• University of Leicester

Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues

Explore some of the key issues in sustainability, tackling the big questions with examples from around the world.

15,923 enrolled on this course

Photo showing the green wall of the University of Leicester Passivhaus Centre for Medicine

Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues

15,923 enrolled on this course

  • 6 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Get an introduction to the key issues in sustainability

In this course you will study the conceptual foundations of sustainable development, and discuss the issues around sustainability as a complex problem.

We’ll look at the flow of energy and materials worldwide; social and political issues; wealth inequality; the impact of geography, history and culture on sustainability today; and the problems of collective action. Finally, we’ll conduct a SWOT analysis, looking at our resilience and prospects in the face of climate change and other global issues in sustainability. We’ll ask: are we doomed?

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds For most of human history, the world has experienced sustainability without development. But since we’ve moved from foraging to farming, we’ve seen development without sustainability. Growth and world population has come as a result of advances in science and technology. Societies have adapted to these changes, but now population growth threatens to outrun technology. And the material resources required to support unrestrained development are no longer available. Sustainable development is one of the greatest challenges of our time. In this course, we’ll learn about the fundamental concepts and ideas that underpin sustainability on a global level.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds Universities especially have a major role to play in sustainable development not only through education, but also through their example. Here at Leicester, we’ve put this at the heart of what we do. The new centre for medicine is the UK’s largest nonresidential Passivhaus building. Here the green wall and roof planting promote biodiversity, whilst the building itself has the highest standards of air tightness and temperature control. The building’s intelligence systems include a subsoil heat exchange system to prewarm or precool the incoming air. There are heat recovery mechanisms within the ventilation system and automated blinds to keep rooms cool in summer.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds The large array of solar panels on the roof and the connection to a heat and power district energy scheme means that the building is largely carbon neutral. Our values of sustainability extend into all facets of our university life. The University of Leicester aspires to develop students who can think and act sustainably. Sustainable development is not just a difficult practical problem where we all do our bit for recycling and turn off unnecessary lights. It’s also a conceptual, political and moral problem. In this course, we’ll look at what this means. How it implies there are no simple answers to the issues of sustainable development and on the other hand, how an understanding of the complexities can help shape approaches to solutions.

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds This course raises fundamental issues about the fair use of resources, which will investigate why some countries are less developed than others and the interplay between development and technology. At the University of Leicester, our commitment to a sustainable future for all will cause long term thinking and socially responsible behaviour. Sustainable development isn’t just one part of the curriculum in higher education, it’s all of the curriculum in one aspect. We aim to develop the talents of our students. In this way we hope to encourage our students to grow as individuals and to contribute to their communities in positive and sustainable ways.

Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds In this course we concentrate on the large scale picture and hope to provide a deeper understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.


  • Week 1

    Sustainable development and complexity

    • Welcome to the course

      An introduction to what we will cover in the course and a chance to build a community with fellow learners.

    • Sustainable development

      What do we mean by sustainable development?

    • Complexity

      What does complexity mean and how this relates to sustainability.

    • Issues in sustainable development

      Problems in defining sustainable development.

    • Summary of the week

      What we have covered this week.

  • Week 2

    A metabolic view

    • Introduction

      An introduction to the economy and ecology as a metabolic system.

    • Energy and order

      How order is derived from energy from the sun.

    • Material flows

      Material resources in the economic system.

    • Intergenerational Justice

      How future generations be affected by our decisions.

    • A closed economy?

      How we can minimise the flow of matter (and waste) through the economic system.

    • Summary of the week

      What we have covered this week.

  • Week 3

    Beyond the average

    • Beyond the average

      Understanding averages and extremes.

    • World Economic Growth

      What are the factors that lead to economic growth?

    • Growth of wealth

      The history and sources of economic growth.

    • Inequality

      How we measure inequality and what effects does it have.

    • Summary of the week

      What we have covered this week.

  • Week 4

    History dependence

    • History dependence

      What might have been, if the first warnings of the impact of fossil fuels had been acted upon?

    • Geographical determinism

      How the development side of sustainable development is entwined with history and geography.

    • Cultural determinism

      Extractive and inclusive economic institutions and what makes countries rich or poor.

    • Historical determinism

      The impact of colonisation and how history affects the present.

    • Summary of the week

      What we have covered this week.

  • Week 5

    Collective action

    • Tragedy of the commons

      Issues with individuals acting independently in their own self-interests, contrary to the benefit of the larger group.

    • Values and frames

      How we make decisions and why we make the ones we do.

    • Globalisation

      Global responses to global issues.

    • Fishing

      Fishing quotas and ecosystem-based fisheries management.

    • Collective action

      Sustainable Development Goals as framework, frame and values.

    • Summary of the week

      What we have covered this week.

  • Week 6

    Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

    • Resilience

      Understanding our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

    • Technology

      How we can adapt towards sustainability through technology.

    • Development aid or trade

      How should development be pursued?

    • Education

      The importance of education in sustainable development.

    • Summary of the week and the course

      What we have covered throughout these six weeks.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explain what is meant by a complex system and its relevance to sustainability
  • Evaluate the Brundtland definition of sustainable development
  • Explain how economy and ecology work together as one system
  • Summarise the prospects for a circular economy
  • Identify the effects of the agricultural and industrial revolutions
  • Identify and discuss the practical and moral issues around inequality
  • Evaluate the difficulty in assigning causation in complex systems
  • Discuss the implications of past actions for current generations
  • Describe what is meant by the term 'tragedy of the commons'
  • Explain what is meant by globalisation, and its implication for sustainability
  • Discuss the major problems of sustainability and the prospects for solutions
  • Discuss the range of views on approaches to development

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone interested in exploring the general technical and social issues around the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. The course explores the theoretical basis of sustainability from the natural sciences, political and economic perspective. This course is aimed at learners who wish to engage with the challenges and potential solutions to sustainability at a conceptual level.

Who will you learn with?

Derek Raine MBE is emeritus professor of interdisciplinary science at the University of Leicester and the recipient of several awards for novel approaches to science teaching in higher education.

Who developed the course?

University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading research led university with a strong tradition of excellence in teaching. It is consistently ranked amongst the top 20 universities in the United Kingdom.

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Develop skills to further your career

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  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 28 May 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

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