Part 2: Issues in Sustainable Development

To the Instructor  

The objective in this issue block is for students to understand the environmental costs and the economic benefits associated with modern production and consumption patterns.

Waste, consumption, and transportation are all issues that students should be able to personally relate to from everyday life. Students should make the connection between the consumer society that they are familiar with and the cumulative environmental impact of what is produced, transported, and disposed of.

In class, one approach after discussing the issue materials is to ask students for descriptions of everyday problems such as the price of jeans or bad roads or traffic jams and how these things affect their lives. Then ask students to describe the same problem from the perspective of an observer looking at each issue solely in terms of what would be the most socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable approach to the problem.


In this module students are introduced to methods of assessing patterns of consumption and learn about the importance of understanding a product’s lifecycle and measuring “ecological footprint,” They will also examine the connection between consumer choices and environmental degradation. Upon completion of the module, students should be able differentiate between sustainable and non-sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

Consumption Assignment Questions

  1. Consumption: Explain the concept of an ecological footprint. Summarize the statistics on ecological footprints and consumption levels.

    • (from Determining the Impact of Human Activity) An ecological footprint is a measure of people’s impact on the environment by calculating the land and sea area necessary to sustainably supply the natural resources consumed by an individual. Overall, the world’s population footprint in 2000 was 30% greater than actual available resource area, indicating non-sustainable use. Ecological footprints are substantially greater in developed countries than in developing countries.

  2. Consumption: Identify some of the non-sustainable trends in global consumption patterns.

    • (from Changing Today’s Consumption Patterns for Tomorrow’s Human Development) Depletion of non-renewable resources is less of a problem than the degradation of renewable resources such as global fish stocks by unsustainable exploitation and gross inequities in global consumption levels are unsustainable on social grounds. Another trend is that as a result of global advertising and marketing, expectations about basic consumption levels have increased more rapidly than income. For example, the number of cars per person in newly developing economies is higher than it was in Europe at the same income level several decades ago.

  3. Consumption: Explain the concept of a product lifecycle. Give examples of environmental damage and natural resource depletion related to the products we produce and consume.

    • (from Design for Sustainability and Vital Waste Graphics) The product lifecycle includes all of the stages from producing and distributing a product to its consumption and final disposal. At each stage, environmental impacts can be identified. To achieve sustainability, while allowing for increasing population and consumption levels, the goal for product design is to decrease lifecycle environmental impacts by factors of 10 to 20. Environmental damage includes acid rain, habitat alteration, eutrophication, and global warming. Natural resource depletion includes fossil fuels, freshwater, mineral, and topsoil depletion.


In this module, students consider various types of waste and waste management options.  They learn about organic, inorganic, and toxic waste types, the dangers of hazardous wastes, and the health and environmental risks created by waste. The Sustainability Strategies will expose students to sustainable strategies for managing a variety of waste types.

In addition to or instead of having your students respond to the following Assignment Questions, you could ask them to design a mock ban of garbage collection at the university for three days. Ask the students to reflect on the wastefulness in the university and the importance of effectively and efficiently managing waste. Have the students also consider what would happen if waste is not collected for an entire month. They can then discuss their design and possible outcomes during class.

Waste Assignment Questions

  1. Interconnections: Waste & Health: Explain the concern related to POPs and heavy metals.

    • (from Toxic Chemicals) POPs, Persistent Organic Pollutants, are fat-soluble toxic chemicals that persist for years in the environment and are concentrated in the food chain. These include PCBs and pesticides such as DDT. Scientists believe that certain POPs called endocrine disrupters may be playing a role in a number of developmental disorders. Heavy metals such as mercury and lead are also associated with developmental problems in children, including significant IQ reductions.

  2. Waste: What different types of strategies exist for waste management? Summarize some of the concerns related to recycling.

    • (from Vital Waste Graphics) Reduction, collection and transport, treatment, and disposal. Recycling, including the informal recycling carried out by waste scavengers, plays a significant economic role in developing countries. Recycling reduces the volume of waste, but it often has its own health and environmental dangers. Recycling some materials is not economically viable or environmentally sound because the energy associated with recycling is greater than that used to make new products.

  3. Waste: What are some of the dangers of poorly stored agricultural and industrial waste?

    • (from Vital Waste Graphics) Poorly stored waste can contaminate ground water, surface water, and soil, allowing dangerous chemicals to accumulate in animals and humans. Unused pesticides are a particular concern because they include poisons that have since been banned because of health concerns.


In the Transportation module, the emphasis is on the student understanding two major problems: the current status of transportation needs and infrastructure in Africa, and the threat to economic development, health, and the environment due to regional transportation problems. The Sustainability Strategies explore non-fuel transport alternatives and the use of locally grown bio-fuels.

Transportation Assignment Questions

  1. Transportation: Why is improving transportation important for regional development in Africa?

    • (from Building an Efficient Road Network) The state of Africa’s road infrastructure is far below that in other regions of the world and the quality of existing roads is deteriorating. Intraregional trade depends on efficient transport. With transportation infrastructure in such poor condition, the cost of transporting goods in Africa is significantly higher than anywhere else in the world. One World Bank study estimated that 75% of the decline in Africa’s share of world exports is related to poor infrastructure—in  both transportation and communications.

  2. Interconnections: Transportation & Health: What role does transport play in urban air pollution? In African cities, in particular?

    • (from Global Emissions Overview and Urban Outdoor Air Pollution) In general, most pollution is from the transport sector in higher income cities, while dust and sulfur dioxide from coal burning plays a larger role in lower income cities. While the number of vehicles is lower in lower income cities, emissions are higher because vehicles are older. Investments in public transport can reduce pollution.

Lifestyle Patterns Discussion Questions

  1. Are rapid economic development and environmental sustainability generally opposing goals? Cite examples in which these two objectives come into conflict and must be balanced, as well as examples of pursuing these objectives jointly.
  2. What factors influence consumer choices about buying products? How can our society convince individuals to make more sustainable choices?