NIFB21000U Understanding Sustainability

Volume 2024/2025

BSc Programme in Domestic Animal Science
BSc Programme in Natural Resources


This is a course on the very fundamentals of sustainability and sustainable development, giving eight central perspectives on sustainability.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly evident that a key challenge for the global community is to create a more sustainable future. While the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement from 2015 are examples of significant international efforts to achieve a more sustainable future, conflict and disagreement remain at all levels of society about what constitutes “sustainability” and how to achieve it. Accordingly, it requires an understanding of the wide variety of ways in which sustainability is defined, conceptualized, interpreted, understood and used among different sciences, stakeholders and decision makers to actively engage in this contested domain of sustainability in practice.

The overall purpose of the course is to provide students from natural science and social science backgrounds with a roadmap to understand different concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, enabling students to qualify and reflect upon sustainability aspects in their own education and future professional practice from an interdisciplinary perspective. The course will outline important underlying empirical and value based assumptions as well as challenges with and potentials of a wide range of different conceptualizations, interpretations and practical uses of sustainability. Offering a broad overview of different theoretical perspectives on sustainability from the social sciences and humanities to broader systems thinking, the course will facilitate productive critical thinking and reflection on both the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. This includes inherent tradeoffs and synergies associated with practical operationalization and implementation of sustainability, e.g. in relation to the UN SDGs.

Ensuring a strong link from theory to practice, every year the course will focus on specific cases, topics or themes of particular current interest. Themes could for instance be climate change mitigation and adaptation, energy production, food production, transportation systems, waste and recycling, nature restoration or biodiversity protection. In an interdisciplinary setting considering e.g., social, cultural, economic, environmental, political, governance and philosophical perspectives, the identified sustainability challenges as well as proposed solutions will be addressed, for instance relating to the SDGs or other operational frameworks. Additionally, guest lecturers from private companies, NGOs and public agencies working with implementation of sustainability in practice will present their perspectives on and efforts in implementing sustainability in the organizations they represent.

The course will tentatively follow the structure outlined below (a detailed course plan will be available on Absalon shortly before the course starts):

Part 1 (What is sustainability?)  
How do different disciplines and theories in the fields of natural science, social science and humanities understand and define sustainability, and what are their tools, measures and approaches for achieving a more sustainable development in terms of e.g., production or consumption of certain goods?

Conceptualizing sustainability

  1. Definitions and history of the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development (e.g., the Club of Rome, the Brundtland report, the SDGs, etc.)
  2. Fundamental distinctions and underlying ethical aspects (e.g., contradictions, dilemmas, paradoxes, weak versus strong sustainability)
  3. Philosophy of sustainability (e.g., human-nature relationship, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism, individual and collective responsibility)


Interpreting and measuring sustainability

  1. Ecological perspectives (e.g., non-equilibrium ecology, risk and planetary boundaries, systems analysis, global to local, life-cycle analysis)
  2. Economic perspectives (e.g., externalities, regulation, cost-benefit analysis, environmental economics versus ecological economics, green growth versus de-growth)
  3. Political science perspectives (e.g., public policy, policy instruments, agenda setting political ecology, environmental justice, capitalism versus marxism, sustainability transition)
  4. Governance and law (e.g., interventions, regulation, incentives, environmental law, institutions, collaboration, participatory processes)
  5. Sociological perspectives (e.g., cultural conditions, habit formation)



Practising sustainability

  1. Stakeholder perspectives (e.g., sustainability along agricultural and food value chains, standards and certification, corporate governance, private and public policies)
  2. Solution space perspectives (e.g., incrementalism versus transformation, ecomodernism versus de-growth)


Part 2 (Applications in practice)
How do different stakeholders in agricultural and food value chains approach and use sustainability, and what is the importance of public and corporate governance? On-site visits to decision-makers at various scales, e.g., European and national, governmental and non-governmental organisations, advisory bodies, production facilities, start-ups etc., will provide real-life examples of how work with sustainability is done in practice.

Part 3 (Relating to student’s own scientific field)

Writing an individual take-home exam assignment on a specific case of relevance for the student’s own scientific field reflecting on lessons learned from Part 1 and 2, i.e. including different perspectives, analysing solution spaces, and discussing potential challenges and benefits.


