Are we still counting apples, not footprints?

By INSUS – Internationalizing Sustainability


Back in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro has produced a historical document – Agenda 21. This document was a first of its kind, an action plan and non-binding United Nations resolution for the governments around the world to promote sustainable development. Notably, it was the first international document to name education as an essential instrument for achieving sustainable development.

The ultimate hope of Agenda 21 was to achieve global sustainable development by the 21st century. Today, 28 years later, we are facing a planetary crisis, whereby global warming is no longer avoidable. The new goal is to find ways to keep it under 2°C.

Education for sustainable development has expanded tremendously in scale and availability in every country of the world. But it is still possible to enter a university and graduate with a degree without having taken a single course devoted to sustainability. On September 25th 2020 in a Sustainability in Education workshop by UNIFI – the network of Finnish universities – a vice-rector of the University of Helsinki has proposed that each course of any university should have sustainability integrated into it.

This suggestion has far-reaching implications and concerns virtually every university teacher. In this blog post, we go on to examine how teachers of different disciplines feel about it. We use three lenses to the topic: sustainability science, physics, and foreign languages.

Sustainability science 

Teaching sustainability can be both inspiring and dispiriting. It is inspiring when you notice that students of different disciplines start making sense of sustainability in their own way: they may ask provocative questions and may sometimes make hopeful/less statements, as their reflection process continues. But it is dispiriting to observe how some students perceive sustainability as yet another “add-on”, a side affair next to their core studies. What would it take to convince that sustainability is indeed relevant to all of us? In addition to the great speeches, the art of subtle messages can be very convincing (Stroebe 2012). In math we could start learning about calculating footprints. In physics, we could learn about the speed of oil spreading in sea water, and in veterinary science – what health effects it would mean for the sea animals. In accounting, we could learn about emission credits. We could start by challenging every university teacher to design a task in their course using sustainability as the background context. And when it starts to “seep” through every course, it will become the new normal.


Sustainability definitely links to physics. Physics deals with the environment, the climate and technology. Physics is needed to find solutions to sustainability issues, and many physics students specialize in matters related to the environment. Certainly, all students need to be aware of the sustainability of their choices: how they travel, what they buy, and this concerns their actions in their studies also. Also, using environmental examples can make physics seem more important for non-major students (Busch, 2010).

But physics also covers topics which do not have links to sustainability. For example, take a course on quantum mechanics. The topic is what quanta do, the tools: pen and paper. The learning goals are to be able to understand quantum mechanics on an introductory level – for example up to a treatment of a hydrogen atom. How should we approach sustainability there? Tell students to restrict their air travel, or tell them to think about the problems of cobalt mining? It does not link to quantum mechanics, and hence feels artificial. Whenever the topic is relevant, it should be used in calculation exercises and reading materials. But when there is a course where, for example, a carbon dioxide molecule is too big a system, integrating sustainability in the course content is not productive for learning. We should look at curricula rather than individual courses.

Foreign languages 

Any language use for communication must be culturally and socially appropriate, and the social-linguistic competence is a crucial element in international contacts; therefore, the development of socio-linguistic ability in a foreign language, parallels the socio-cultural development of language users, engaging them in international sustainability issues with more communicative attitude and eventually contributes to their sustainable development. Accordingly, it is necessary to regard foreign language education as making people understand each other better across cultures. All knowledge is transmitted via languages through generations and across communities. Due to globalization, the role of foreign languages, combining linguistic and socio-cultural aspects, emerges more important to understand the international environment, as means of human sustainability.

Sustainability can be seen as actions. Strong sustainability has benefited from work integrating social and cultural measures and values to for instance planning work (Axelsson et al., 2013). This also has to do with awareness in relation to sustainability, a framework developed as sustainability consciousness by for instance Gericke and colleagues (2019). The question is: How can we promote sustainable solutions also socially and culturally so that sustainability becomes a part of the process, not only a measurable  add-on outcome in itself?



Axelsson, R., Angelstam, P., Degerman, E., Teitelbaum, S., Andersson, K., Elbakidze, M., & Drotz, M. K. (2013). Social and cultural sustainability: Criteria, indicators, verifier variables for measurement and maps for visualization to support planning. Ambio, 42(2), 215-228.

Gericke, N., Boeve‐de Pauw, J., Berglund, T., & Olsson, D. (2019). The Sustainability Consciousness Questionnaire: The theoretical development and empirical validation of an evaluation instrument for stakeholders working with sustainable development. Sustainable Development, 27(1), 35-49.

Busch, H.C. (2010) Using Environmental Science as a Motivational Tool to Teach Physics to Non‐science Majors, The Physics Teacher 48:9, 578-581

Stroebe, W. (2012). The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages. Scientific American Mind 23 (2), 46-51.

Tomaz Zygmunt (2016) Language Education for Sustainable Development, Discourse and Communication for Sustainable Education, vol.7, no.1: 112-124

3 Replies to “Are we still counting apples, not footprints?”

  1. Thank you for this up-to-date post! I especially enjoyed your thoughts on integrating sustainability in the learning outcomes.

    I strongly agree with you in that sustainability is essentially multi-disciplinary. As a linguist, I appreciate your take on languages. In fact, taking care of and revitalizing linguistic and cultural minorities and indigenous cultures and languages is acknowledged as a part of sustainable ways of life. In a bigger picture, this has to do with inclusion, equality and fair sharing of (natural) resources.

  2. Wooo! ‘it is still possible to enter a university and graduate with a degree without having taken a single course devoted to sustainability’. Your post was really eye opening. YEs YEs and again YES, I am already every day trying to find new ways of re-using or efficiently using consumables in my lab methods and protocol. As long as contamination is not happening or is not a problem for my samples I save the tips, or the plastic boxes, and I try to teach these ideas to my students, often mentioning that this way the plastic wastes are lower and my son is happier because less turtles will die in the sea! But I had never thought of using sustainability for my teaching and I will for sure make an effort in the future! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your interesting blog! In my experience, students’ interest in and awareness of sustainability issues has clearly increased in recent years. Students often ask questions concerning sustainability and thus also challenge the teacher’s own perceptions. Last year, we included sustainability perspective into a project work of food safety and students were clearly enthusiastic about the theme.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *