Perceptions of Sustainability Among Undergraduates at the University of North Texas: Environmental, Economic, Cultural Sustainability


In 1987 the Brutland Report defined “sustainability” or “sustainable development” as “[d]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1987:8). This is the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development. Since then, sustainability has become well known in the academic arena, and various governmental organizations have addressed sustainable development. Yet what does sustainability actually mean to the general public?  This research project delves into this question. The goal of this research project is to gain a deeper insight into the knowledge, beliefs, values, concerns, and actions of college students at the University of North Texas toward sustainability. Many students that participated in this project offered a definition of sustainability, but many were incomplete or inaccurate.

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    In 1987 the Brutland Report defined “sustainability” or “sustainable development” as “[d]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1987:8). This is the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development. Since then, sustainability has become well known in the academic arena, and various governmental organizations have addressed sustainable development. For example, in January of 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations mandated the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) (Rebello 2003). With all of this attention on sustainable development, sustainability has now become a popular buzzword. Large corporations have started promoting “environmentally friendly” and “social justice” practices. Starbucks promotes Fair Trade Coffee and Wal-Mart has even jumped on board to promote a “Green Mission.” However, what does sustainability actually mean to the general public? This research project delves into this question.

    Limited research has been conducted on perceptions of sustainability; most of this previous research focuses on the environmental aspect. A holistic approach to understanding sustainability, which includes environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability, will be used in order to expand the active dialogue concerning sustainability. The goal of this research project is to gain a deeper insight into the knowledge, beliefs, values, concerns, and actions of college students at the University of North Texas toward sustainability. As stated in The Campus Community and the Concept of Sustainability: An Assessment of College of Charleston Student Perceptions, “…higher education is considered to have a responsibility to increase student awareness and knowledge about the importance of sustainability” (Earl, Lawrence, Harris, et al. 2003:95). Future research regarding sustainability will promote increased knowledge and understanding of sustainability in education at all levels.

    Many students that participated in this project offered a definition of sustainability, but many were incomplete or inaccurate. Some students related sustainability directly to the environment and a few associated it with cultural identity. Many students claimed that they believed the three parts of sustainability were connected, but most failed to fully explain how or why. Very few students conveyed that they understood economic sustainability or sustainable development, and cultural sustainability tended to be related to cultural identity or family heritage. Students tended to define “First World” as the Western world and “Third World” in comparison to the Western world. Education and media were the most common suggestions for promoting knowledge about sustainability to the general public. It is important to recognize the gap between the general public’s understanding of sustainability and governmental and academic understanding of the topic.

    Description of Research

    The purpose of this study is to understand college students’ knowledge, beliefs, values, and concerns for sustainability, environmental protection, economic maintenance, development, and cultural preservation around the world. More specifically, the objective of this research is to gather an in-depth understanding of the views of sustainability and whether people think it affects them or other people around them. It is important to explore the general public’s conceptualizations of this broad, complex topic because this information can be used to determine how to develop a better understanding of sustainability. This project is intended to be the basis for future research on perceptions of sustainability among other populations, what influences the conceptualization of sustainability, and how awareness of sustainability may or may not affect consumer behavior or other aspects of life.

    The population examined was undergraduate students at the University of North Texas, which included males and females, 18 years old or older, of varying academic classification, major, and ethnic background. I chose this population out of convenience, but also because current undergraduates are a major stakeholder in society’s future. A sample of 12 students was selected for interviews through a snowball sampling design. In order to preserve informant comfort levels, the interviews were conducted on the University of North Texas campus and surrounding locations in public areas, such as local coffee shops.

    Context: Sustainability as a Discourse

    Sustainability is an extensive and intricate topic in which a specific definition is affected by who is defining it, for whom it is being defined, and for what purpose (Stone 2003). The “triple bottom line” refers to sustainability integrating environmental, economic, and sociocultural aspects of society (Pope, Annandale, Morrison-Saunders 2004). However, much of the academic literature focuses on environmental sustainable development, or simply environmental education. The literature about how people conceptualize sustainability outside the realm of environmental education is even more limited. This research project attempts to gain a more holistic viewpoint of undergraduate students’ perceptions of the three subfields of sustainability.

