The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Introduction

This Handbook chapter addresses the challenge of incorporating sustainability into Economics curricula. There is considerable evidence that there is demand for sustainability education. According to Forum for the Futures Future Leaders Survey of UCAS applicants in 2007/8, students are very concerned about the future of the world and identify environmental crises as important. Around two thirds of students said they wanted more sustainability in their syllabus. They also thought (42% in 2007/8) that learning about sustainability would help their future careers. Over three quarters think significant changes are necessary now regarding how the world operates/is organised (Forum for the Future, 2007, 2008).

In addition there is considerable evidence that employers regard training for sustainability to be crucial in graduates. Cade (2007) showed that employers and students were paying greater attention to ethical issues including sustainability but that universities were having trouble catching up. The Independent (2009) reported that students with sustainability skills are in demand. Forum for the Future (2010) has several publications on the business case for sustainability. Business in the Community (2008) shows evidence of demand from employers for sustainability skills. Businesses are increasingly aware and taking on the message that sustainability matters. Organisations such as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation have strong links with businesses such as B&Q and Kingfisher Group, who appear to support the ‘closed-loop economy’ message. The City and Guilds (2008) identify a shortage of green skills that needs to be addressed. Further, the EU Council has formally adopted education for sustainable development (ESD) as a policy goal (Council of the European Union, 2010).

The challenge is considerable, but also interesting, even for those with no interest in sustainability. Why? As will become apparent, the task of placing this issue in the curriculum involves a range of choices for the programme designer; it also requires the teacher to take an inherently multi-faceted, complex and interdisciplinary concept and place it in a disciplinary context. In addition, it forces the tutor to be aware of the pedagogical issues that become acutely manifest: the engagement of the student, helping them through their inevitable confusion, and the achievement of resolving their problems.

However, there are several reasons for trying to meet these challenges, not least because overcoming them could be personally rather satisfying. Second, given the prominence of the topic, the student is likely to be initially at least enthusiastic and engaged with the topic. Third, given the contemporary context – of climate change, resource crunch, biodiversity loss, food delivery challenges, and so on – dealing with sustainability is arguably important. Fourth, the students will gain tremendously: given the multi-faceted, complex nature of sustainability, students will develop depth of understanding, the ability to weigh up conflicting opinions and value systems and make decisions in the light of them, and develop systemic thinking skills. Your students will come out better educated at the end.

Top tip:

Use examples to illustrate unfamiliar sustainability concepts: make it personal not abstract. For example, ask students to consider their own consumption patterns. Ask them to consider their university as a system. Murray (2011) may be a good resource.