SOAS University of London

Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Understanding Sustainable Development (30 credits)

30 credits

Scope and syllabus

Understanding Sustainable Development Module Sample (30 Cr; pdf; 602kb)

‘Sustainable development’ has become the main guiding principle in international development – but where did it come from, and what does it really mean? The idea of sustainable development emerged during the late twentieth century in response to growing concerns about the apparent failure of conventional, state-led ‘development’ initiatives and about the extent and pace of environmental degradation, especially at the global scale. ‘Sustainable development’ has rapidly become a popular term – yet one that is also ambiguous and fiercely contested. As Jonathon Porritt, former Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission acknowledged, sustainable development is a notoriously slippery term that can mean ‘practically nothing to people, or practically everything’. Indeed, some versions of sustainable development demand radical social re-organisation – including new forms of government and governance – in order to promote more just relations between societies and environments, whilst other versions of sustainable development amount to little more than ‘business as usual’. Therefore, it is important to understand the concept of sustainable development and the various ways in which it is used. In its most authoritative form, sustainable development is associated with some important, core principles that deserve critical examination.

In this module, the idea of sustainable development is explained and explored. Some influential definitions of sustainable development are considered and the main principles of sustainable development are explained. We look at the emergence and evolution of the concept of sustainable development, in order to explain the historical context of current debates. ‘Mainstream’ notions of sustainable development are outlined together with some of the key strategies that are now used to promote sustainable development. Various resistances to the concept, and some alternative approaches to sustainable development, are also examined critically. The module then considers whether the idea of sustainable development is serving us well, or whether it is time for a fresh approach. Overall, this module provides an overview of some of the most important areas of debate and controversy in relation to sustainable development, and it points towards some of the ways in which the concept may continue to evolve.


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