    In order to understand the general public’s thoughts on sustainability, it is important to examine the dominant definitions of the three dimensions of sustainability. Each facet contains biases that are important to recognize. There are prejudices in the form of definitional biases, favoring particular viewpoints, and lack of publicly disseminated information. These biases are reflected to the general public through media and other informational sources, and thus skewing the general public’s awareness and opinions on environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability. This is dangerous because if the general public is given false information and it is accepted as true, the false ideas will be further perpetuated.

    Environmental sustainability can be defined as “Long-term maintenance of ecosystem components and functions for future generations” (ENTRIX, Inc. 2007:1). To clarify, as a global society we must work to care for the natural environment, including natural resources and ecosystems because, without the environment, future generations will not be able to survive. Environmental sustainability recognizes that humanity is dependent on the environment and natural resources for survival, and that natural resources are not infinite. Some restraint is required in the use of natural resources so that they are available for future generations. Environmental sustainability tends to be the focus within the academic and public dialogue. The increasing awareness about environmental protection is a positive step forward; however, unless economic and cultural sustainability are understood in conjunction with environmental sustainability, the quest to preserve the environment for future generations will be futile.

    According to the World Bank, economic sustainability involves maintaining capital without overexploiting natural resources including water, land, air, minerals, ecosystem services, and not overexploiting other humans for labor purposes (Goodland 2002). There are several subjective terms within this definition. Capital can be defined as wealth, or money, property, and investments. “Overexploiting” is a completely subjective term. The question is when does the use of natural resources and labor for personal gain become abuse. With a global capitalistic society it is impossible not to have some exploitation, but it should remain at a minimum. Natural resources should only be used for survival, not excessive survival. All humans should be treated in a “humane” manner; however this leads to the problem of defining “humane.” It is often rationalized that people living in less developed countries can survive on very small wages because the standard of living is lower; therefore it is acceptable for them to be paid menial wages. Economic sustainability is an attempt to balance the world-system, which must be understood within the broader framework of sustainability.

    Cultural sustainability involves cultural and historical preservation, but does not imply that cultures and societies will remain static. There is a tendency to place “authentic” cultures that have not been touched by the forces of globalization and cultural diffusion into a box so they can remain unchanged. Many people want to preserve these cultures because it provides them with a “window into the past.” In turn people that are apart of these “authentic” cultures often commodify themselves and their culture. The indigenous people provide tourists with what they want to see in order to make money; however, in participating in this comodification of culture, they are changing their own culture and cultural identity (Meisch 2002). Every culture is constantly changing and there is not one culture that has not been affected by cultural diffusion. Cultural sustainability should involve working toward a world in which all cultures can coexist without exploiting or wiping out other cultures (McMichael 2004). However, this is only possible if the environment and global and local economies are examined in union with cultures.

    These three elements partially make up the concept of sustainability. It is important to recognize that these dimensions are interconnected. Cultures and societies are often based on economic ideologies that are inevitably partially dependent on the natural and social environment. This dependency adversely affects the environment and the society. For instance, the global vegetable industry affects the environment, economy, and culture of Mexico. The rise of fast food in the United States requires the mass production of vegetables like tomatoes. The growing of tomatoes on a large scale requires the use of pesticides that are harmful to the local environment, which inescapably affects the global environment. In addition, the pesticides are harmful to the migrant farm workers hired to pick the tomatoes. The creation of the large tomato farms displaces local farmers who are forced to move to urban areas and often acquire employment as a migrant farmer or at a maquiladora. The demand for a single product completely modified the local economy and unfavorably affected the culture as more people were impoverished by the low-paying jobs (McMichael 2004). This is only one example of the connection among the environment, economy, and society. No matter how you look at it, if one component shifts, the others will react. Environmental sustainability does not imply economic or cultural sustainability: “The challenge is to develop an alternative economic strategy based on directing work to meeting social needs in environmentally sustainable ways” (Brecher, Costello, Smith 2002:52).

