Foundations and Frontiers of Sustainable Development

Key information

Start date:
To be confirmed

Contact details:


This module can be taken as standalone or as part of building up to a certificate, diploma or master’s degree. You can take up to three standalone modules before deciding whether you want to work towards any of these.

    If you do decide to build up to a qualification, then you will need to complete and pass the following amount of modules within a five year period: four modules for a certificate; eight modules for a diploma; eight modules and a dissertation for a degree. Please note that certain modules will be compulsory depending on the degree you opt to take.

    If you would like to gain a qualification then you will need to register onto one of our master's courses:

    Module overview

    This module explores foundational concepts of Sustainable Development (SD) and provides a comprehensive and challenging exploration of the core concepts, policy challenges and ethical issues in Sustainable Development.  The aim is to provide a rich trans-disciplinary understanding of the history, politics, ethics and scientific foundations and cutting-edge issues of SD that will inspire interest in deeper study. We also aim to equip students to discuss and research complex conceptual and practical challenges in the integration of SD ideas in organisations, policies and projects.

    This module is aimed at a wide range of students and takes a trans-disciplinary approach to exploring the frontier of sustainable development. The module provides a grounding in sustainability ideas and issues that is self-contained, but it also prepares students to get the best from the complementary module on Sustainable Development Applications (ENGM067). The module is suitable as a foundation for students who have not previously studied sustainability and provides an update on the frontier issues of sustainability for those who have.

    Learning outcomes

    On successful completion of this module, you will:

    • Understand the basic principles of sustainable development
    • Understand the fundamental ethical and political issues raised by sustainable development challenges and concepts
    • Understand and discuss major criticisms levelled at the idea of sustainable development
    • Engage in debates about the definition, analysis and prospects for realisation of sustainable development.

    Course content

    Content includes the following:

    • the nature of development - multiple perspectives on what it is and what it should be, and on the need for a radical new perspective, the 'Overview Effect'
    • the idea of the Anthropocene
    • a brief history of sustainable development ideas and how they arose
    • the Brundtland Report and its implications
    • the I=PAT Equation and its implications
    • an overview and critical approach to the Planetary Boundaries framework for SD
    • values and the ethical dimensions of sustainable development
    • social dimensions of SD and environmentalism
    • sustainable consumption challenges
    • SD and biodiversity
    • contested issues in defining and decision-making for SD
    • means of assessing sustainable development (e.g. indicators and indices)
    • participatory approaches to sustainable development
    • case studies in ethical and political controversies raised by SD
    • political economy of SD
    • critiques of SD
    • analysis of key texts and discussion of films offering case studies.

    Learning and teaching methods

    The learning and teaching methods include:

    • Preparatory reading
    • Lectures from module team and various guest lecturers from the public, private and civil society sectors
    • Films and follow-up discussions
    • Discussion groups based on particular challenges and dilemmas.


    The summative assessment for this module consists of:

    • Pre-module individual critical review in blog format (maximum 1000 words) on a topic of their choice arising from pre-module readings (25%). The blog format enables a very flexible approach and recognizes that communication in this format may well be important in future employment. Students are encouraged to approach this task in a way that will demonstrate critical thinking and academic skills but also produce an accessible and interesting text that could be posted online.
    • A post-module individual written assignment (maximum 3000 words) from a supplied list of essay topics, with scope for tailoring of topic by student in agreement with module leader. (75% of module mark).

    Please note: If you are taking this as a standalone module, then you are not required to complete the post-module essay, however, this will mean that you won't gain any credits for completing the module and so won't be able to work towards a qualification if you later decide to do so.

    Course leader

    Ian Christie profile image

    Ian Christie

    Reader (Associate Professor), Social Science and Ethics of Sustainable Development

    Reading list

    You will be required to do some reading prior to the module starting, take a look at the reading list.

    Module ENGM306 details:

    Entry requirements

    There are no entry requirements if you are taking this as a standalone module.

    For those wanting to build up to a qualification, please refer to the MSc course pages for entry requirements.

    Fees and funding

    Fees are to be confirmed

    How to apply

    Applications are currently closed, but please register your interest with the Head of Centre for Environment and Sustainability, Professor Richard Murphy, at

    Terms and conditions

    When you accept an offer of a place at the University of Surrey, you are agreeing to comply with our policies and regulations and our terms and conditions. You are also confirming you have read and understood the University's prospective student privacy notice.

    Further details of our terms and conditions will follow.


    This online prospectus has been prepared and published in advance of the commencement of the course. The University of Surrey has used its reasonable efforts to ensure that the information is accurate at the time of publishing, but changes (for example to course content or additional costs) may occur given the interval between publishing and commencement of the course. It is therefore very important to check this website for any updates before you apply for a course with us. Read the full disclaimer.

    Course location and contact details

    Campus location

    Stag Hill

    Stag Hill is the University's main campus and where the majority of our courses are taught. 

    Professor Richard Murphy Head of Centre for Environment and Sustainability

    University of Surrey
    Surrey GU2 7XH