Sustainability Thinking

ST Examples     ST Resources   ST FAQs    ST Case Studies

La Trobe University defines Sustainability Thinking as follows:

Sustainability Thinking is a capacity to engage effectively with social, environmental and economic change and challenges in the contemporary world. These include, for example, climate change, food and water security and human and labour rights.

Sustainability Thinking demands that all La Trobe University students reflect on:

  • the complex interactions between natural, economic, social, political and cultural systems;
  • our obligations to future generations;
  • how the choices we make will affect the public good and the well being of future generations.

At La Trobe, Sustainable Thinking is inextricably linked to good global citizenship.”

Your Quick Guide to Sustainability Thinking

What is the Essence of Sustainability Thinking?

– Two key ideas: Systems and Responsible Futures.

Systems means looking at the complex interactions between factors. If we consider the ways we are currently falling short of living sustainably, and what solutions or ways forward there might be to these challenges, they inevitably fold out into complex issues and interactions, none of which can be addressed without addressing the others. For example, climate change might simply be addressed by replacing fossil fuel use with renewable energy. But this brings into question the relative economics of fossil fuels and renewables. There is also the question of how urgent the climate change question is, and the politics and social relationships that influence this sense of priority… and so on.

Responsible Futures: While our students might have a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of factors and interactions that might influence a sustainability issue, there is a need for them also to consider their own sense of responsibility for the future – this includes also a clear understanding of how the individual decisions they make are likely to affect the future.

Can ST Focus On Just Dimension Of Sustainability e.g. Social Sustainability?

No – the definition of ST requires that all elements of sustainability be considered together: social, environmental, economic. This is the point of ST. Other approaches to disciplines allow a focus on individual dimensions, but it is the purpose of ST to look at the complex interactions between these multiple factors.

What Are Some Ways to Get Started?

You might want to think about the future of your discipline/profession. In doing this, you will need to think beyond the immediate priorities of the discipline, and consider the extent to which the discipline/profession can or will continue to practice in the longer term, in the same ways that it currently is. You might want to look at how professional associations and networks in your discipline are looking at the issues of sustainability, and where they think this is heading – there are some links in the Resources section that might help get you started.

Some staff have been successful in identifying issues or opportunities for innovation in their discipline that also contain strong sustainability themes. The issue of Diabetes in Health Science and Allied Health is one such issue. In a narrow sense, addressing diabetes is a matter of looking at diet and medication. But in a broader sense, we are facing a diabetes epidemic in Australia and elsewhere, that require us to consider how health and wellness relate to our broader view of healthy, sustainable living. So issues such as the walkability of communities, local fresh food production, potential for shared/community gardens, and the subsequent links to active recreation, composting, etc. are all in scope for linking the study of diabetes to sustainable living in the future.

How Overtly Do I Need to Cover Sustainability?

Sustainability Thinking needs to be an overt part of the subject, but preferably in ways that integrate or link with some issue or activity that is located in the discipline (see examples above, and in the Examples and Resources for Sustainability Thinking). Remember that ST does not need to be in every part of the subject, but it needs to be sufficiently present to meet the requirements of the Essential – see Description above, and “What Formal Requirements Need to Be Met?” on the Getting Started page. The purpose of the Essential is to explore some dimension of sustainability as this relates to the discipline or topic that the subject is covering. It is intended that the ST Essential expands the student view of their discipline, in ways that address sustainability in the discipline – this will inevitably mean looking at the complexity of issues that sustainability brings up for the discipline, including issues for which there are currently no easy solutions. To some extent this places the staff member in a collaborative relationship with their students – looking together at the complexity and uncertainty of sustainability, as this relates to the discipline/topic that is being explored, rather than the staff member being a source of pre-digested ideas or information. ST encourages active, exploratory learning in students, and is amenable to team processes and projects.

How Will I Respond To Students Concerns About Covering An Area Such As Sustainability If It Is Not A Traditional Part Of The Discipline?

Students need to be aware that sustainability is being overtly addressed as part of the subject – this is one of the reasons for putting the definition of ST in the student learning guide, and making it clear in which parts of the subject ST is being addressed. For students who have concerns that the subject is being diverted by something foreign to the heart of the discipline, your response needs to be that: a) it is important for the future of the discipline/topic that sustainability needs to be addressed at some stage in education for this (you need to do a bit of homework to be up to speed with what this looks like for your discipline); and b) you as a staff member, as well as La Trobe as a whole, consider that students who have a sustainability perspective on their discipline will have an edge in the future, as sustainability issues come to be addressed more centrally in the discipline.

Below is some more general information about the Sustainability Thinking Essential, some staff talking about their experience of ST, and links to other resources and sites.

How is Sustainability Thinking Helpful to Students?

Robyn Yucel talks about how embedding Sustainability Thinking in the subject Science & Society helped students better understand some of the concepts in this subject.

From a student viewpoint, Sustainability Thinking is described as:

“Sustainability Thinking: Meeting today’s needs without compromising our common future.

It’s a simple idea, but one that entails making often complex decisions about our environment, our economy, our demands for social justice and our culture.

Sustainability thinking is joined-up thinking. It’s about securing our future food and water supplies while we ensure the future of the planet’s diverse plant and animal species.

It’s about ensuring that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with strengthening people’s human and political rights. And it’s about ensuring that our diverse cultures are respected and thrive.”

At a recent La Trobe UniversityForum on Sustainability Thinking, Prof. Robert Manne talks with three guests about what Universities can contribute to the development of Sustainability Thinking in students, across disciplines. The three guests are:

  • Prof. Ian Lowe – former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation
  • Prof. Kate Auty – former Commissioner for Environment, Victoria
  • Ms. Lucy Manne – co-director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Click here to see the complete Sustainability Thinking Forum.


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