile different notions of sustainability or to identify trade-offs, I think one needs to learn as well about social or economic arguments in sustainability debates.
    Lastly, it would be nice to integrate some case studies to this kind of lecture, such as fail and succes stories of human societies (-> Jared Diamond?). Directly related to case studies, one can learn about suitable methods to analyse/investigate (non-)sustainable systems (e.g. different model types). This may also reveal who (actors, government, scientists) can solve what kind of problems in transdisciplinary projects.

    So, maybe it is helpful to collect some/most favorite/more-or-less scientific multi-media sources (films, comics, public lectures) that help to illustrate or work with these topics, is this something you can do here?

    • Hi Romina, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your thoughts on ecological economics — this isn’t my area of expertise, and it’s covered in some specialist courses in our degree … so I guess that’s why I have stayed clear of it. But indeed, key points that shouldn’t be ignored altogether!

      Regarding Diamond, I use a video of his, which I find gives a useful summary:

      I think it’s a good idea to list some useful resources, so I’ll just paste some of the ones I have found helpful here.

      Environmental milestones timeline:

      Easter Island

      Jared Diamond on collapse

      Movie on land cover change:

      Movie on population growth:

      Global change:

      Systems thinking:

      Systems thinking videos 1-5:

      Food systems as an example:

      Regime shifts:

      … I’m sure there’s more! But these are some of the most helpful little bits and pieces that I have integrated into my teaching.



      • Thanks a lot Joern for this collection, it seems like a very good start. Another discipline (which?) related to ecological sustainability might clarify why we act so little against the detrimental effects we have on our environment where we know so much about it. The open challenges in sustainability science might be havier on the social side right now.

      • I agree that the bigger challenges are on the “doing” front, as opposed to the “knowing” front — and the natural sciences in particular have contributed a lot of knowledge about the problems. Next, we need to identify and act on the solutions ….

  2. Sounds like a great course Joern. I would also add to your list understanding the connections between knowledge and action, and the complex interface between science, policy and practice

  3. I’d add political ecology in there. Robbins’ text Political Ecology is, to me, a must-read (though a difficult one) and for advanced students his & Turner’s article comparing land-change science and PE may be useful (; Late Victorian Holocausts (Mike Davis) offers an under appreciated fully-dialectical approach to sustainability in terms of famine, production, and nature (; I prefer Joseph Tainter to Jared Diamond on collapse (they are similar but different; John Vandermeer critiques the latter here: ; Jason Antrosio on Diamond and more here:; – “Jared Diamond has done a huge disservice to the telling of human history. He has tremendously distorted the role of domestication and agriculture in that history.””) I also always include Donella Meadows’ visioning work, which you referred to Joern (

    I also highly recommend John Vandermeer’s take on sustainability & populations ( and ; I believe he’s also published this recently in a peer-reviewed form). Lastly, I recommend Sen ( and Harvey ( On these last several, I’ve found understanding population complexities–and differences between humans and other organisms and the necessary/sustainable population distinction John makes, among others–to be crucial to introduce to students, and a useful lens for understanding complexities of political ecology more generally.

    • Thanks Jahi, as always, you’ve given me plenty to read about 🙂
      Next time, could you please sent the time required to read those things, too? Thanks! 🙂

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