SOAS University of London

Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Understanding Sustainable Development

Module Code:
P121 (P501)

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, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission has 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. An account of the emergence and evolution of the concept of sustainable development is also provided 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 have been devised to promote sustainable development. Various resistances to the concept, and some alternative approaches to sustainable development, are also examined critically. The main ideas presented in this module are illustrated using case studies, including accounts of two major global environmental issues: biodiversity loss and climate change. Overall, this module provides an overview of some of the most important areas of debate and controversy in relation to sustainable development.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module, students will be able to understand and critically evaluate:

  • the concept of sustainable development
  • various definitions of sustainable development
  • the main principles of sustainable development
  • the emergence and evolution of the concept of sustainable development
  • some key strategies for promoting sustainable development
  • some resistances and alternative perspectives and approaches to sustainable development
  • a range of current issues and debates relating to sustainable development

Scope and syllabus

Unit 1 The challenge of sustainable development
Unit 2 Defining sustainable development
Unit 3 The evolution of the concept
Unit 4 Types of sustainable development
Unit 5 Promoting sustainable development
Unit 6 Alternative perspectives
Unit 7 Measuring sustainable development
Unit 8 Biodiversity conservation and sustainable development
Unit 9 Climate change and sustainable development
Unit 10 A starting point?

Module sample

The module uses a core text which is specially written and will take you through your self-directed study. Exercises, assignments and other activities, such as self-assessment questions, film clips and animations are included to help you with learning. Most module study guides are now provided in electronic format on a USB flash memory stick, but can also be downloaded from the online learning environment. All of our materials are subject to continuous development and update. Click the linked image below to view a sample of our e-study guide:

Click to start a demo of module (Understanding Sustainable Development)


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