Thinking Through Sustainability

Current issues in sustainability can only be understood if we pay close attention to the language we use, to the numbers that frame the nature and severity of particular crises, and the quality of arguments. In short, we can only "save the world" by putting to work the gifts of a liberal education. Another way of thinking about this of course is to say that by carefully considering particular environmental problems, we can help develop habits of mind that are essential to higher education. So this page offers reflections on "thinking through sustainability" in both senses of the phrase:


The following links relate to a class I taught on “Knowledge and Power” in the spring of 2011. They include the course syllabus, and some related materials, as well as links to central texts, data sources, and interactive web resources. This is the initial stage of a work in progress. I am glad to entertain questions and suggestions for improvement.

Course Materials

Thinking through Sustainability Presentation Notes (originally presented at the National Collegiate Honors Council in 2011) 

HONR311 Knowledge and Power Syllabus

Sample Lesson Plan – The Maryland NRG Bluewater Offshore Wind Project

Key Books and Texts

Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun (2006)

James Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere (1994)

David Mackay, Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air (2009)

We also used several excerpts and articles by noted energy analyst Vaclav Smil.

Definitions and Organizations

Definitions from Sustainable Measures Consulting Group

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

Some Primary Sources for Energy Data

The U.S.  Energy Information Agency

Global Energy Statistical Yearbook by Enerdata

The International Energy Agency

Energy Statistics from the UN Statistics Division

Discussion of Energy Units and Conversion Factors from the American Physical Society

Resources for Understanding the Electrical Grid 

Electricity 101 FAQ from the Department of Energy

Visualizing the U.S. Electrical Grid (from NPR) 

TCIP Education – Java Simulation of Electrical Grid Load Management (from U. of Illinois)

Interactive Map from National Geographic (see also associated story – a good introduction)

Personal Carbon Calculators

The Nature Conservancy Carbon Calculator 

Household Emissions Calculator from the EPA

Home Energy Calculators from Energyguide.com

Berkeley’s CoolClimate Carbon Footprint Calculator

This selection of links is representative and does not exhaust the links we used in the class, let alone the constantly evolving resources available to students of sustainable energy use. I am happy to answer questions or offer advice to colleagues from other institutions engaged in similar kinds of teaching.

Site last update April 25, 2012