May 9th, 2010

Sustainability and Economics 101: A Primer for Elementary Educators

By Susan Santone

The terms “sustainability” and “economics” are often paired these days, in presidential speeches as well as Wall Street reports.  But what does “sustainable economics” really mean?  What–or whom–is to be “sustained”?  And why should an elementary educator care?

This article aims to answer these questions and serve as an economics primer for sustainability-minded elementary educators.  The article begins by defining and comparing “conventional” and “sustainable” economics approaches to introduce readers to these concepts.  The article then describes effective ideas for teaching sustainability and economics to young learners (grades k-2), with examples that highlight equity and culturally-responsive instruction.

Defining “conventional” and “sustainable” economics

Economics is broadly concerned with the core question of how to allocate scarce resources to meet unlimited needs1.  As the “Production, Distribution, and Consumption” strand of the National Social Studies Standards states,

People have wants that often exceed the limited resources available to them. As a result, a variety of ways have been invented to decide upon answers to four fundamental questions: What is to be produced? How is production to be organized? How are goods and services to be distributed? What is the most effective allocation of the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and management)? 2

Given that these ideas form the basis of K12 economics education (and are derived from dominant schools of economic thought3), this article will refer to this paradigm as the “conventional” economic paradigm.

The sustainability paradigm shares similarities and differences with its conventional cousin.  Like the conventional school of thought, sustainability also concerns itself with questions of scarcity, needs, and distribution.  But the sustainability paradigm begins with a fundamentally different question:  How can we create an economic system that enables individuals and communities to thrive, while also sustaining the capacity of the environment to support this?4

The question reflects the fundamental assumption of the sustainability paradigm: economic activity occurs within, and depends upon, larger ecological systems.  In other words, the economy is contained within the environment.  As explained below, this is more than an assumption–it is a basic scientific fact that informs the models, practices, and policies that distinguish sustainability from conventional economic thinking.

Before going further, a clarification of terms:  As commonly defined, the “environment” is all living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) substances on earth that comprise our surroundings5.  In this definition, humans are part of the environment, not separate from it.  Moreover, the environment is everywhere, not just in the rainforest, the artic, or other “wild” places.

In an economics context, the substances and materials of the environment are often referred to as “natural resources.”  The term “resources” implies that the environment is merely a set of materials for human to use–an assumption which flies in the face of the biological reality that all species (including humans) are part of the environment.   Sustainability-minded educators often use “natural materials” as an alternative to “resources” to more accurately reflect the fact that the environment supports all life forms, not just humans.

Core principles of the sustainability paradigm

By now, the reader may begin to think that sustainability is really a science topic.  It isn’t; however, economics in this paradigm is grounded in some basic scientific ideas that can help educators make their teaching more integrated and relevant.   While some of these concepts are too advanced for an elementary classroom, they are provided here to introduce all educators to the essential knowledge for teaching sustainability at any level.

Let’s begin with an overview of five key principles6 that all educators should understand (and with which readers may already be familiar).  To provide a context, the principles are applied to an everyday item: a jar of strawberry jam.

Principle 1: All materials come from the environment. The environment is the ultimate source for all raw materials used in any economic activity.  For the jam, essential materials include not only soil and solar energy, but also silica (for the jar), metal (for the lid), and trees (for the label).  Technically, even a plastic jar is not “man-made” since it is derived from crude oil, the decayed remains of plants and animals.

Principle 2: Economic activity involves the transformation of natural materials. Transformations occur at all stages of a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, consumption and disposal.  For example, making the jam required growing berries (perhaps with machinery powered by diesel fuel), and cooking them (powered by electricity from a coal-powered plant). Moreover, making this energy available involved its own set of transformations, such as mining, refining, and combustion.  All of these stages create outputs–wastes.  This leads to the next idea.

Principle 3: The environment is the final “sink” into which all wastes go. The wastes produced through jam-making (or any economic activity) go back into the environment in one form or another: The glass jar may end up in a landfill.  The carbon emissions from processing the jam will go into the atmosphere.  As described in the next principle, these wastes do not–and physically cannot–disappear.

