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Sustainability I: definitions of sustainability & methods of assessment - ARC00095M

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Adam Green
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

The terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ now pervade all areas of public life and have become buzzwords in commercial enterprise: in 2015 the UN launched 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, and it is now common to hear talk of sustainable housing policies, sustainable agriculture, sustainable supply chains, sustainable business management. Yet the meaning of the term ‘sustainability’ is surprisingly difficult to pin down – and this applies equally to the related term ‘resilience’ and their apparent antonyms ‘unsustainable’, ‘degraded’, ‘fragile’, ‘at risk’. This module explores what these terms mean, how these meanings differ in different contexts, and examines how our understanding of sustainability impacts resource use strategies and policy decisions.

Professional requirements


Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module introduces students to the concept of sustainability, while noting that the term can have different connotations in different contexts. The course draws on:

  • ecology and the natural sciences to explore how we might understand and quantify sustainability and degradation,

  • the social sciences and policy to look at how trade-offs are recognised, quantified and valued,

  • and the humanities to investigate the history of these debates and to deconstruct the conscious and unconscious biases that have shaped our understanding of these terms.

Uniquely, the course also takes a long-term and interdisciplinary perspective drawn from history, archaeology, anthropology and human geography to explore the concepts of economic and ecological ‘base-lines’, ‘equilibrium’, ‘stability’. ‘legacy effects’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘poverty traps’ and related ideas.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module student should have

  • Knowledge of the concept of sustainability and the various ways in which sustainability can be assessed and/or quantified

  • Knowledge of the concept of ‘resilience’ and an understanding of the precepts of resilience theory

  • Knowledge of the history of these terms, concepts and approaches, particularly in reference to the ambition of ‘sustainable development’ and the notion of development through the adoption, adaptation or extension of ‘indigenous knowledge’.

  • Understanding of ‘trade-offs’ and time scales, and hence an appreciation that resource use strategies can protect one geographical area while degrading another, benefit one interest group at the expense of another, can be sustainable at a decadal scale but unsustainable for longer periods, and can prioritise economic sustainability over ecological sustainability (or vice versa).

  • Knowledge of case studies from around the world illustrating the issues outlined above.

  • Developed transferable skills in independent research, and development of written, verbal and visual communication, and digital literacy, including through the production of policy briefs and practice briefs.

  • An understanding of the potential and challenges of evidenced-informed policy

  • An awareness of the need to tailor communication styles to audiences, and that different interest groups might take different messages from the same research results.

Module content

The module is largely seminar based teaching, and is discussion and participant led. In addition to key case-studies designed to highlight particular themes and issues, students will suggest case-studies from their own areas of experience and expertise, or which relate to their career aspirations. Group discussions will explore issues unique to these case-studies and highlight factors that are relevant to all areas of sustainability.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay - 3500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

As part of both the formative and summative essays students will produce policy briefs that distil the key policy implications of the essay’s conclusions in a format suitable for a defined audience. 


Task Length % of module mark
Essay - 3500 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Feedback will be available within 6 weeks

Indicative reading

Adams, W.M. 2008. Transition to Sustainability: towards a humane and diverse world. Gland: IUCN.

Adams, W.M. 2009. Green Development: environment and sustainability in a developing world, 3rd edition. London: Routledge.

Blaikie, P. and Brookfield, H. (eds) 1987. Land Degradation and Society. London: Routledge

Costanza, R., Graumlich, L. & Steffen, W. (eds). 2007. Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mathews, J.A. (ed.) 2012. The SAGE Handbook of Environmental Change. London: SAGE.

Key Journals: Ecology and Society; Nature Sustainability.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.