Social Sustainability

Herrad von Landsberg, "The seven liberal arts" c. 1180. Wikimedia commons.

Herrad von Landsberg, "The seven liberal arts" c. 1180. Wikimedia commons.

At our university we have established an Office of Sustainability, and recently faculty members were asked to fill out a survey about their knowledge and participation in sustainability initiatives.

Of course, the sustainability discourse emphasizes environmental values and economic values; much of the discourse focuses on trying to harmonize and coordinate these values. See the Talloires declaration — this is a major document that is shaping the discourse of sustainability at universities.

I have been troubled lately by the extent to which there is a hierarchy in this discourse: Economic and Environmental sustainability vie for first and second place. Social sustainability is always third, like an afterthought. Why is this?

I figure that the reasoning goes this way in many conservative political discourses:

“in order to sustain the economy (the ultimate aim), the environment’s economic resources must be sustained. And in order to do this, we must engage in effective PR and education to get Society on the bandwagon of this change program.”

Is this too cynical? People seem to laugh in agreement when I explain this rationale.

Is there a way to make Social Sustainability the top of that pyramid? Yes, this would be a humanistic and liberal arts perspective of sustainability.

It is also odd that the term “sustainability” is applied to the Social realm as the third component of this triad. It seems so static … society is always changing. Why not Social innovation? Human sustainability? It seems to be analogous to the business triad of the “triple bottom line” — financial, environmental, and social. This is the concept that gives rise to the movement for “corporate social responsibility.”

Social sustainability is indeed important if one considers the way in which cultures build up a shared history and resource of social knowledge, networks, and values. These are kept alive (sustained) through cultural performance, organizations and institutions.

Within the university’s social system, academic community innovations and service-learning programs link with the idea of “Social Sustainability” because they sustain knowledge and relationships within a profession, discipline and student community.

I also found of some use some definitions and quotes about of Social Sustainability in this pdf article

3. Social sustainability
3.1 What is it?

Alan Black (2004) in his address to the Effective Sustainability Education Conference in Sydney,
Australia, defined social sustainability as the extent to which social values, social identities,
social relationships and social institutions can continue into the future. (p. 9)

Perhaps our focus should be on the “sustainable quest for systems of inquiry” (Bawden, 1997:3); sustainability-as-process, learning to manage in a shifting world (Cox, MacLeod & Shulman, 1997) as we living systems in communication with ourselves in reflection (Schön, 1979, 1983) and others in discussion find novel ways to deal with the tensions created by ethical dilemmas and competing demands. Perhaps it is sufficient to strive towards social sustainability which implies a framework in which to consider the likely issues embedded in our actions. (10)


The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value; who we know, and the
inclination to do things for each other, that arises from knowing each other, is valuable to
individuals and groups.(12)


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