Principle 4: There is no “away.” The First Law of Thermodynamics–a scientific law as basic as gravity, but far less known–states that energy (including the potential energy in matter) cannot be created or destroy, but only transformed.  This means that the wastes (outputs) produced through economic activity can change physical or chemical form, but do not leave the environment.  For example, the plastic bag the jam was carried home in can break into small pieces but it does not decompose.  The carbon emissions will circulate through the carbon cycle.  If leftover jam was composted, it will return to the soil as valuable nutrients.  (In this case, “wastes” are not polluting, but serve as nourishing food for next year’s crop.)  In reality, then it is impossible to throw something “away” since outputs are continually changing form within the environment.  (The Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy, constitutes another related principle, but an explanation is omitted here for the sake of brevity.)

Principle 5: The environment provides critical life-sustaining services. Consider the many–and often invisible–ways the environment plays a role in producing the jam: Wetlands surrounding the strawberry field absorb fertilizer run-off; trees absorb the carbon emissions while providing oxygen; organisms in the soil maintain its fertility.  The conventional paradigm tends to ignore the value of these life-sustaining ecosystem services, whereas the sustainability paradigm counts them.  In fact, a landmark 1997 study assessed them to be worth $33 trillion per year – almost double the global output of human-made good and services, valued then at $18 trillion7.  And while such research invites speculation and debate, it also underscores the importance sustainability places on the value (intrinsic and otherwise) of the essential services provided by ecosystems.

Reflecting these ideas, Figure 1 shows the true relationship between natural systems and human systems (the economy).  Here, the environment is not merely a factor of production (as it is portrayed in the conventional “circular flow” economic model), but rather the containing system for the economy.  The diagram shows that environment is the source of all materials humans use and the “sink” into which all wastes go; moreover, wastes stay in the system and do not go “away.”.

Figure 1: The ecological economics model. The placement of the economy in the center reflects the fact that it is contained by the environment, not a suggestion that human activity is the “center of the world.” It is important to clarify these ideas with s

Figure 1:   The ecological economics model.  The placement of the economy in the center reflects the fact that it is contained by the environment, not a suggestion that human activity is the “center of the world.”  It is important to clarify these ideas with students.

The principles described add up to a simple fact: the economy exists within, not apart from, the environment.  This raises several critical questions:  Does our culture–and the economic systems that result from it–acknowledge this fact?  To what extent are we designing production processes, markets, and policies to reflect the reality of interdependence?   To what end are current indicators such as the GDP serving the well-being of the larger system?

Preliminary answers to these questions can be found by exploring a few other conceptual differences between the sustainability and conventional paradigms.

Full-cost accounting: In conventional economics, indirect or unintended impacts such as pollution are considered “externalities.”  For example, the carbon emissions produced by driving are not counted in the price of gas.  In the jam example, the carbon emissions and other wastes are not reflected in the jam’s price, creating hidden subsidies that make it artificially cheaper.  A sustainability paradigm approaches this differently, and attempts to quantify external environmental and social costs using a “full cost” approach.  The research mentioned above is an example of ecosystem valuation: identifying the true value of these vital service so that markets function with more accurate price signals.

The Commons: Air and water are examples of environmental “commons” that all species depend on–but which are limited and/or degraded by overuse.  How we allocate these needs–and whether we recognize them as basic rights–are the policy questions surrounding “the Commons.” (Economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work in this area.)  In a convention paradigm, overuse of the Commons is often framed as the unavoidable “tragedy” of open access; consider the overgrazed field described by Garrett Harden in his 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons.”   Sustainability also recognizes the potential for overuse, and seeks policy solutions that are equitable and sustain the Commons; this may means a mix of market incentives, regulation, cultural norms, and community ownership.  Some of these policy approaches overlap with conventional economics, demonstrating again common ground between the paradigms.

Long-term vs. short-term return: A sustainability framework recognizes that the well-being of human, economic and environmental health are connected across time, place and scale–often in vast and long-term ways.  In this view, short-term actions are assessed by their long-term consequences.  In contrast, the conventional paradigm tends to focus on short-term returns: profits, gross domestic product (GDP), or stock returns.  And, while these short-terms measures certainly matter in a sustainability paradigm, but they do not define “success” to same extent as they do in the conventional one.

