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

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Daryl Stump
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

The terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ now pervade all areas of public life, and so it’s easy to use them without really thinking about what these terms mean. Yet the meaning of ‘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 Semester 1 2024-25

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.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module student should be able to:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the concept of sustainability and the various ways in which sustainability can be assessed and/or quantified
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the concept of resilience and an understanding of the precepts of resilience theory
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the concept of ‘economic growth,’ its intersections with to demographic growth, land-use, and development, as well as debates about agrowth and degrowth
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the history of these concepts, particularly in reference to the ambition of ‘sustainable development’.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the theories that influence contemporary definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, including colonial approaches to ‘betterment’ in the early 20th century, through ‘modernisation’, dependency theory, and underdevelopment, up to the UN’s current Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Demonstrate an 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).
  • Independently research, and develop written, verbal and visual communication, and digital literacy, including the production of briefing documents for defined audiences.
  • Assess the potential and challenges of evidence-informed policy
  • 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. We will start with the so-called ‘three pillars of sustainability’ (environmental, economic and social sustainability) and the interplay between these factors, and will return to the need to consider the trade-offs and interactions of human and environmental dynamics throughout the module. This will lead us to a consideration of how the term ‘sustainability’ first emerges within discussions of international development, and how these support and/or conflict with simultaneous discussions on wildlife conservation and with later debates about sustaining natural and cultural heritage. Doing so forces us to consider the ethical and rational/economic components of sustainability: how do we reconcile the moral obligation to promote human health and alleviate poverty with the environmental damage created by larger and wealthier human populations, for example? And to do this we also need to consider history (the legacies of colonialism; economic and cultural globalisation), the importance of examining different scales (e.g. local vs global), and future changes (population growth; climate change). Finally we will look at methods of assessing sustainability; returning to the theme of the interaction between human and ecological factors by exploring conflicts and synergies within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


Task Length % of module mark
Briefing document
N/A 50
N/A 50

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Briefing document
N/A 50
N/A 50

Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

Indicative reading

Kates W. R., Parris, T.M. & Leiserowitz, A.A. (2005). What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 47(3): 8-21.

Ostrom, Elinor (2009). ‘A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems’. Science 325, no. 5939: 419–22.

Stone, Glenn Davis (2022). The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World. First edition. Earthscan Food and Agriculture Series. New York, NY: Routledge.

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.