Sustainability Problems

Environmental sustainability is difficult to achieve for a wide array of reasons, many of which are not strictly “environmental problems.” Others include, electoral cycles, campaign financing, corporate power, slick and compelling advertising and dumbed-down news coverage. The route to sustainability is for environmentalists to deliberate with each other and others to find the best path.

In this course, we identify why environmental sustainability should be a priority. We will map the matrix of problems that make sustainability difficult and we will analyze possible sustainability solutions. All the while we will strive to understand and produce effective environmental communication.

The course has four learning outcomes:

• Strengthen your ability to think about and communicate the significance of environmental sustainability.

• Expand the way you think about complex problems, recognizing the system (or matrix) of factors (economic, social, technical, biophysical, cultural, etc.) that shape problems and constrain solutions.

• Hone your ability to identify and communicate solution pathways even when faced with inertia, controversy and complexity.

• Develop social science// research, analysis and communication skills, and your ability to imagine how academic insight can inform practical action.

Student research is at the core of this course. Much of your work out of class will be devoted to developing presentations to support the three phrases of the course. In the first phase, “Who Cares?” you will develop a presentation that conveys the significance of sustainability problems and initiatives. In the second phase, you will develop two presentations that help fill in “The Matrix” of factors, forces, structures and dynamics that make sustainability difficult. In the third phase, “Go Fix It,” you will develop a presentation that identifies a leverage point in “The Matrix” where some kind of change and movement is possible. Throughout these phases, you will be watching, discussing and annotating films that bring the structural barriers to sustainability to the surface. You will also write two debate papers, and participate in an oral debate. Finally, you will have a take-home exam that asks you to integrate the insight you have developed in the course.


Your grade for the course will be based on the following:
  • Participation 15%
  • 2 Debate Papers and Oral Debate 10%
  • “Who Cares?” presentation & post 5%
  • “The Matrix” presentation & posts 15%
  • “Go Fix It!” presentation & post 5%
  • 10 Film Annotations 30%
  • Take-home Exam 20%

15% Active Participation: Attendance is required, but attendance alone does not guarantee a high participation grade. The participation grade is based on the quality of participation in class discussions and debates. Computers should be brought to class but should not be used without explicit permission. Cell phones should be off.

10% Debate Papers: Two debate papers are due over the course of the semester. You may choose which two (of three) topics to write papers on. Each paper will critically analyze at least three articles. These papers should be approximately 1200 words long. The heading of each paper should include the following information: Name, Debate Paper #, Topic, Date, Word Count.

5% “Who Cares?” Post and Presentation: You will select a particular environmental problem that you think persuasively demonstrates the need for a concerted sustainability effort. You then need to 1) select a set of images that conveys the problem (as a collage), 2) write a caption that briefly articulates your main argument and explains the relevance of the images in the collage, 3) write a 500 word explanation, with supporting links, that elaborates on the problem with the relevant stakeholders identified, the implications if it is not addressed and suggestions for how the problem could be addressed. Your bibliography should include at least one academic (peer reviewed) reference. It should be clear in your post how your academic reference informed your analysis. You will prepare a presentation that is five minutes long, beginning something like this: “I’m here to persuade you that environmental sustainability is of grave importance and requires concerted effort in education, business and government programming. To illustrate the problem at hand, I direct your attention to this image, of…… Your presentation should be posted in your wiki portfolio, titled with your last name first (i.e. HowrdWhoCares). Don’t use generic titles or you are likely to have your wiki work overwritten by other students. “Who Cares” posts are due before your presentation.

15% Matrix Posts and Presentation: This assignment is to identify two problems that are part of the dense matrix of factors, forces, and dynamics that make sustainability difficult. Think broadly, and about domino effects and synergisms. What about our education system works against sustainability, for example? What about our legal system? This website, for example, provides a list of reasons that conservation (particularly in the developing world) often fails: Spike Lee’s film When the Levees Broke, about the many factors that contributed to the Katrina disaster also provides a nice example of matrix, or systems, thinking. Your challenge is to identify problems that don’t at first seem like environmental problems but nonetheless are part of the matrix that makes sustainability difficult. You're trying to surprise us, not repeat the same old stories.

In thinking about the matrix of problems that make sustainability difficult, keep the following dimensions and types of problems in mind: Political? Legal? Economic? Technological? Media and Informational? Organizational? Educational? Behavioral? Cultural? Ecological?

For each problem, make a collage, include a caption and write a 500 word supporting text with links and a bibliography. Each matrix presentation should include at least three academic references. Following each bibliography, provide annotations for at least three of your references, following this annotation template:

1. Full citation.

2. Where does the author work, what else has s/he written about, and what are her/his credentials?

3. What is the main topic or argument of the text?

4. Describe at least three ways that the main topic or argument is fleshed out.

5. What three quotes capture the critical import of the text?

6. Explain how the argument and evidence in the text supports your research focus.

7. List at least two details or references from the text that you have used in your presentation and wiki post.

You should prepare a presentation that is ten minutes long. Your wiki posts (2) are due the day of your presentation, titled with your last name first (i.e. HowardMatrix1 and HowardMatrix2).

