Understanding Sustainability

Course content

This is a course on the very fundamentals of sustainability and sustainable development, giving eight central perspectives.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly evident that a key challenge for the global community is to create a more sustainable future. While the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement from 2015 are examples of significant international efforts to achieve a more sustainable future, conflict and disagreement remain at all levels of society about what constitutes “sustainability” and how to achieve it. Accordingly, it requires an understanding of the wide variety of ways in which sustainability is defined, conceptualized, understood and used among different sciences, stakeholders and decision makers, in order to actively engage in this contested domain of sustainability in practice.

The overall purpose of the course is to provide BSc students from natural science and social science backgrounds with a roadmap to understand different concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, enabling students to qualify and reflect upon sustainability aspects in their own education and future professional practice from an interdisciplinary perspective. The course will help to disentangle the complex notion of sustainability in order to assist students in navigating within the diverging sustainability agendas that they are likely to face both within their own disciplines as well as in the broader society. The course will outline important underlying empirical and value based assumptions as well as challenges with and potentials of a wide range of different conceptualizations, interpretations and practical uses of sustainability. Offering a broad overview of different theoretical perspectives on sustainability from the social sciences and humanities to broader systems thinking, the course will facilitate productive critical thinking and reflection on both the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. This includes inherent tradeoffs and synergies associated with practical operationalization and implementation of sustainability, e.g. in relation to the UN SDGs.

Ensuring a strong link from theory to practice, every year the course will focus on specific cases, topics or themes of particular current interest. In an interdisciplinary setting considering e.g. both social, cultural, economic, environmental, political, governance and philosophical perspectives, the identified sustainability challenges as well as proposed solutions will be addressed, for instance relating to the SDGs or other operational frameworks. Additionally, guest from private companies, NGOs or public agencies working with implementation of sustainability in practice will present their perspectives on and efforts in implementing sustainability in the organizations they represent. This will be followed up by group-work aiming to analyze and discuss the organizations’ sustainability plans in relation to the different perspectives introduced in the course. The guests and specific themes will change from year to year. Themes could for instance be climate change mitigation and adaptation, energy production, food production, transportation systems, waste and recycling, nature protection and biodiversity, etc.

The course will tentatively follow the structure outlined below (a more detailed course plan will be available on Absalon shortly before the course starts):

Part 1 (What is sustainability?)  
How do different disciplines and theories in the field of social science and humanities understand and define sustainability, and what are their tools, measures and approaches for achieving sustainability?

Conceptualizing sustainability

  1. Definitions and history of the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development (e.g. the Club of Rome, the Brundtland report, the MDGs, the SDGs, etc.)
  2. Fundamental distinctions and underlying ethical aspects (e.g. contradictions, dilemmas, paradoxes)
  3. Philosophy of sustainability (e.g. human-nature relationship, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism, individual and collective responsibility)


Interpreting and measuring sustainability

  1. Ecological perspectives (e.g. non-equilibrium ecology, risk and planetary boundaries, systems analysis)
  2. Economic perspectives (e.g. weak and strong sustainability, externalities, cost-benefit capital approach, neoclassical and ecological economics)
  3. Political science perspectives (e.g. public policy, political ecology, environmental justice)
  4. Sociological perspectives (e.g. cultural conditions)


Practising sustainability

  1. Politics of sustainability (e.g. how different actors use sustainability for various purposes, critical policy studies, international agreements)
  2. Governance and law (e.g. interventions, regulation, incentives, environmental law, institutions, collaboration, participatory processes)
  3. Solution spaces (e.g. incrementalism versus transformation, ecomodernism versus degrowth)


Part 2 (Applications in practice)
How do different actors approach and use sustainability, and what is the importance of public and corporate governance? Guests invited from private companies, public agencies, NGOs, from local to global scale, and from different parts of the value chain will give real-life examples of how they work with sustainability. In relation to each presentation, group discussions will facilitate reflection on the use of the different disciplines and theories presented in Part 1. If relevant, this will be supplemented with group work analyzing the theories, perspectives and approaches to sustainability employed (implicitly or explicitly) in the sustainability strategy plans of the organizations represented by the guests. 

Part 3 (Relating to student’s own scientific field)

Writing an essay on a specific case of relevance for the student’s own scientific field reflecting on learning from part 1 and 2. This may be related to the potential sustainability strategy plan analysis mentioned in part 2. The essay forms the basis for examination in the course.


BSc Programme in Domestic Animal Science
BSc Programme in Natural Resources.