Quality vs. quantity (“More vs. better”): Both sustainable and conventional economics are concerned with the question of “utility” (well-being).  The sustainability paradigm measures well-being through qualitative improvements in health, happiness, and satisfaction of real needs.  On the other hand, the conventional paradigm tends to emphasize quantitative growth, with the assumption that “more” is “better.”  Consider, for example, the GDP: A rise in the GDP is considered good news, yet the GDP can rise as a result of spending on crime, illness, or environmental clean-up.  The indicator does not differentiate between beneficial economic growth and “gains” made through spending on negative things such as crime.  Sustainability indicators, on the other hand, consider economic growth within a broader framework of community and environmental well-being8.

Of course, sometimes more is better, and sustainability recognizes this.  Having more food or water is better for someone who is hungry; however, the sustainability paradigm would consider not the only quantity of calories or food, but also the quality of nutrition as well as broader impacts on the individual, environment, community, and economy.

The “more or better” question is also reflected in each paradigm’s approach to global economic issues.  In a conventional paradigm, the term “developed” is typically applied to Western, industrialized societies.  “Development” is likewise defined as the process of advancing “undeveloped” countries along a Western path–of making “them” more like “us.”  These terms carry the assumption that industrialization is higher up along the ladder of human evolution and ignores questions of overall, long-term well-being.

In contrast, a sustainability paradigm focuses on these qualitative factors, and takes a hard and honest look at the role of economic growth in advancing these.   When does growth bring real improvements in people’s lives and communities?  In contrast, when are increases in GDP tied to (or a result of) “bads” such as disease or environmental destruction?   This type of analysis is more complex and accurate than the simplistic (and incorrect) assumption that economic growth, measured in output or monetary terms, is the sole or even best path to improved well-being.  Moreover, the sustainability paradigm requires exploring issues from multiple perspectives–a much-needed competency in a diverse and global society.

From theory to practice: Getting started in the early grades

How can an elementary educator turn the challenging questions of sustainability into effective and age-appropriate economics instruction?  The following section explains tested and effective activities for teaching the most basic concepts to young learners in the context of familiar topics.  (See the Appendix for lessons and resources to teach the more advanced principles not addressed here.)

Beginning the inquiry: What do we need for a fulfilling life?

As noted, the concept of “utility” (fulfillment; well-being) is common to both “conventional” and sustainable economic frameworks.  This forms an excellent entry point.  To begin, the teacher can ask students to generate responses to the question, “What do we need for a fulfilling life?”  This can take many forms: brainstorming, or prioritizing and sorting needs vs. wants.

This leads to the next question: “How do we get what we need?”  In a conventional paradigm, the discussion might be limited to material products and the roles of consumers, producers, markets and money; the teacher might have students give examples of these concepts in their lives.

A sustainability approach looks different. First, students would have defined a broader definition of well-being or “quality of life” that goes beyond material products to consider friends, love, and other non-commodities. (See Figure 2.)

Next, instead of focusing on money as the way to meet needs, sustainability first asks students to consider the elements and relationships that sustain their well-being.  For example, children might identify the role of families in providing needs, and the role of the environment in providing air and water.  In sustainability, understanding how these elements work together–interdependence–is the cornerstone concept.

To further explore human-environmental relationships, the teacher can provide the students with two lists of words: One lists natural “Commons” (sunlight, water, air, etc.), and the other, human-created physical and cultural elements (roads, power lines, stories, language).  Students must cross out the things they can do without if they are to live a fulfilling life9.  Usually, nothing is crossed out, or there is a heated discussion about whether one can have a fulfilling life without a computer.  (This provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine needs and wants, and to do identify the real benefits of the computer: fun, education, communication.)  As students uncover, these are things we all need, and the computer is but one of many ways to obtain them.

Students must next choose at least one word from each list (natural and human-created), and describe how the two work together to provide well-being.  For example, students might pair sunlight and food markets, noting that we need the sunlight to grow the food to sell at the market.  Through this, students see how the natural and human Commons support each other in larger systems.  Thus, sustainability is not “against” conventional concepts such as markets and money, but rather emphasizes the essential role of the environment in supporting these elements.

