Systems Areas

The Interdisciplinary Systems Approach

At the U of A, Sustainability Academic Programs are interdisciplinary both by nature and by design. Understanding sustainability requires a systems approach that recognizes the implications for every aspect of human knowledge and experience. It is for this reason that our academic programs comprise elective courses from every undergraduate degree-granting college on the Fayetteville campus. Students who decide to pursue a dual-degree track (double major) or a minor in sustainability will learn to actively integrate sustainability into their chosen discipline, allowing for innovative solutions to complex problems. This integrative approach fosters a well-rounded, nuanced perspective and leadership development. The nature of the interdisciplinary systems approach provides students with the tools for investigating and understanding the far-reaching impacts of decisions through a multifaceted, critical lens.  In order to better conceptualize the interdisciplinary nature of the sustainability field and the interconnectedness of human and environmental systems, our programs address four major thematic areas:


Sustainability of Natural Systems provides a modern contextual view of Earth as a closed system with respect to matter and develops concepts of material transfers among various components of the Earth System (atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, biosphere).  Emphasis is on developing fundamental understanding of systems science, material transfers and mass balance as a means of understanding complex Earth processes.  Introduction to the importance of quantitative measures to document environmental change as well as progress toward or retreat from sustainability are provided. Interconnectedness of Earth processes and implications of interactions among Earth systems are focal points of learning in Sustainability of Natural Systems.


Sustainability of Managed Systems addresses foundations of life cycle analysis, agricultural production-distribution mechanisms, customer good production, business, law, and policy. The evolution of agricultural systems and the foundations of agricultural practices for meeting sustainability objectives will be examined. Business foundations for sustainability are covered, including ethics, the role of consumer preferences, and the optimization of sustainability objectives throughout the supply chain. A policy implementation approach provides an exploration of the pertinent legal systems, the roles of international law, and the foundations of environmental law. Managed systems include agriculture, managed forest resources, communities, institutions, and businesses. The driving questions are whether managed systems are or can be sustainable, what measurements of sustainability can be used, and how individual choices impact the managed system.


Sustainability of Built Systems focuses on the effects that the design and construction of buildings, with related infrastructure, have on the preservation of natural resources and quality of the environment. Attention is given to sustainable theories and concepts in the context of the built world, with the promise that they hold in shaping a better environment, and in changing our views on human-nature relations. The broad topics of regional planning and land use considerations, site-landscape planning, and sustainable design principles for the production of buildings are addressed. Multiple factors contribute to buildings’ convergence towards sustainability: energy and water consumption, material resources and sites/grounds, indoor air quality and carbon footprint, etc... Varied techniques and strategies are deployed to assess the performance of buildings and grounds.


Sustainability of Social Systems is concerned with understanding the relationship between humans and their environment. This involves elucidating the connections between environmental issues (ecological degradation, resource depletion, impacts on human health) and social behaviors, structures, and dynamics. Theories of social justice and equity provide frameworks for understanding the relationship between social inequality (resource allocation) and (un)sustainability. The uneven distribution of resources impacts certain subgroups more than others; particular attention is required to address the effects of unequal resource distribution on the poor, indigenous, racial/ethnic minorities, women, and the place-bound in both urban and rural areas. Exploration of mechanisms of societal change and developing indicators of sustainability are also included.