EME 504
Foundations in Sustainability Systems


view of a growing city from a porch and house that are under construction
Figure 1.1: Many views of growth and development
Credit: AP Photo/Mel Evans

Please watch the following video: 5:15

Module 1 video
Credit: © Penn State University, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Click for transcript.

PRESENTER: Sustainability denotes some of the largest challenges that we will face as local communities and in the global sphere. They include a variety of areas such as global climate change, loss of biodiversity and energy security. Rather than trying to deal with each of those subjects as part of this course, which require much more attention than what we can provide in the 12 modules, we will rather focus on how we can solve complex problems and how multiple dimensions of those problems may be overlapping as we try to solve them. So we're going to be touching on the natural sphere, on the social sphere, on the political sphere, on the economic sphere and also in terms of technological development.

At the most basic level, there are two types of land ownership. There's public lands and there's private lands. We're very familiar with the concept of private lands. It's based on the idea of ownership. We're familiar with property taxes, property rights, property lines, property titles. And we know that it is in our best interest to make sure that we utilize those lands, thinking about the future.

So, if we have, for example, lands that have resources that can be mined, we may wait until the prices of the particular resource to go up. We can wait for better technologies. And, for example, if you are producing certain kinds of pollutants, you're making sure that you're constantly removing them and mitigating their effects.

Now, when we move to public lands, you can imagine a philosophy by which we apply the best of our methodology with private lands into the public land regime. However, that happens to be mostly the exception.

As a general rule, what we're going to see in the public lands is the worst kind of resource management. You're going to see very rapid extraction of resources. You're going to see extensive pollution and waste disposal. And private lands and public lands only constitute one small fraction of the resources that are available to us.

So if we look at the public land regime and we group it with the other kinds of resources that don't necessarily belong to any of the free world or even to a particular country, we get what we call collectively the commons. And the commons include the atmosphere, include the hydrosphere, and include a number of different types of public lands.

Our management of the commons has been as poor for the lands, as it has been for the waters, as it has been for the atmosphere. And what we're trying to do as part of this class is we're going to try to use sustainability systems to move away from the philosophy that has taken us to dispose and to extract at the kind of rates that we see in public lands.

So in order to move away from that philosophy, we move from the single bottom line, which is the economic bottom line into a trickle bottom line. And that is going to include not only the economic aspects, but it's going to include the social aspects and the environmental aspects.

If you look behind me, you see the city of Pittsburgh. And in the city of Pittsburgh you can see the effect of the interactions of the needs of those three different bottom lines. You can see immense amounts of natural resources. You can see forest land. You can see waters.

In addition to that, you see how economic development has placed stress on those lands. How the development of the city has, perhaps, affected the water and the land around it. So now that we have this particular approach, we can see how us assigning different values to different parts of the product lines might result in other different management philosophies.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand that sustainability problems are by nature technically complex and interconnected, and hence require holistic solutions, global collaborations, and cross-generational management.
  2. Predict how short-term and communal management of natural capital may generate environmental deterioration.
  3. Examine how diverse social/cultural values, technological advances, environmental constraints, and economic needs influence the management style of natural resources.
  4. Explain why long-term management of natural resources requires balancing the competing needs of a wide range of stakeholders.
  5. Deconstruct and integrate the goals of local sustainability with the goals of global sustainability.

What is due for Module 1?

This module will take us one week to complete. Please refer to the Course Syllabus for specific time frames and due dates. 

Requirements Assignment Details
Module 1: Assignments
To Do
  • Watch Introductory Video
  • Complete reading assignment for Module 1
  • Read the Term Project Information in Canvas
  • Complete the Discussion assignment
To Read
Registered students may access these articles via Canvas/the Penn State Library:
  • Abraham. 2006. Chapter 1: "Principles of Sustainable Engineering" in Sustainability Science and Engineering, V1. pp. 3-10.
  • Abraham. 2006. "The Twelve Principles of Green Engineering as a Foundation for Sustainability" in V1. pp. 11-32.
  • Holden et al. 2014. "Sustainable development: Our Common Future revisited" in Global Environmental Change, V26. pp. 130–139.
  • Costanza et al. 2014. "Time to leave GDP behind" in Nature V505. pp. 283-285.
  • See Module 1 in Canvas for full details


If you have any questions, please post them to our Questions? discussion (not email), located in Canvas. I will check that discussion forum daily to respond. While you are there, feel free to post your own responses if you, too, are able to help out a classmate.