Questions of the Commons and well-being can also add a new lens to a common early-grade activity: learning about families and communities in other countries.  Imagine how this might typically play out: The teacher assigns Johnny to make a poster about family life in a Ladakh, a remote part of India.  Johnny selects images of traditional homes, and people herding and making their own cheese and clothes.  During his presentation to the class, Johnny talks about how “poor” and “primitive” the people are; the other children concur, noting the decided lack of cars, video games and other technologies.

Through a sustainability lens, this activity has different outcomes.  Building on the “fulfilling life” activity, the assignment now focuses on identifying if the family has what it needs to thrive and the factors that contribute to this.  This time, Johnny comes to different conclusion:  He realizes that the family’s home, made from local materials, is not only better suited to the climate, it is also affordable and can be maintained using readily-available knowledge and technology.  Likewise, Johnny discovers that the family’s food is not only nourishing and fresh, but that it also comes from plant and animals that are suited to the environment, and is produced with traditional methods that sustain human and environmental health.  He extends his understanding of technology beyond computers to include looms, water wheels, and other tools made from local materials.  Johnny also learns that skills such as weaving and cheese making are important assets for community life, serving not only as cornerstones of their economy, but also vehicles for building intergenerational relationships.

The learning can deepen by encouraging students to think about shared needs, similarities, differences, and ways cultures and communities are interdependent.  For example, students could create Venn diagrams or make collages comparing everyday needs and ways they are met.  (“Everyone needs clothes.  How is the way you get your clothes different from how the Ladakhis do?  Why is this?  What would it be like to make your own clothes?  Who in our class knows how to sew?”)  This line of inquiry helps students explore the richness among cultures while expanding students’ conceptions of what has value.  (It is also a starting point for an essential intercultural skill: considering issues from the perspective of a different culture.)

Teachers can further foster these outcomes with questions such as “If you went to Ladakh, what would you like to do or try?  What would you like to learn more about?”  Likewise, “If a child from Ladakh came to our school, what favorite games or activities would you most want to share with them?”  This two-way questioning also reflects another side of interdependence: that we all need to learn with, from, and about each other.  (This also avoids the problematic (if well-intentioned) practice of holding up traditional peoples as a romantic definition of diversity: “others” who are different (in a wonderful way, of course) from “us.” )

To serve as effective learning, a sustainability paradigm must avoid naiveté in other ways as well.  Returning to the families-in-other-countries example, an honest investigation of global well-being will surface inequalities, hunger, disease, and illiteracy (with the level of disclosure appropriate to students’ development and prior learning experiences).  For example, while the family Johnny studied is healthy and stable, Maria may find a family that does not have what it needs.  But here, too, sustainability opens a door to meaningful inquiry.  Again, using well-being as a starting point (and a foundational goal of economics), the teacher could ask, “Do all families in the [school, community, nation, etc.] have what they need to thrive?  Why or why not?”  This lens invites students to learn more about needs within the community, the role of the economy in meeting them, and ways students might contribute in positive ways.  A sustainability approach would help students experience multiple types of exchanges, including a toy exchange (barter), a food drive (sharing/gifting), or a student-led “buy local” campaign (markets/monetized exchanges).  As described below, framing economics in broader terms than money and consumption is essential for reaching all learning.

Creating relevance

Of course, Maria or Johnny may themselves be the ones that don’t have what they need.  Then what?  How does a teacher make economics not only relevant, but also a context for effective teaching and learning?

A sustainability paradigm offers multiple opportunities for building authentic bridges among students’ cultures, economic knowledge, and deeper inquiry.  The question and role of money in economic exchanges provides a good example.

As noted, conventional economics tends to define economic activity in terms of consumers, producers and markets, with money being the means of exchange (with a token nod to barter and “traditional” economic systems).  The centrality of money in this framework omits other exchanges, relationships, and “currencies” that may be more prominent in the lives of low-income, homeless, and/or immigrant students: barter, repairing, and non-monetized networks of exchange (car sharing, community gardening, etc.).

