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. Here are some of the comments for recent years: 20152017, and 2018, though with large subjects it is always difficult to please everyone. Taking on feedback, from 2016, 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.

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