New courses offer students unforgettable lessons in sustainability

“Once you become aware of the challenges of climate change, or biodiversity loss, or global inequity, you can’t forget them.”

U of A students eager to know more about sustainability challenges, and potential solutions, can take two recently established elective courses that are open to undergraduates in any discipline. 

Introduction to Sustainability (SUST 201) and Global Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SUST 202) will unpack questions about humanity’s role in determining our planet’s uncertain future and invite students to bring sustainable thinking into their academic programs, personal lives and future careers. 

“What I’m keen to do is introduce students to the numerous approaches people take, and the perspectives people have, on the concept of sustainability,” said ALES Professor and Sustainability Council Academic Director Robert Summers, who teaches SUST 201 and helped to develop SUST 202. 

For example, students learn how economists often approach sustainability as though it were something called a “collective action problem,” whereas many critical sociologists may focus on the role of powerful corporations in influencing policy, Summers said. 

“I often think about an undergraduate student sitting in two different classrooms, hearing two different approaches on these issues, and thinking that they have to decide which approach is right, which is wrong, and which they are going to buy into,” Summers said. “I see value in all these approaches, and if we’re going to transform things, we’re going to need to use all of the tools we have available.”

The course challenges students to understand the usefulness of controversial policies, such as carbon taxes, and to use thinking that draws from many knowledge areas to solve sustainability problems, with a focus on environmental sustainability. 

Dylan Caouette, a first-year undergraduate taking SUST 201, said that course discussions about what motivates people to act were particularly enlightening. 

“This material was really fundamental to understanding why a multitude of issues that both the scientific community and the general public have known about and understood persist even decades after solutions are first proposed,” he said. 

SUST 201 ran for the first time this fall term. SUST 202, which will run in the 2022 winter term on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 p.m.--1:50 p.m., explores the actors, mechanisms and initiatives that advance sustainable development globally. It focuses on efforts to achieve sustainable development while tackling international development issues such as uneven development, poverty alleviation, gender inequality, climate change, the rights of Indigenous people, amongst others. Development impacts in the Global North and the Global South are also examined.  

The course provides an overview of these issues and the history and evolution of development and sustainable development, with special attention paid to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 interconnected targets for “achieving a better and more sustainable future for all.”

“It can sometimes be easy to get pessimistic about big global challenges,” said Maja Osmanagić, program lead at the ALES Sustainability Council who will co-teach the course with ALES instructor Apryl Bergstrom. “I think what’s exciting about this course is that it offers some solutions and examples of actions taken by different organizations and actors that have real, tangible results. There is a case for optimism made here.”

Students taking SUST 202 will learn how different groups are tackling the SDGs and will analyze which efforts have worked, which have failed, and why this is so. Part of the course will also be dedicated to governance and exploring SDG implementation, reporting and progress. Local and U of A initiatives will also be covered. 

The course grapples with questions about which international efforts are best suited to solve particular sustainability problems and whether we can balance economic growth with environmental protection. 

“We want students to develop their critical thinking in this course,” Osmanagić said. “If they are encountering an international development issue in another course, or outside the classroom, we want them to feel equipped with some level of expertise so they feel comfortable tackling these topics.” 

It’s a sentiment that Robert Summers shares. He said that more than anything, he wants students to leave with “an awareness.”

“Once you become aware of the challenges of climate change, or biodiversity loss, or global inequity, to name a few, you can’t forget them,” he said. “I want students to always, at the back of their mind, have an awareness of these challenges and a sense that they can and should do something about it."