The Age of Sustainable Development

Columbia University

"The Age of Sustainable Development" gives students an understanding of the key challenges and pathways to sustainable development - that is, economic development that is also socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. NOTE: Course will launch at noon on September 9, 2014.

This course provides an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of sustainable development, drawing on the most recent developments in the social, policy, and physical sciences. Sustainable development is the most urgent challenge facing humanity. The fundamental question is how the world economy can continue to develop in a way that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The course describes the complex interactions between the world economy and the Earth's physical environment. Ecological processes and constraints (climate, disease ecology, physical resources such as soils and energy sources, topography and transport conditions) significantly shape the patterns of economic development, demography, and wealth and poverty. At the same time, human activities (farming, land use, urbanization, demographic change, and energy use) change the physical environments, increasingly in dangerous ways. The course offers a broad overview of the key challenges and potential solutions to achieve sustainable development in the 21st century.


Lecture 1: What is Sustainable Development?
  • Chapter 1: Introduction to Sustainable development
  • Chapter 2: Economic growth and progress
  • Chapter 3: Continuing poverty
  • Chapter 4: Environmental threats hitting the rich and poor alike
  • Chapter 5: The business as usual path versus the sustainable development path
Lecture 2: Economic Development – How we measure it, how it varies around the world
  • Chapter 1: Incomes around the World
  • Chapter 2: Urban/rural inequality
  • Chapter 3: Income inequality within countries
  • Chapter 4: Measuring wellbeing
  • Chapter 5: Convergence or divergence?
Lecture 3: A Short History of Economic Development
  • Chapter 1: Economic development is new, starting around 1750
  • Chapter 2: The industrial revolution starts in England
  • Chapter 3: The great waves of technological change
  • Chapter 4: The diffusion of economic growth
  • Chapter 5: Economic Development Since World War II: The Making of Globalization
Lecture 4: Why Did Some Countries Advance While Others Remained in Poverty?
  • Chapter 1: The Idea of Clinical Economics
  • Chapter 2: The role of physical geography: transport, energy, disease, crops
  • Chapter 3: The role of culture: demography, education, gender
  • Chapter 4: The role of politics
  • Chapter 5: Which countries are still stuck in poverty?
Lecture 5: The MDGs and the End of Extreme Poverty
  • Chapter 1: The Reasons to Believe that Extreme Poverty Can Be Ended
  • Chapter 2: A Strategy to End Extreme Poverty in Africa
  • Chapter 3: South Asia: The Continuing Challenge of the Food Supply
  • Chapter 4: A Closer Look at Official Development Assistance
  • Chapter 5:  Designing Practical Interventions: The Case of Millennium Villages
Lecture 6: Growth within Planetary Boundaries
  • Chapter 1: The Planetary Boundaries
  • Chapter 2: Growth Dynamics
  • Chapter 3: Growth and Planetary Boundaries: The Case of Energy
  • Chapter 4: Growth and Planetary Boundaries: The Case of Food
  • Chapter 5: Growth and Planetary Boundaries: The Case of Population
Lecture 7: Human Rights and Gender Equality
  • Chapter 1: The Ethics of Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality
  • Chapter 2: Major UN Covenants and Declarations
  • Chapter 3: Divided societies
  • Chapter 4: Forces of Widening Inequalities
  • Chapter 5: Gender Inequality and Solutions
Lecture 8:  Education
  • Chapter 1: Life-cycle approach to human development
  • Chapter 2: Early Childhood Development
  • Chapter 3: The rising returns to education and the supply response
  • Chapter 4: Social mobility
  • Chapter 5: The role of higher education in sustainable development
Lecture 9: Universal Health Coverage
  • Chapter 1: The human right to health
  • Chapter 2: Poverty and disease
  • Chapter 3: Designing and Financing a Primary Health System in Low-Income Settings
  • Chapter 4: Ten Recommended Steps to Health for All in the Poorest Countries
  • Chapter 5: The Challenges of Health Coverage in High-Income Countries
Lecture 10: Sustainable Food Supply and the End of Hunger
  • Chapter 1: Malnutrition
  • Chapter 2: Farm systems, ecology, and food security
  • Chapter 3: How environmental change threatens the food system
  • Chapter 4: How the food system threatens the environment
  • Chapter 5: Towards a sustainable global food supply
Lecture 11: Sustainable Cities
  • Chapter 1: The patterns of urbanization around the world
  • Chapter 2: What makes a city sustainable?
  • Chapter 3: Smart Infrastructure
  • Chapter 4: Urban Resilience
  • Chapter 5: Planning for Sustainable Development 
Lecture 12: Curbing Climate Change
  • Chapter 1: The basic science of climate change
  • Chapter 2: Consequences
  • Chapter 3: Mitigation
  • Chapter 4: Mitigation Policies
  • Chapter 5: Policies and Global Cooperation for Climate Change
Lecture 13: Saving Biodiversity
  • Chapter 1: What is biodiversity?
  • Chapter 2: Biodiversity under threat
  • Chapter 3: Oceans and fisheries
  • Chapter 4: Deforestation
  • Chapter 5: International dynamics
Lecture 14: The Sustainable Development Goals
  • Chapter 1: The proposal for SDGs at Rio+20
  • Chapter 2: Illustrative SDGs
  • Chapter 3: Goal-Based Development
  • Chapter 4: Financing for Sustainable Development
  • Chapter 5: Principles of Good Governance

Recommended Background

The course is open to all interested students.

