UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Introductory economics courses and the university’s commitments to sustainability Green, Thomas Leslie


The three largest public universities in British Columbia, Canada have signed the Talloires Declaration, committing themselves to promoting students’ environmental literacy and ecological citizenship. As a result, there is pressure to integrate sustainability across the curriculum. Using a case study approach involving these three universities and qualitative research methods, this dissertation explores the potential implications of sustainability commitments for principles of economics curriculum, drawing on a theoretical framework grounded in ecological economics and other literatures. About 40% of North American university students take a principles of economics course; relatively few go on to take more advanced economics courses. As such, this course is an important vehicle for many students to learn economic theory and the economics profession’s approach to evaluating public policy, and it has the potential to substantially contribute to the knowledge and tools that students can mobilize to foster sustainability. To examine how sustainability commitments play out in the classroom, this study relied on content analysis of nine principles of economics textbooks and 74 interviews from three populations at the three universities. The first group consisted of 54 students who had recently completed an introductory economics course. The second comprised 11 economists who deliver the course. The third involved nine professors who teach undergraduates in programs that explicitly focus on sustainability and require that students take introductory economics. Findings suggest that universities’ sustainability commitments have yet to influence principles of economics curriculum and that the curriculum does not support these commitments. The textbooks and courses appear to do little to prepare students to understand sustainability issues or potential limits to growth. Sustainability is not salient to lecturers, and disciplinary culture limits prospects that mainstream economics departments will integrate sustainability into curriculum. In part, this inertia may exist because addressing sustainability has the potential to create problems of plausibility and coherence for mainstream economic theory. Recommendations are offered for reflecting sustainability commitments in economics curriculum, but it is unclear whether economics departments are interested in, or have the capacity to deliver, such a course.

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