In contrast, a sustainability paradigm provides opportunities to examine and find the value in these types of exchanges.  To begin, after completing the “fulfilling life” activity, students could then explore multiple types of relationships and exchanges they utilize to meet their needs: sharing skills or resources within the community, bartering, and/or buying.  This approach not only broadens the definition of economic activity, it also provides opportunities for students to identify the resources and skills they do have, rather than focusing on the money they don’t.

For example, students can survey the knowledge, skills and resources in their own communities.  Who in our community knows how to grow food?  Fix a bike?  Winterize a home?  Surfacing these skills can validate cultural knowledge while also making a bridge to other forms of economic activity:  How could Johnny use his bike-fixing skills to earn money or barter for other needs?  Thus, rather than viewing low-income students as “deficient,” the pedagogy of sustainability and democratic education emphasizes the resources and knowledge students do have.  This inclusion of both monetized and non-monetized forms of enterprise is thus essential for making economics relevant to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Of course, sustainability is not idealistic; it doesn’t pretend that money doesn’t matter.  On the contrary, the paradigm recognizes that students must gain knowledge and skills to function in the dominant, monetized economy.  The approaches described are thus not ending point, but rather a starting point: The goal is to identify students’ existing knowledge, and help them build on it to acquire the skills needed to succeed in the “power” culture and the cash economy10.

The activities described are the perfect foundation for exploring a full range of economic concepts through a sustainability lens.  This includes product life cycles, the Ecological Footprint, price. vs. cost, economic indicators, trade, and more.  While a discussion of teaching these topics is beyond the scope of this article, readers can find resources in the accompanying list.


As an instructional approach, a sustainability approach to econonmics offers teachers an opportunity to build a foundation of economic thinking that is integrated, holistic, and inherently connected to students’ lives and communities.  The approach builds bridges to learners of all backgrounds, invites students to explore real-world issues through an interdisciplinary lens, and equips learners with skills to be effective citizens.  What more could an elementary teacher ask for?


1. “20 Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics,” (National Council on Economic Education, 2009),

2. “Curriculum Standards for Social Studies,” (National Council for the Social Studies),

3. Mark H. Maier and Julie A. Nelson, Introducing Economics (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007), 15.

4. Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004), 5.

5. G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002), G5.

6. Herman E. Daly, “Introduction to the Steady-State Economy,” Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Essays Toward a Steady-State Economy, Ed. Herman E. Daly (San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1980), 1-31.

See also Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics, 74-75.

7. Robert Costanza, Ralph d’Arge, Rudolf de Groot, Stephen Farberk, Monica Grasso, Bruce Hannon, Karin Limburg, Shahid Naeem, Robert V. O’Neill, Jose Paruelo, Robert G. Raskin, Paul Suttonkk, & Marjan van den Belt, “The Value of the World’s Ecosystems Services and Natural Capital,” Nature, Volume 387, (May 1997): 253-259.

8. Herman Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989), 84, 443.

9. Creative Change Educational Solutions, “Defining What Matters” (Lesson plan in on-line database),

10. Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 24.


●        For lessons and curriculum on sustainability and economics: Creative Change Educational Solutions, Site offers free downloads with subscription-based access to an extensive curriculum library.  View a slide show of ecological economics concepts and teaching approaches at

●        The classic article on the Commons:  Harden, Garrett. (13 December 1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol. 162. no. 3859: 1243-1248.  Available at

●        For adaptable ideas on teaching sustainability and economics, see Santone, Susan, “Eco-economics in the Classroom,” Teaching Green: The High School Years, Ed. Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2009), 96-102.

●        For a deeper analysis of economics education, see Mark H. Maier and Julie A. Nelson, Introducing Economics (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007).

●        The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economic is another useful website for educators, providing clear explanations of the core ideas of sustainability and economics.

●        The United States Society for Ecological Economics is a leading academic and scholarly association for sustainability and economics.  Their site has documents and newsletters that provide background information on eco-economics.

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  1. […] Santone, S. (2010). Sustainability and Economics 101: A Primer for Elementary Educators . Journal of Sustainability Education, 1. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from… […]