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The Three Spheres of Sustainability

Sustainability studies is an academic discipline that focuses on the interdisciplinary perspective of the concept of sustainability. Programs include instruction in sustainable development, geography, environmental policies, ethics, ecology, landscape architecture, city and regional planning, economics, natural resources, sociology, and anthropology.[1] Sustainability studies also focuses on the importance of climate change, poverty, social justice and environmental justice.[2] Many universities across the world currently offer sustainability studies as a degree program. The main goal of sustainability studies is for students to find ways to develop novel solutions to environmental problems.[3]


Towards the end of the 1980s, a new focus emerged globally on the importance of the environmental and ecological sustainability. In 1987 the Brundtland Report was delivered by the World Commission on Environment and Development.[4] The commission was appointed to examine the consequences of global environmental change and was chaired by Norway’s Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland.[5] It introduced the concept of sustainable development, defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.[6] Several definitions have been proposed since then (refer to (Pezzoli, 1997) among others) but after almost 20 years of debate a consensus that sustainability assessments ought to: integrate economic, environmental, social and increasingly institutional issues as well as to consider their interdependencies; consider the consequences of present actions well into the future; acknowledge the existence of uncertainties concerning the result of our present actions and act with a precautionary bias; engage the public; includes equity considerations (intragenerational and intergenerational).[7] This report started a paradigm shift in which global actors began to engage in initiatives that sought to focus on sustainable development.

Infographic of world energy consumption by fuel.

Five years after the report was launched, the UN Earth’s Summit in Rio adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change.[5] Five years later, this framework helped lead to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, a plan in which rich nations pledged to reduce their carbon emissions.[5] All countries that partook in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also signed up to the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately progress towards sustainability stalled when the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the United States, and other nations consequently ignored their pledges in the agreement.[5]

The UN has composed 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are aimed to be achieved by 2030. The SDG goals include: 1. no poverty, 2. zero hunger, 3. good health and well-being, 4. quality education, 5. gender equality, 6. clean water and sanitation, 7. affordable and clean energy, 8. decent work and economic growth, 9. industry, innovation and infrastructure, 10. reduced inequalities, 11. sustainable cities and communities, 12. responsible consumption and production, 13. climate action, 14. life below water, 15. life on land, 16. peace justice and strong institutions, and 17. partnerships for the goals.

Recently, the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that says “urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target” of keeping the global temperature at moderate levels.[8] They state that countries must follow the Paris Agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius, otherwise the earth will faces extreme challenges from climate change, including the eradication of corals and the accelerated melting of Arctic ice caps. [8] The IPCC also explained that a rise in temperatures would trigger catastrophic results in the form of intense natural disasters, unpredictable weather, and food shortages.  In order to prevent this outcome governments would need to require a “supercharged roll-back of emissions courses that have built up over the past 250 years.”[8] In order to do so developments in land use and technological changes are necessary. Carbon dioxide emissions would have to be cut by 45% by 2030 and come down to 0 by 2050.[8] Although this would require carbon prices to be three to four times higher, the consequences of global warming at the current rate would be far more severe. The world is currently on course to reach 3 degrees Celsius of global warming, and scientists have 12 years to impose significant changes to prevent this from happening.[8] This shift towards environmental protection demands a workforce that is more heavily dedicated to studying sustainable development, hence the growing importance of interdisciplinary studies. Individuals studying sustainable development could be focused on reducing the climate in which catastrophic global warming would take place and understanding how policy decisions link to other areas such as urban planning, sociology, economics and ecology.

Spheres of sustainability

Sustainability comprises three major spheres: the social sphere, the economic sphere, and the environmental sphere. These three spheres can also be referred to as the "triple bottom line" or the three pillars of sustainability.[9] While these spheres are vastly different from one another, they each play a crucial role in maintaining the efficiency of society and the betterment of the planet.

Sustainability is an interdisciplinary subject. Therefore, much like a Venn Diagram, these spheres do overlap. When the social and economic spheres intersect, this is known as social justice. The economic and environmental spheres make the subject of environmental stewardship. Lastly, environmental justice is then established when the environmental and social spheres connect.[12]

Social Justice: Social justice is important when ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to thrive and make a sufficient living, as well as making sure the economy can operate smoothly. [11]A big debate in many nations is how much money should be going to welfare programs- it is crucial to find a balance between helping citizens while having enough money for the governing body to run. Another issue commonly discussed with social justice is workers rights. Workers can be exploited by businesses, so policies regarding safe working conditions and fair wages ensure that workers are treated fairly. For example, Fairtrade is a symbol that can be found on products that verify that the resources used to product the item is ethical.

