Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Sustainability: Why the Language and Ethics of Sustainability Matter in the Geoscience Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Sustainability: Why the Language and Ethics of Sustainability Matter in the Geoscience Classroom

Article excerpt


As geoscience educators at all levels of instruction move toward integrating the topic of sustainability into their courses, they will naturally begin from their understanding of Earth systems. They are likely to feel themselves least equipped to teach the aspects of sustainability farthest removed from science-the ethical, social, and political aspects of sustainability. Geoscientists may be reluctant to bring consideration of values and norms into their science instruction or feel ill equipped to guide students in ethical inquiry. Yet, we know from many conversations with geoscientists that they would welcome guidance on how to integrate an ethical understanding of sustainability into their teaching.

Many agree that sustainability is profoundly important, but what does the term actually mean? How can the geosciences better inform policy-making around sustainability challenges such as climate change, management of limited natural resources, and deforestation, when making decisions about these issues inevitably involves values as well as facts? What responsibilities do geoscientists have as individuals and professionals to help identify and address barriers to sustainability? These questions lie beyond the confines of any one discipline and underscore the need to provide our students with a holistic understanding of sustainability that interweaves its scientific, socioeconomic, and ethical dimensions.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration, this commentary blends perspectives from the geosciences and philosophy to provide a rationale for addressing the ethical dimensions of sustainability in the geoscience classroom and to clarify the nature, forms, and ethics of sustainability. Drawing on an approach developed elsewhere (Curren and Metzger, 2017), we present a way to conceptualize sustainability that synthesizes ecological and ethical perspectives and we provide suggested approaches, examples, and resources to support geoscientists in their efforts to engage students in reasoning and problem-solving around the scientific and ethical aspects of sustainability.


As experts in observing, describing, interpreting, and modeling Earth's biophysical systems and how they change through time, geoscientists are uniquely prepared to address the scientific aspects of sustainability (e.g., Bralower et al., 2008; Reid, et al., 2010). However, as reflected in increasingly more urgent calls for better integration of the sciences and social sciences in addressing global challenges, the underlying drivers of unsustainable ways of living are found in human traits, institutions, and cultural practices (e.g., Raupach, 2012; Hackmann et al., 2014; Weaver et al., 2014; Miller, 2015; Grundmann, 2016; Curren and Metzger, 2017). Teaching the science-relevant aspects of sustainability in isolation from consideration of human values and social dynamics leaves students with a fragmented understanding of the systemic underpinnings of (un)sustainability and obscures the complexity of the obstacles we collectively face in seeking a more sustainable existence.

The first step in problem-solving is to understand the nature of the problem being confronted. Rittel and Webber (1973) described two fundamentally different types of problems, tame and wicked. Tame problems may be technically complex and extremely difficult to solve, but can be largely managed from the top down by experts with little input from stakeholders. In contrast, wicked problems pertain to the functioning and evolution of interconnected and complexly interacting socio-ecological systems. The problems of sustainability are often said to be wicked and they defy solution because they are multicausal, intertwined with other problems, and value-laden. Such problems can rarely be addressed by any single discipline, organization, or sector, making collaboration essential to managing them (e.g., Rittel and Webber, 1973; Batie; 2008; Curren and Metzger; 2017). …

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