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Understanding sustainable development


This module provides a critical overview of the emergence, evolution, meanings and application of the concept of sustainable development.

This module first covers definitions, meanings and key principles of the concept and its intellectual history. It then examines critically the ways in which 'mainstream' and alternative approaches to sustainable development have emerged, covering the international policy framework (most prominently articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals) and some of the main limitations of this approach.

The module also examines the concept of sustainable development in relation to key contemporary global challenges (environmental, social and economic) and the extent to which these issues can be addressed within mainstream frameworks. Using recent approaches within environmental philosophy and ethics (such as the theory of responsive cohesion), the module then examines whether a fundamentally new approach to conceptualising sustainable development is now required.

Topics covered

  • The challenge, and concept of sustainable development
  • Defining sustainable development and its core principles
  • A typology of sustainable development
  • 'Mainstream' sustainable development
  • 'Countercurrents' in sustainable development
  • Operationalising sustainable development
  • Reformism or radicalism in sustainable development
  • Towards a new theory of sustainability?
  • Challenges for a new theory of sustainability
  • Responsive cohesion and sustainable development
  • The foundational value in sustainability
  • The theory of contexts and sustainability
  • A differentiated model of responsibilities
  • Putting it all together: a new approach to sustainability?

Learning outcomes

By completing this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the terminology and discourse of sustainable development and sustainability, including key definitions.
  • demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the intellectual history of the concept of sustainable development, including the politics of its emergence and evolution.
  • demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the major contemporary sustainable development challenges - particularly at the global scale - and their linkages with environmental, social and economic issues.
  • demonstrate critical understanding of the ways in which sustainable development is approached in 'mainstream' policy, including the central importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • demonstrate critical understanding of the major 'countercurrents' (alternative approaches) to sustainable development (including approaches to de-growth).
  • demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the main conceptual and practical challenges associated with the concept of sustainable development.
  • discuss and critically assess some possible future directions in thinking about sustainable development, including the prospects for new theoretical approaches in this area.


  • a 2 hour written examination worth 60%
  • a critical written assignment worth 40%.

Essential reading

A sample of essential reading:

  • Adams WM (2009) Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World, 3rd edition. Routledge, Oxon.
  • Banerjee SB (2003) Who sustains whose development? Sustainable development and the reinvention of nature. Organization Studies 24(1) 143–180.
  • Luke TW (2005) Neither sustainable nor development: reconsidering sustainability in development. Sustainable Development 13(4) 228–238.