Environmental Stewardship: Environmental stewardship involves the collaboration of businesses and environment-centered initiatives. These actions are angled to not only help the planet, but also save money for the business. Organizations may consider efforts to reduce their waste. This could look like switching from plastic to paper packaging, or recycling any unused products. Also, businesses could look for ways to manage their energy more efficiently. Using a renewable energy source rather than nonrenewable source and limiting production times are both examples of how a business can adopt energy-saving techniques.[13]

Environmental Justice: Environmental justice is the intersection between social and environmental issues. This intersection involves providing equitable access to environmental protections and funding for all populations.[14] Climate change events like natural disasters, increased temperatures, and unpredictable weather patterns disproportionately impact lower-income and impoverished communities. Oftentimes, these communities do not have the means to move away from their neighborhoods. An example of an environmental justice issue in the United States is the lack of properly working septic tanks in Lowndes County, Alabama. In her book "Waste: A Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret," Catherine Coleman Flowers explains the environmental issues that this impoverished community faces. A predominantly African-American area, many residents have lived with raw sewage in their backyards because they cannot afford to buy or install a septic system. Furthermore, these residents can be criminally charged for not having working septic tanks, even for those who cannot afford the cost. Not only are residents forced to live in unhygienic conditions, but they are also punished by the government. Coleman Flowers and other environmental justice advocates have dedicated years in their fight to achieve justice for the residents of Lowndes County.[15]

A global example of environmental justice is the impact that climate change events are having on third-world countries. Former Irish President Mary Robinson published "Climate Justice," a book that amplifies the voices of those in different countries around the world who are fighting climate change everyday. Robinson tells the story of Constance Okollet, a resident of Uganda, who is facing seasons of floods and droughts regularly, making food and water supply scarce. An activist from Vietnam, Vu Thi Hien, shares the impacts that war and deforestation has had on her country's land and people. The former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has considered moving the entire nation off of their island to another because of sea levels rising. Robinson shares these stories to spread awareness of the impacts that climate change is having around the world, especially to smaller, poorer nations. [16]

When each of these spheres overlap equally, like at the center of the Venn Diagram, sustainability has been established.

Careers in sustainability studies

Sustainability studies emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to environmental problems, so it can lead into many future careers such as:

Professional in sustainability studies earn between $75,000 to $93,000, and is based on the average salaries of those in engineering and environmental sciences.[18] Chief sustainability executives earn an average of $167,000.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Detail for CIP Code 30.3301, Title: Sustainability Studies.. Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. Accessed 10 May 2011
  2. ^ "Compare 85 Masters Programs in Sustainability Studies". MASTERSTUDIES.COM. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  3. ^ Cohen, Steven (13 February 2012). "The Growing Field of Sustainability Studies". HuffPost. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  4. ^ "History and Sustainability". Retrieved 2018-12-03.
  5. ^ a b c d "The paradigm shift towards sustainability must go ahead at full speed". D+C. Retrieved 2018-12-03.
  6. ^ Du Pisani, Jacobus A. (June 2006). "Sustainable development – historical roots of the concept". Environmental Sciences. 3 (2): 83–96. Bibcode:2006JIES....3...83D. doi:10.1080/15693430600688831. ISSN 1569-3430. S2CID 216113039.
  7. ^ Gasparatos, Alexandros; El-Haram, Mohamed; Horner, Malcolm (May 2008). "A critical review of reductionist approaches for assessing the progress towards sustainability". Environmental Impact Assessment Review. 28 (4–5): 286–311. Bibcode:2008EIARv..28..286G. doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2007.09.002. Retrieved 7 December 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d e Watts, Jonathan (2018-10-08). "We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-12-03.
  9. ^ Robertson, Margaret (2021). Sustainability Principles and Practice (3rd ed.). Routledge. p. 4. ISBN 978-0367365219.
  10. ^ a b c "What are the Three Pillars of Sustainable Development?". Retrieved 2023-11-28.
  11. ^ a b c Soken-Huberty, Emmaline (2020-02-13). "What Does Social Justice Mean?". Human Rights Careers. Retrieved 2023-11-28.
  12. ^ "Sustainable Materials: The Seventh Perspective of a Bioregional Lifestyle". CascadiaNow!. 2016-09-21. Retrieved 2023-11-28.
  13. ^ "A Presentation on Environmental Stewardship" (PDF). National Environmental Policy Act.
  14. ^ "Learn About Environmental Justice". United States Environmental Protection Agency. 13 February 2015.
  15. ^ Coleman Flowers, Catherine (2020). Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret. The New Press.
  16. ^ Robinson, Mary (2018). Climate Justice. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  17. ^ Ajeng, Aaronn Avit; Abdullah, Rosazlin; Ling, Tau Chuan; Ismail, Salmah; Lau, Beng Fye; Ong, Hwai Chyuan; Chew, Kit Wayne; Show, Pau Loke; Chang, Jo-Shu (2020-11-01). "Bioformulation of biochar as a potential inoculant carrier for sustainable agriculture". Environmental Technology & Innovation. 20: 101168. Bibcode:2020EnvTI..2001168A. doi:10.1016/j.eti.2020.101168.
  18. ^ a b "What is a Sustainability Studies Major and is it Right for Me? | Career Advice & Interview Tips | WayUp Guide". Career Advice & Interview Tips | WayUp Guide. 2017-07-31. Retrieved 2018-12-03.