    The dialogue of sustainability is complex. Several other ideologies shape it and in turn affect the three subfields that are all intertwined. Sustainable development is not possible with the existing dependent relationship between the core and the periphery. Sustainability examines alternative methods to the dominant approach to development, and attempts to find a way for the environment, economies, and cultures to achieve a balance in the world system (McMichael 2004). Finally, it is vital to remember that any definition of sustainability is subjective. With the rise of international institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and various organizations of the United Nations, it is fundamental to comprehend that their definitions of sustainable development will be Westernized because they serve to benefit the dominant powers (Escobar 1995). A “top-down” approach to sustainability is not balanced. It fails to consider the importance of localization, and thus fails to be a sustainable approach to sustainability.

    Research on the perceptions of sustainable development is limited, but not absent. Another undergraduate research project was conducted on the perceptions of sustainability at the College of Charleston. In this project, surveys were used to understand how students associate and define sustainability. The two main trends that appeared in the study were an increased understanding of sustainability with increased levels of education, and that males had a better understanding of the concept (Earl, Lawrence, Harris, et al. 2003). In another undergraduate thesis, “Perceptions of the concept of sustainable development among Russians and Swedish students,” questionnaires and interviews were implemented to assess this research question, and to compare the concept in Russian and Swedish schools. Rootzén concluded that more comprehensible mandates and efforts are needed at the local and national level to truly incorporate Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Rootzén 2006).

    Research Design

    Twelve interviews were conducted from a convenience sample of the undergraduate population at the University of North Texas. Semi-structured interviews were used to guide the informant through the subfields of sustainability and to remain flexible with each informant. The interviews were broken down into four main research areas:

    • Knowledge, beliefs, and values about sustainability in general
    • Knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to environmental sustainability
    • Knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to economic sustainability
    • Knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to cultural sustainability.

    With each section the informant had the option of listening to a definition of sustainability and the three subfields. The definitions were only to aid informants with association of terms and information, not to influence their perspective of sustainability.

    Each section of the interview was unique, but in general the informant was asked to define sustainability and the three subfields and describe anything they associate with the terms. The informant was also asked where they learned about the terms, if and how it affected them personally, how they perceived others to think about the topic, their concerns and actions toward sustainability, associations with various terms that frequently occur within the principles of sustainability (such as natural resources, green friendly, “Third World nation,” cultural preservation, etc.), and what they thought could be done to help promote knowledge on the topic. These questions and probes were focused on discovering college students’ knowledge and beliefs about sustainability. The informant was asked to answer one final question regarding any connection between the subfields of sustainability: “Do you perceive any connections among environmental protection, economic development, and cultural preservation?” The purpose was to further understand how and what people associate with sustainability.

    Each interview was transcribed, and initial coding was done on these transcriptions to identify general patterns and so on. Next, the interviews were coded in Atlas.ti so they could be analyzed. Most of the information was qualitative, but some of it was quantified including demographics, the percentage of students that defined sustainability, and the percentage of students that perceived connections among the three subfields of sustainability.


    Seventy-five percent of students interviewed defined sustainability and economic sustainability, while fifty-eight percent of students defined environmental sustainability. Cultural sustainability was defined least often at forty-two percent (Figure 1). Forty-three percent of students listened to the definition of sustainability provided by the Brutland Report. Students most often defined sustainability in environmental terms, but some students directly related it to sociocultural aspects or general living (Figure 2). Some students were not asked to define “environmental sustainability” if they did not define “sustainability.” When defining environmental sustainability some students said that they thought it was the same as “sustainability.” Twenty-nine percent of students related environmental sustainability to the future or “long-term sustainability.” Thirty-three percent of students who defined economic sustainability related it to the environment. Cultural sustainability was often defined in terms of maintaining one’s cultural identity or not assimilating, and many students referenced indigenous peoples. Two students spoke about cultures changing due to globalization, but these students had some background with the concept of sustainability. Every student defined cultural preservation, and over half also related this to maintaining cultural identity, but thirty-three percent of the students referred to museums or historical monuments. Over half of the students had not heard of the term “sustainable development” (Figure 3). Seventy-five percent of the students who had heard of it related it to urban development or urban planning.

    Eighty-three percent of students said that they perceived a connection among all three sub-areas of sustainability, while seventeen percent of students said they only perceived a connection between environmental and economic sustainability were interlinked (Figure 4). Students most often defined the “Third World” as a nation with low socioeconomic status. Other terms mentioned in decreasing order of frequency were: lacking a developed economic system, underdeveloped, lack of technology, little to no access to resources, limited health-care system, nondemocratic government, low life expectancy, low education, and increased warfare (Figure 5).

