Essentials: Quick guide for Sustainability Thinking

La Trobe Definition

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 wellbeing of future generations.

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

Definition for students

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; human and labor rights.

— from La Trobe University Essentials - Explanation for Students, 2015

The Essence of Sustainability Thinking

Sustainability Thinking is based around two key ideas — Systems Thinking and Responsible Futures.

Systems Thinking

This means taking account of the complex interactions between factors, not reducing them to simple linear analysis.

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.

Need to Include All Dimensions of Sustainability Thinking Together

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 relevant multiple factors.

ST also requires that the responsibility for the future also be included, when looking at options for deciding and acting on issues that have interacting social, environmental and economic dimensions.

Some Ways to Get Started with ST

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 will be able to 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 ideas in the Resources section below that might help you get 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 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.

ST Needs to be Covered Overtly

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 ideas in the Resources section below).

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 "Approving and Essential in Your Subject" on the Essentials for Staff part of the La Trobe Learning and Teaching website.

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.

Below there 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 Sustainability Thinking Is Helpful to Students

  • "…[there has been] a big shift in students views about uncertainty in science … they came into the subject thinking that science gave us certainty …they can now understand the idea of risk and the idea of making predictions based on that risk … they are [now] thinking more big picture about uncertainty and more big picture about sustainability."
    — Robyn Yucel talking about how embedding Sustainability Thinking in the subject Science & Society helped students better understand some of the concepts in this subject.

La Trobe University Sustainability Thinking Essential Explanation for Students:

  • "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."

Sustainability Thinking resources

  • The Australian National Learning and Teaching Sustainability website contains sustainability education curriculum resources, examples of subjects and courses, and a list of people who are active in Australia in bringing sustainability into their learning and teaching - the website can be searched in multiple ways.
  • The Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future (International) website is a UNESCO resource that provides professional development for student teachers, teachers, curriculum developers, education policy makers, and authors of educational materials. The modules are divided into 4 themes: Curriculum Rationale; Sustainable Development Across the Curriculum; Contemporary Issues; and Teaching & Learning Strategies.
  • The Canterbury University Christchurch University (UK) website Futures Initiative: Developing Futures Thinking is an excellent and easy to follow guide for why sustainability education is important in Universities and how this can be pursued.
  • RMIT University have an excellent set of resources, including a practical toolkit and templates, to support staff in enhancing and embedding sustainability within the curriculum, for all programs - see RMIT Learning & Teaching for Sustainability and the RMIT Learning & Teaching for Sustainability Tool Kit.