Learning outcome

Upon completing this course, participants should be able to:


1.  Describe different conceptualizations and definitions of sustainability

2.  Explain how different definitions of sustainability relate to different ethical perspectives

3.  Explain sustainability from different perspectives, including economic, social, governance and ecological dimensions


1.  Assess how sustainability is operationalized and measured across different levels of scales

2.  Identify weaker and stronger conceptualizations of sustainability

3.  Identify similarities and differences in value-based and empirical assumptions underlying different conceptualizations of sustainability in practice


1.  Critically analyze sustainability strategies and plans

2.  Reflect on interconnections, tradeoffs and synergies between economic, social, governance and ecological dimensions of sustainability

3.  Reflect on different conceptualizations of and strategies to achieve sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective

The course is based on a mix of lectures, student presentations, guest lectures, and group work. A high level of student participation in in-class discussions is expected.

The actual list of course literature will be made available on Absalon shortly before course start.

Examples of literature that may be used in the course are:

Ponte, S. 2019. Business, Power and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains. Zed Books.

Ian Scoones, Peter Newell and Melissa Leach (eds.) 2015. The Politics of Green Transformations. Earthscan.

Kallis, G. 2018 Degrowth. Agenda Publishing

Buscher, B. and Fletcher, R. 2020. The Conservation Revolution, Verso

Manfield 2009 Sustainability chp. 3 in A Companion to Environmental Geography. Edited by N. Castree, D. Demeritt, D. Liverman and Bruce Rhoads

Scoones (2007) Sustainability, Development in Practice, 17:4-5, 589-596

Langston, R. 2012 Carson’s Legacy: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Gender Concerns GAIA 21/3 (2012): 225– 229

Sprugel 1991 Disturbance, Equilibrium, and Environmental Variability: What is 'Natural' Vegetation in a Changing Environment? Biological Conservation

Lenton et al. 2019: Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. Nature, 575: 592-595

Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh (2000). Ecological Economics: Themes, Approaches, and Differences with Environmental Economics.

van der Linden, S. (2018). The future of behavioral insights: On the importance of socially situated nudges. Behavioural Public Policy 2 (2), 207-217.

David Pearce (2002). An Intellectual History of Environmental Economics. Annual Review of Energy and Environment, volume 27, pp. 57-81.

Purvis, May, Robinson, 2019: Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science 14, 681-695

S. Polasky, C. L. Kling, S. A. Levin, S. R. Carpenter, G. C. Daily, P. R. Ehrlich, G. M. Heal, J. Lubchenco, (2019) Role of economics in analyzing the environment and sustainable development. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 5233–5238

C. Paul, N. Hanley, S.T. Meyer, C. Fürst, W.W. Weisser, T. Knoke (2020). On the functional relationship between biodiversity and economic value Sci. Adv., 6 (5), p. eaax7712

E. Millard (2017). Still brewing: Fostering sustainable coffee production. World Development Perspectives 7-8, 32-42.

M.E. Odijie (2018). Sustainability winners and losers in business-biased cocoa sustainability programmes in West Africa. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2018.1445408

Thiele, L. P. (2016). Sustainability. John Wiley & Sons.

Farley, H. M., & Smith, Z. A. (2020). Sustainability: if it's everything, is it nothing?. Routledge.

Washington, H. (2015). Demystifying sustainability: Towards real solutions. Routledge.


It is recommended that students have completed two years of their BSc program. The course is also open to MSc students. Students from all disciplines can participate.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment, made during the last week of the course
Type of assessment details
Writing an essay on a specific case of relevance for the student’s own scientific field reflecting on learning from part 1 and 2. This may be related to the potential sustainability strategy plan analysis mentioned in part 2.
All aids allowed
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
one internal examiner

The same as the ordinary

Criteria for exam assessment

The assessment will be based on the student's ability to show in the written essay that the learning outcomes described above have been achieved.

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 40
  • Preparation
  • 86
  • Practical exercises
  • 40
  • Exam
  • 40
  • English
  • 206


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
The course lasts three weeks. The course begins Monday August 5, 2024 and teaching ends Friday August 16, 2024. The last week of the course is exam work where physical presence is not required.
The number of seats may be reduced in the late registration period
Study Board of Natural Resources, Environment and Animal Science
Contracting department
  • Department of Food and Resource Economics
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Science
Course Coordinators
  • Søren Bøye Olsen   (4-84807380517a7783803f7c863f757c)
  • Christian Gamborg   (3-737877507976827f3e7b853e747b)
  • Aske Skovmand Bosselmann   (2-70714f7875817e3d7a843d737a)
Saved on the 28-02-2023

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