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Sustainability II: understanding sustainability as change through time - ARC00096M

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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 twin concepts of sustainability and conservation that are so pivotal within current debates regarding economic development, climate change and biodiversity protection both contain an inherent temporal dimension: both refer to the need to balance short-term gains with long-term resource maintenance. In asking whether a system is sustainable it is thus necessary to also ask: sustainable for how long, sustainable for who and how many, and sustainable under what economic and environmental conditions? This module examines the ways these questions can be addressed, with a focus on the techniques that can study change through time: archaeology, ecology, history, historical ecology, political ecology and palaeoecology.

Built around interdisciplinary in-class discussions, student feedback highlights how “discussions were lively, informative, and strongly enhanced my understanding of the material” and that “the discussions allow the students’ own interests and research topics to be brought in and made relevant, which was beneficial to our own studies and aided understanding”.

Professional requirements


Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The course frames sustainability and resilience as fundamentally a question of change and continuity through time, and explores how we can use an understanding of the recent and distant past to assess the sustainability of a system. In some cases these systems may be small (e.g. community level resource procurement) and of short duration, or very large and of long duration (e.g. societal changes or climate change), or indeed complex interactions of small and fast changes that both influence and are influenced by gradual and expansive processes.

Module learning outcomes

Through an examination of concepts and case-studies the students will gain:

  • A nuanced understanding of how the terms sustainability and resilience have been used within different disciplines and policies
  • Knowledge of the intellectual approaches that influence contemporary understandings 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.
  • An understanding of how perceptions of the past shapes our perceptions of a system’s sustainability
  • An appreciation of how understanding past changes through a variety of research techniques contributes to sustainability studies and sustainability science.
  • Development of transferable skills in independent research, and Development in written, verbal and visual communication, and digital literacy, including through the production of policy briefs and practice briefs.
  • 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. Uniquely, the course takes a long-term and interdisciplinary perspective drawn from archaeology, anthropology, ecology, history, and human geography to explore the concepts of economic and ecological ‘base-lines’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘environmental justice’, ‘equilibrium’, ‘legacy effects’, ‘poverty traps’, ‘resilience’ and related ideas. We begin by looking at the origins of resilience theory within ecology and the rejection of the idea that ecosystems exist in equilibrium; moving on to note parallels and contrasts between resilience theory, supply-side sustainability, and the notion that sustainable development can be achieved by leaning from the ‘indigenous knowledge’ of societies in the past and present. From here we will look at attempts to combine these ecological and human perspectives through the concepts of socio-ecological systems and human ecodynamics, noting the strengths and weaknesses of these highly interdisciplinary approaches. Ultimately the module asks how knowledge of past changes can help us anticipate and plan for future social and environmental change.


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

Fisher, C. (2019). Archaeology for Sustainable Agriculture. Journal of Archaeological Research 28: 393–441.

Holling, C.S. (1973). Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4: 1-23.

Willis K.J. and Birks, H.J.B. (2006). What is natural? The need for a long-term perspective in biodiversity conservation. Science 314 (5803): 1261–1265.

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.