    Fifty-eight percent of students directly defined a “First World” nation as the “Western world,” or the United States and European Nations. All but one person stated that they thought there was exploitation occurring between the First World and the Third World, and seventy-three percent of those people explained what they believed. Students most often discussed how the “First World” exploits the “Third World” for natural resources and labor, although some students only mentioned one or the other, or neither (Figure 6).

    Eighty-three percent of the students said they felt that sustainability affected them personally, forty-three percent of those people said it affected them because it affects everyone. Only one person stated that they did not think it affected them on a daily basis. Students said there were environmental issues of concern today; most commonly mentioned was pollution/air quality and global warming/climate change (Figure 7). Every student said that the environmental issues mentioned affect them personally. Thirty-three percent said environmental issues affect them personally because they affect everyone. Seventeen percent said that while they know environmental issues affect them personally, it does not affect them directly or on a daily basis. Many students said that they felt like they could personally protect the environment. Figure 8 displays the most common things students do to help protect the environment. Most students talked about conserving energy by using compact fluorescent light bulbs, turning off lights when not in the room, saving gas by carpooling, and the like. Many students said that they do their part by recycling, conserving water, giving their time, and implementing other alternative protection measures such as buying organic food or using biodegradable soaps.

    Seventy-five percent of students said they felt that they were personally affected by cultural sustainability, and many of them related this to their family heritage. Every informant that was asked if they believed cultural sustainability was important said yes. Informants were asked if they thought cultural sustainability was positive or negative and sixty percent of the students asked said it was positive. Forty percent, however, thought that it was both positive and negative because sometimes the idea can be taken too far, leading to things such as racism.

    Figure 9 contains data on the suggestions for promoting knowledge about sustainability to the general public. Incorporating the concepts into education and media were the most commonly suggested methods, followed by simplification of the concepts and governmental action.


    It is exciting that many students said they had heard of the term “sustainability” and were able to define it; however, many of the definitions were slightly distorted and the three informants that gave rather succinct definitions had background knowledge in the area of sustainability. There were a few students that said they had heard the term, but could not define it. It was odd that some of these informants then stated that they had heard about environmental, economic, or cultural sustainability. There were students that said they had never heard of the term and did not define it, and they listened to the Brutland Report definition of sustainability. The high correlation between sustainability and environmental sustainability or environmental protection displays the emphasis on environmental education.

    Economic sustainability was the least understood of all these concepts, despite being defined more often than cultural sustainability. For example, a few students mentioned inflation and social security when talking about economic sustainability, and one person defined economic sustainability as capitalism because everyone has an “equal opportunity.” These definitions and associations display an obvious deficiency in knowledge about the true nature of the world-system, which is not surprising because as one 20-year-old male said, “Economic sustainability is really complicated…and that’s its biggest downfall…” (Informant C, Interview, 16 July 2007).

    Although cultural sustainability was defined by many students in reference to cultural identity, it did not seem that students really understood the concept in reference to a global community. People most often discussed cultural sustainability in reference to their own cultural identity. Two students spoke about cultures changing due to globalization, but these students had some background with the concept of sustainability. Overall, it seems that students did not grasp the idea of cultural preservation within the rapidly changing globalized world, and that it involves much more than constructing historical monuments. There was very little discussion about cultures exploiting each other or cultures coexisting.

    The lack of knowledge and understanding about “sustainable development” was notable. Students who did claim to know about it often referenced urban planning and eco-friendly buildings. This does display some knowledge about the topic, which is a step forward; however, the knowledge is in reference to the environment and not sustainability as a whole in reference to the global community. It would have been beneficial to have students explain how they understand “development” in general and in terms of economy, economics, and a sociocultural aspect.

