Sustainable Development

Image from Krankys Cartoons: Development (GEOG:30019) is my third-year subject at the University of Melbourne. I’ve been delivering and coordinating this subject for three years, and really love the ideas and arguments that it provokes. The student feedback has been really positive, (SES Feedback 2015) though with large subjects it is always difficult to please everyone. Taking on feedback, for the 2016 term, I’ve decided to reallocate some of the marks in order to reward the work that goes into tutorial presentations, provide a more structured tutorial format, and provide more examples and clarity for the essay outline assessment. I’ve also added a short essay to the subject, so that students can have a little more feedback on their submissions before the final exam. My sincere thanks to those who offered helpful suggestions.

Subject Outline

Everyone knows what ‘Sustainable Development’ is, but if you stop to think, it may become less clear. Sustainable development has become a chameleon, suiting different needs and fulfilling different roles for different people with different interests. In this subject, we will explore this appealing-yet-slippery idea with the aim of deciding whether it is a suitable concept with which to explore the cultural, environmental, and economic challenges facing society. Is sustainable development a useful idea, or do we need to move on? Given the looming importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) there is no better time to critically engage with this idea.

In addition to the debates over sustainable development, this subject will provide students with the skills needed to examine, analyse, and report on challenges related to their interests. At its heart, the subject explores whether stainable development can be useful in a world (seemingly) approaching numerous catastrophic tipping points. The climate is changing, the oceans are acidifying, the soils cannot keep producing our food, and wealth is being concentrated amongst a smaller and smaller segment of the world. Is sustainable development helpful in understandings, and ideally changing, these trends?

There are also more practical considerations surrounding the debate over sustainable development. Some people might be interested in having a greater impact on the world through development projects, micro-credit, or volunteering. Is sustainable development helpful? Can the concept help individuals engaged in improving our world (or at least trying)? Does it help ensure that their efforts are beneficial and not perverted by wider interests and processes?

It is also worth considering if sustainable development might not be better thought of as an analytical framing: as a way of pulling apart problems or projects in order to better understand or assess their impact on ecological sustainability, development, or economics? Is sustainable development an analytical tool for making sense of ‘wicked’ problems? Better yet, can sustainable development be turned inwards? Can it help us come to grips with our own interests and agendas as we consider our place and actions in a world spiralling in an abyss?

In this subject we will review the history of sustainable development, which draws From Griggs et al. 2013together literature from Geography, Sociology, Engineering, Psychology, Economics, and the Sciences. We will explore critiques of sustainable development, and force ourselves to consider whether it is possible, practical, or even useful in the ‘real world’. We will explore several key challenges, using sustainable development as a lens or framing. And finally and most creatively, we will attempt to reinterpret sustainable development in a world of growing inequality.



The subject is organised and will be delivered around weekly sessions. These two-hour blocks will take a lecture format, but will rely on class contributions and discussions. The lectures will offer a traditional academic presentation based on the weekly theme, though insight will be delivered through questioning, debating, and critiquing presentations; please be sure to be respectful and contribute to a supportive environment. Students will also participate in tutorial (Q&As), in which they must present a question for debate to their group. These sessions are an opportunity for students to apply their learning and be critical of the topics being presented.

Distribution of Marks:

Quiz (10% of final mark): Each week, there will be an ‘online quiz’ (10 questions) due the evening prior to lecture. This will provide students with the opportunity to show their understanding of the weekly readings. A quiz on citation and referencing will precede submission of the short essay.

Tutorial Question and Answer (20% of final mark): students are responsible for attending* and contributing to tutorial discussions. Drawing on the assigned reading for each week, students will develop a question for tutorial discussion.

Essay Outline (15% of final mark): In the first half of term, students will develop an essay outline. In ‘bullet point’ or another agreed upon format approved by the co-ordinator; the (700 word) outline will show the student’s essay plan. The outline will communicate their argument, rationale, and sources.

Short essay (15% of final mark): Following the mid-term break, students will submit a 700 word short essay. The topic will be supplied.

Take home final exam (40% of final mark): Due June 9 th 2016, students will submit their final ‘take-home’ essay (1800 words). The topic will be provided on the final day of class.

A late penalty of 10%/day will be assessed on all late submissions.

*This subject offers students a blended option, with lectures recorded and online tutorials available (note: students cannot move from online to in-person tutorials following the second week of class).