5% “Go Fix It!” Post and Presentation: This assignment is to select an intervention that you think would contribute to environmental sustainability. The intervention should be creative and somewhat surprising. Your (class) audience won’t be surprised to hear that households should recycle more, for example. They may, however, be impressed by a proposal to incentivize green funerals, or to provide more vacation time so that people have the time to invest in greening their homes and lifestyles. Again, you need to select a set of images that convey the intervention and its implications, write a caption and a 500-word supporting text, with links and bibliography. Your bibliography should include at least two academic references. Following each bibliography, provide annotations for at least two of your references, following the template above. Go Fix It! Research will be presented in class and your wiki post is due the day of your presentation.

30% Film Annotations: Ineffective communication about environmental problems is part of the matrix of factors that make sustainability difficult. To deepen your understanding of this, this course revolves around analysis and production of media representations of environmental problems and sustainability. To refine your sense of what kinds of media representations are effective, you will complete 10 film annotations, addressing the questions below. You must annotate at least five films that were not screened in class.

A list of relevant films is here: Most are available through Folsom Library Reserves. Check with me if you would like to add films to the list.

Printed copies should have this type of heading: Name, Annotation #, date, film title, word count

Credit received will depend on complete coverage of questions, use of concrete examples from the film to illustrate points and high quality writing. Annotations can be in essay form, or can answer each question separately, but must be in complete sentences and paragraphs. It should be clear that you have moved beyond notes to a sophisticated analysis. See the help desk on the wiki for tips, examples and resources. The questions to be covered are:

Annotations must be in essay form and use complete sentences and paragraphs. Credit will only be granted when the annotation completely covers the following questions.

1. Title, director and release year?
2. What is the central argument or narrative of the film?
3. How is the argument or narrative made and sustained? (Use concrete examples from the film to illustrate.)
4. What sustainability issues did you spot? Identify and explain each. (Examples - Political, Legal, Economic, Technological, Media, Organizational, Educational, Behavioral, Cultural, Ecological)
5. What parts of the film did you find most persuasive and/or compelling?
6. Does the film have emotional appeal to you? Why? (Use concrete examples from the film to illustrate.)
7. Does the film rely more on science or emotion? (How does the film balance the scientific augment and the emotional argument?)
8. Does the film want you to do something? If the film does suggest action, do you think it is a good idea? Will the suggested action help?
9. Are there other actions that are not suggested that should be taken?
10. What was the target audience for this film? Why?
(300 word Maximum)

20% Cumulative Take-Home Exam: Your final exam for this course will ask you to integrate and reflect on the insight you have developed about environmental sustainability. I am likely to ask you to list aspects of the U.S. political systems that make sustainability difficult, for example. I am also likely to ask you to characterize effective environmental media. The best way to prepare for the exam is to deeply engage in the class’s films, discussions and presentations, taking time to reflect on the various systems (social, cultural, economic, technical, etc,) that they bring into view. Keeping a journal throughout the semester would be a good way to cultivate the kind of reflection expected.


Attendance is required. Unexcused absences will result in a 2% reduction from your final grade. An excused absence (for illness, emergencies and approved Rensselaer activities) can be made up through submission of an extra film annotation (see details below). Documentation for excused absences should be obtained from the Student Experience Office, 4th floor Academy Hall, x8022,

E-mailed copies of debate papers, film annotations and your final essay exam are due before class as indicated on the schedule. Assignments should also be posted in your wiki portfolio. Your research presentations are due by the deadline in your wiki portfolio. For each day an assignment is late, you will lose 1% from your overall (cumulative) grade. If your “Don’t Worry?” post is a day late, for example, it can contribute at most 4% to your overall grade.

You are responsible for maintaining electronic backup copies of your work. If your work posted online disappears for any reason, please be prepared to replace it.

You are required to attend the STS Sustainability Studies Film Series (on Sundays, 4-6pm, dates announced soon). If you are unable to attend these films, they can be made up through submission of extra film annotations.

Academic honesty of the highest order is expected. It is unacceptable to submit work done for another class in this class, though it is acceptable to build on previous work. Talk to me if you have questions about this. It is unacceptable to submit work done by someone else as your own. Please see the Student Handbook for complete guidelines on academic honesty. Plagiarism or another form of academic dishonesty on any assignment in this course is likely to result in failing the entire course.

Citations must be included for both indirect and direct quotation, providing clear documentation of sources. Special care must be taken to properly cite digital resources. Zotero is helpful on citations.

You may appeal a grade through a written statement describing the grounds on which a change of grade should be considered appropriate. Before initiating a formal appeal, feel free to talk to me. If you decide to pursue an appeal, the written statement must reference one of the three grounds for appeal in the Student Handbook: “a violation of the course syllabus, a violation of Institute policy, or a violation of the student's rights under the Student Bill of Rights.”