    Some students claimed to understand or perceive a connection among all three areas of sustainability; however, in their explanation many of them would fail to convey how they understood them to be connected. Sometimes they would give an example and it would only include a connection between two facets of sustainability. It was more common for students to give concrete examples for the manner in which the environment and economy are connected. This is probably because environmental issues are heavily focused upon in the media and it is relatively easy to understand that many of these environmental issues are caused by the overuse of natural resources for economic purposes. Many students noted the “environmentally friendly” or “green friendly” products were more expensive because they take more time and money to produce. Students’ lack of understanding about the connection with cultural sustainability further demonstrates that students do not fully understand cultural sustainability or the entire concept of sustainability. This displays that students probably do not comprehend the extent to which culture is shaped by the economy and environment on global and local levels through hegemonic ideologies. It would be interesting to conduct further research on this aspect alone, perhaps asking about knowledge and perceptions on dominant ideologies, economic practices, cultural diffusion, and so on.

    Students most often defined the “Third World” by what they are deficient in or defined it in comparison to the Western world or the “First World,” as many people said, which supports the idea that development is based on Westernization (Escobar 1995; McMichael 2004). One informant even recognized the Western bias to development. He stated, “…they expect everyone to “evolve” [used air quotes], socially evolve…some sort of industrial revolution like we [the United States] did, it’s totally an egotistical system…they expect everyone else to basically be like us eventually, become some sort of “advanced” civilization…” (Informant J, Interview, 18 July 2007). If the “Third World” is defined as lacking a “proper” economic system or democratic government as many students affirmed, then it is clear that most of these students have not been exposed to alternative ideas about development. They fail to recognize the extent to which the “Third World” or “underdevelopment” has been created by overriding structures of development.

    It is encouraging that students do recognize that exploitation occurs between the “First World” and the “Third World,” and it involves taking advantage of less developed countries for their resources and cheap labor. Some students directly referenced outsourcing or mentioned that the United States ships labor out to other countries because it is cheaper and cuts production costs. The one student who said exploitation was not occurring discussed that there are plenty of problems in the United States that need to be corrected and that we do not have any business in other countries. This may be a valid position for some people, and with a bigger sample size this opinion might have showed up more often. It would be interesting to further examine how students perceive exploitation, why exploitation occurs, and if they believe they can help minimize it.

    Most students said they felt that sustainability affected them personally, and many of them said it affects everyone personally. If this is the case, why is there not a better understanding of sustainability and more actions toward sustainability? Some students said that it is just easier not to think about, thus people simply do not take action. One 26-year-old female stated, “…I know my life’s not sustainable, because of the community I live in…We can do everything we want, we can recycle, we can reduce, reuse, all those kinds of things…But you know, you can only do so much with what you’re given” (Informant A, Interview, 14 July 2007). This statement has a great deal of truth in it. Conceivably, students do not take action to strive toward a sustainable lifestyle because they do not fully understand the topic, but also because a sustainable lifestyle is incredibly difficult in Western society and a capitalistic system.

    There was a similar pattern when students were asked if they felt environmental issues and protection and cultural sustainability affected them personally. Every student stated, most with a sincere tone, that environmental issues are real and that these issues affect them as well as everyone else. Many students said that there are ways to protect the environment and others probably try to help the environment. Most students explained how they try to help protect the environment, but some would only talk in vague terms and not mention their own actions. A few students did admit that they do not do as much as they should, and one student even said that having knowledge about the issues and not helping makes her feel guilty. These results display that there is a separation between what is said and reality. Even the students that claim to take action to protect the environment may not actually do that much. It would be interesting to try to understand how often people say they help protect the environment or participate in activities such as recycling out of the desire to be socially accepted. Similarly it would be beneficial to examine how often students actually think about maintaining their own cultural identity or think about the exploitation of cultures and take actions to prevent assimilation, and so on.