Learning Outcome

Upon completing this course, participants should be able to:


1.  Describe different conceptualizations and definitions of sustainability

2.  Explain how different definitions of sustainability relate to different ethical perspectives

3.  Explain sustainability from different perspectives, including economic, social, governance and ecological dimensions


1.  Assess how sustainability is operationalized and measured across different levels of scales

2.  Identify weaker and stronger conceptualizations of sustainability

3.  Identify similarities and differences in value-based and empirical assumptions underlying different conceptualizations of sustainability in practice


1.  Critically analyze sustainability strategies and plans

2.  Reflect on interconnections, tradeoffs and synergies between economic, social, governance and ecological dimensions of sustainability

3.  Reflect on different conceptualizations of and strategies to achieve sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective

The actual list of course literature will be made available on Absalon shortly before course start.


Examples of literature that may be used in the course are:

Farley, H. M., & Smith, Z. A. (2020). Sustainability: if it's everything, is it nothing?. Routledge.


Additional readings:

Ponte, S. 2019. Business, Power and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains. Zed Books.

Ian Scoones, Peter Newell and Melissa Leach (eds.) 2015. The Politics of Green Transformations. Earthscan.

Kallis, G. 2018 Degrowth. Agenda Publishing

Buscher, B. and Fletcher, R. 2020. The Conservation Revolution, Verso

Manfield 2009 Sustainability chp. 3 in A Companion to Environmental Geography. Edited by N. Castree, D. Demeritt, D. Liverman and Bruce Rhoads

Scoones (2007) Sustainability, Development in Practice, 17:4-5, 589-596

Langston, R. 2012 Carson’s Legacy: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Gender Concerns GAIA 21/3 (2012): 225– 229

Sprugel 1991 Disturbance, Equilibrium, and Environmental Variability: What is 'Natural' Vegetation in a Changing Environment? Biological Conservation

Lenton et al. 2019: Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. Nature, 575: 592-595

Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh (2000). Ecological Economics: Themes, Approaches, and Differences with Environmental Economics.

van der Linden, S. (2018). The future of behavioral insights: On the importance of socially situated nudges. Behavioural Public Policy 2 (2), 207-217.

David Pearce (2002). An Intellectual History of Environmental Economics. Annual Review of Energy and Environment, volume 27, pp. 57-81.

Purvis, May, Robinson, 2019: Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science 14, 681-695

S. Polasky, C. L. Kling, S. A. Levin, S. R. Carpenter, G. C. Daily, P. R. Ehrlich, G. M. Heal, J. Lubchenco, (2019) Role of economics in analyzing the environment and sustainable development. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 5233–5238

C. Paul, N. Hanley, S.T. Meyer, C. Fürst, W.W. Weisser, T. Knoke (2020). On the functional relationship between biodiversity and economic value Sci. Adv., 6 (5), p. eaax7712

E. Millard (2017). Still brewing: Fostering sustainable coffee production. World Development Perspectives 7-8, 32-42.

M.E. Odijie (2018). Sustainability winners and losers in business-biased cocoa sustainability programmes in West Africa. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability​10.1080/​14735903.2018.1445408

Thiele, L. P. (2016). Sustainability. John Wiley & Sons.

Washington, H. (2015). Demystifying sustainability: Towards real solutions. Routledge.


The course is also open to BSc and MSc students from all disciplines.
The course is based on a mix of lectures, student presentations, guest lectures, and group work. A high level of student participation in in-class discussions is expected.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 40
  • Preparation
  • 86
  • Practical exercises
  • 40
  • Exam
  • 40
  • Total
  • 206
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment, made during the last week of the course
Type of assessment details
Writing an essay on a specific case of relevance for the student’s own scientific field reflecting on learning from part 1 and 2. This may be related to the potential sustainability strategy plan analysis mentioned in part 2.
All aids allowed
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
one internal examiner

The same as the ordinary

Criteria for exam assesment

The assessment will be based on the student's ability to show in the written essay that the learning outcomes described above have been achieved.