17.181 | Fall 2016 | Undergraduate

Sustainability: Political Economy, Science, and Policy

Syllabus and Calendar


Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week; 2 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Overview

This course examines alternative conceptions and theoretical underpinnings of sustainable development. It focuses on the sustainability problems of industrial countries, and of developing states and economies in transition. It also explores the sociology of knowledge regarding sustainability, the economic and technological dimensions, and institutional imperatives, along with implications for political constitution of economic performance.

17.181 fulfills the undergraduate public policy requirement in the Political Science major and minor. Graduate students are expected to explore the subject in greater depth through reading and individual research.

List of Course Books

Buy at MIT Press Choucri, Nazli, ed. Global Accord: Environmental Challenges and International Responses. MIT Press, 1995. ISBN: 9780262531344. [Preview with Google Books]

Stavins, Robert N., ed. Economics of the Environment: Selected Readings. 6th edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. ISBN: 9780393913408.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology). Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN: 9780521386739. [Preview with Google Books]

For additional readings, see the table in the Readings section.


Global System for Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World

World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS): Geneva 2003 - Tunis 2005

Course Requirements

  • Class attendance participation (20% of final grade)
  • Midterm (take home) (25%)
  • Assignment (submit 10 websites for the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD) database (20%)
  • Final (take home) or a research paper on topic of your choice with the approval of the instructor (35%)

For details on the GSSD database assignment, see the Assignments section.

For details on the midterm and final exams, see the Exams section.


Part I Content & Context
1 Introduction-Debates, Definitions & Dilemmas  
2 Evolving Concepts: Growth vs. Sustainability  
3 Sustainability as a “Knowledge Domain”  
4 Cyberspace & Sustainability  
Part II Actors, Processes & Institutions
5 Critical Drivers-Social Mechanisms & Cognitive Factors GSSD assignment due
6 Economic Performance-Production & Consumption  
7 Technology, Firms Markets-Corporate Perspectives Midterm posted
8 Climate Change & Sustainable Development Midterm due
9 From Sustainability “Problems” to “Solution” Strategies  
Part III Strategic Issues
10 New International Institutional Contexts  
11 International Responses to Sustainability Dilemmas  
12 Global Accord: Next Round Final exam posted
13 Transformation & Change: Alternative Futures Final exam due

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2016
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
Lecture Notes