    The issues that revolve around sustainability, environmental degradation, exploitation, and the like are volatile as stated by a 21-year-old male, “I think we all think about it, but it’s something, you know that we don’t really talk about, it’s like saying “bomb” on a plane” (Informant J, Interview, 18 July 2007). People do not want to think about environmental degradation or exploitation of other peoples and cultures because it may make them feel guilty. The same male said, “It’s like everyone drives their cars to work and they say well there’s nothing I can do today about [solving] pollution, saving the planet…so I guess I’ll keep doing the same old thing, and they do!” (Informant J, Interview, 18 July 2007). Many people probably do realize that most commodities are produced in foreign nations by people who get paid menial wages and are treated poorly; however, they rationalize their actions. They have to rationalize consumerism in order to exist in Western society. Students perceived other people to be apathetic toward topics such as environmental protection and economic sustainability. Many students said that other people probably choose not to understand or choose to ignore it, as a 26-year-old female said, “I mean people think about it, but I don’t think people are going out of their way to make a change” (Informant A, Interview, 14 July 2007). It is also important to consider the huge array of interests in higher education today. It is idealistic to expect every single person to understand sustainability because many do not want to study the ideas and concepts needed to fully understand sustainability. This also contributes to students’ apathy toward the concept.

    Slightly pessimistic ideas toward “our” society were reflected by several students. Some students spoke of the Western world and global warming in a slightly mocking tone, but at the same time there was a sense of desperation coming from many students. One 19-year-old female said, “…a lot of people have lost hope in the future…” (Informant E, Interview, 17 July 2007), conveying that many people probably feel that if society continues carving the path it is on, humanity’s future will be desolate. This idea is evident among many areas of society and is often projected through the media, but there is still a lack of action among the general public. This is not to say that there are not people taking actions toward sustainable development, but that people need to feel like they can help. Actions toward sustainable development need to be more easily accessible to the general public.

    This brings up the dialogue about ways to promote sustainability. The most prominent suggestions to promote and encourage a better understanding about sustainability as a whole as well as environmental protection, economic sustainability, and cultural sustainability to the general public were education and media. At the recommendation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the United Nations deemed the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development begin January 2005 and selected the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to develop a program to integrate Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Several international, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations are currently involved in the endeavor to incorporate ESD. Higher education is a major focus for implementing ESD because “Higher Education Institutions have unique attributes that make them natural leaders. They must play a central role within the overall process of achieving sustainable development” (Rebello 2003:8). Much of the ESD in this realm is still weighted toward environmental education; however, socioeconomic and cultural factors are also included. Focusing ESD in higher education is a huge step forward in disseminating the concept of sustainability to the general public. Universities have extensive resources to conduct research that can lead to multidisciplinary understanding of sustainability (Rebello 2003). Despite this focus, there still appears to be a disconnect between the goal and implementation of incorporating ESD into higher education and students’ actual understanding of the concept. In “Dealing with Misconceptions on the Concept of Sustainability,” Walter Filho discusses the disconnect and delusions revolving around sustainability that still exist at the university level. He determined five main barriers to sustainability after interviewing faculty at 40 randomly selected European universities. The barriers were “sustainability is too abstract,” “sustainability is too broad,” and “the theme has no scientific basis,” “we have no personnel to look after it,” and “the resources needed do not justify it” (Filho 2000). Some of these ideas were also expressed by students such as the complexity of sustainability. Thus it is vital to overcome these major hurdles at all levels of higher education, from the faculty to the students, in order to fully incorporate sustainability into higher education.

    Many students also suggested that education be more widely incorporated into education at a younger level. If education on sustainability is implemented at a younger age, it is more likely to impact people for a longer period of time. A few students said they have seen the excitement and desire in children to help protect the environment, so it is likely that they would want to learn about other concepts related to sustainability at a more straightforward level. Some students mentioned less conventional forms of education, such as programs targeted to various age groups, adult education, advocacy groups passing out flyers, and so on. Several students mentioned that sustainability should be simplified and made more accessible to the general public in order to promote a better understanding of the topic. Sustainability is an enormously intricate concept that requires the understanding of several theories and frameworks, and if people do not comprehend a topic they will probably become disinterested very quickly. More information needs to be made for the use of the general public. This could be done through further research such as participatory methods, and constructing a better understanding of what the general public perceives as issues and real ideas to close the gap between academia and public knowledge about sustainability.

    Promoting sustainability through the media was another major suggestion by students. This is a good idea, but inclusion of such a complex topic into media must be scrutinized because of the potential for mainstream media to distort and skew concepts of sustainability to feed back into hegemonic ideologies. Overall, this would not be a step in the right direction; perpetuating false images of sustainable development only damages progress. The media can sometimes be used to challenge the existing prevailing paradigm on sustainability, but again it is important to emphasize the manner in which opposition can be reappropriated by popular beliefs.

    Overall, it is imperative to recognize that the understanding of sustainability as a holistic concept is incredibly limited because it requires comprehension of environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability in context of world-systems theory, political economic theory, dependency theory, the discourses of development and globalization, and other ideologies. Although the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and the increased actions promoting sustainability in higher education are positive steps forward, there is still a division between academia and students’ knowledge about sustainability. More research, especially participatory action methods, need to be conducted to understand why there is a gap, as well as be used to implement actions to narrow the gap. It would also be interesting to understand the general public’s conceptualizations of sustainability outside the realm of higher education. Is there a gap between academia and public knowledge, and what can be done to change that? Furthermore, the various actions and approaches being taken in higher education and in other areas of society to move toward global sustainability must be scrutinized. Top-down models of sustainability often fail to consider local knowledge and situations, which can be an antithesis to sustainable development (Escobar 1995). Academic research and government policy are vital to progressing toward a global sustainable community, but they must incorporate grassroots ideologies. Sustainable development cannot only exist in the elite community because sustainability strives to better the livelihoods of the entire global community within environmental, economic, and cultural spheres.

    Personal Reflections

    My personal background in various theories involving economic anthropology, globalization, international development and communication, and sustainability provide me with a loose theoretical background regarding sustainability. This background is why I chose this particular topic as a research project. My personal beliefs about the manner in which hegemonic ideologies can skew peoples’ knowledge, beliefs, and values on various topics also feed into this research. In addition, my personal views and definition on sustainability and a grassroots or bottom-up approach are a clear reason for conducting this research. I am passionate about discovering how other people think about sustainability because I believe this will reveal areas of sustainability that need better promoting. I believe informants’ input on how to encourage knowledge about sustainability is vital to the success of working toward a more balanced world-system. Using a holistic approach to this research is important because it helped me gain insight into where people were coming from and why students defined and associated ideas with sustainability. In addition, informants’ perceptions were related to the current dialogue on sustainability.

    I mentioned several ideas for future research based on this project and other literature. After analyzing the data, there were several areas that could be expanded to further understand students’ perceptions of sustainability, such as their concept of development and the extent to which they understand the role of hegemonic ideologies. It would also be incredibly beneficial to conduct research on faculty perceptions of sustainability based on their area of expertise, as well as the perceptions of sustainability of people outside the academic arena and outside the Western world. Finally, it would be interesting and useful to conduct research on sustainable living in the Western world compared to other areas of the world. Other approaches to sustainable living could provide great insight into developing more local sustainable living programs within higher education and Western society.


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    Figure 1: Percentage of Students Defining Sustainability

    Figure 1. Percentage of Students Defining Sustainability

    Figure 2: Percentage of Students Defining Sustainability as Primarily Environmental, Sociocultural, General Living Conditions, or Other

    Figure 2. Percentage of Students Defining Sustainability as Primarily Environmental, Sociocultural, General Living Conditions, or Other

    Figure 3: Percentage of Students who Could Define Sustainability

    Figure 3. Percentage of Students who Could Define Sustainability

    Figure 4: Percentage of Students Perceiving Connections Among the Three Subfields of Sustainability

    Figure 4. Percentage of Students Perceiving Connections Among the Three Subfields of Sustainability

    Figure 5: Percentage of Students Defining Third World Nation in Specific Way

    Figure 5. Percentage of Students Defining Third World Nation in Specific Way

    Figure 6: Percentage of Students Identifying Exploitation of Labor and Resources of Third World Nations by First World Nation

    Figure 6. Percentage of Students Identifying Exploitation of Labor and Resources of Third World Nations by First World Nation

    Figure 7: Percentage of Students Identifying Specific Environmental Issues of Concern

    Figure 7. Percentage of Students Identifying Specific Environmental Issues of Concern

    Figure 8: Percentage of Students Identifying Specific Actions to Protect the Environment

    Figure 8. Percentage of Students Identifying Specific Actions to Protect the Environment

    Figure 9: Percentage of Student Identifying Specific Methods to Promote Sustainability Amonth the General Public

    Figure 9. Percentage of Student Identifying Specific Methods to Promote Sustainability Amonth the General Public