Suggested Readings

  *Note: The coursebook is not yet available but will be posted online shortly; it will be free.

Lecture 1: What is Sustainable Development?
Lecture 2: Economic development – How we measure it, how it varies around the world
Lecture 3: A Short History of Economic Development
  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. A Short History of Economic Development (coursebook chapter 3)
  • Maddison, Angus. The World Economy (available on Google Books). Chapter 1: Introduction and Summary and pp. 17-25 pp. 27-31 pp. 125-130
  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. The End of Poverty. Chapter 2: The Spread of Economic Prosperity
  • Gallup, John, Andrew Mellinger and Jeffrey D. Sachs,  “Climate, Coastal Proximity, and Development,” Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography, edited by Gordon L. Clark, Maryann P. Feldman, and Meric S. Gertler, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lecture 4: Why Did Some Countries Advance While Others Remained in Poverty?
Lecture 5: The MDGs and the End of Extreme Poverty
Lecture 6: Growth within Planetary Boundaries
Lecture7: Human Rights and Gender Equality
Lecture 8:  Education
Lecture 9: Universal Health Coverage
Lecture 10: Sustainable Food Supply and the End of Hunger
Lecture 11: Sustainable Cities
Lecture 12: Curbing Climate Change
Lecture 13: Saving Biodiversity
  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. Saving Biodiversity (coursebook chapter 13)
  • Summary for Decision Makers: Ecosystems and Human Well Being, Synthesis, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (24 pages)
  • Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, Convention on Biological Diversity.  Executive Summary and Introduction (8 pages)
  • The Economics of Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought: Methodologies and Analysis for Decision-Making, 2nd Scientific Conference on the UNCCD; Executive Summary; Chapter 1: Introduction; Chapter 2: Economic and social impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought; Chapter 5: Implementation of the Rio conventions – a call for synergies to advance the economics of desertification, land degradation and drought; Chapter 6: Using the Economics of desertification, land degradation and drought to inform policies at local, national and international level; Conclusion (26 pages)
Lecture 14: The SDGs

Course Format

Course Engagement

Since this course is a massive open online course (MOOC), we will not be able to respond to each individual question. We will be answering questions and holding discussion through two forums:

 1)    Course discussion forums: Please check the discussion forums frequently to ask questions and hold discussions with the course staff, including Professor Sachs, and with your fellow students. The boards will include discussions of the weekly material and quizzes; and on the “join the conversation” board we will be posting weekly questions and prompts, and discussing relevant current events.

 2)   Google Hangouts: Each week the course staff will hold 4 google hangouts to answer student questions and discuss relevant topics – anyone will be able to participate and submit their questions. The times of these hangouts will vary in order to accommodate as many students as possible; however, if you have to miss a hangout, you will be able to watch the video at a later time. The hangouts will be conducted in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Hindi. Professor Sachs will be holding hangouts approximately every 2 weeks. All hangout times will be announced in advanced.

 Meetups: Many students in the Coursera community organize in-person meetups to discuss the class. Interested students can find each other on the "Join a Meetup" tab.

Weekly Materials Provided

“The Age of Sustainable Development” will run for 14 weeks, beginning on September 2, 2014. New materials will be posted every Tuesday. Once a week’s material has been posted, it will stay up for the duration of the course.

The weekly lecture materials provided will be:

1)    Course videos: Each week’s lecture will have 5 video “chapters,” posted under “Video Lectures.” The videos will contain 2-3 in-line questions, which are multiple choice questions that pop up during the video. 

2)   Assigned reading: Each week there will be assigned reading materials, all of which will be free links. The readings will include accompanying course material written by Prof. Sachs, which will also go up weekly. 


1) There are 14 quizzes (10-15 questions long) that correspond to the 14 weekly lecture topics. Each week, a new quiz will be posted under the “Quizzes” tab. All quizzes are due within 3 weeks of the posting date, and each quiz can be taken up to 10 times.

2) Each video will have an in-line quiz (2-3 multiple choice questions) that is not counted for a grade.

3) In the last week of the course, one final assignment will be available that covers all the course material.  

Grading Policy
The best 13 out of 14 quizzes will account for 60% of the final grade. The final assignment accounts for 40% of the final grade. In-line video questions are not included in the grade calculations.


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    A stronger internet connection will be helpful but we will try to ensure materials are available for slower bandwidths as well. No other computer programs are necessary.

  • What kind of background do I need for this course? Do I need an economics background?

    The course is open to all and is accessible to students without prior background in the topics; you do not need an economics background.

  • Can I take this class for Columbia University credit?

    No. While we encourage any professors to incorporate this material into their own courses, you cannot take this course on its own for Columbia University credit.

  • 9 September 2014, 14 weeks
  • 21 January 2014, 14 weeks
Course properties:
  • Free:
  • Paid:
  • Certificate:
  • MOOC:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Email-course:
  • Language: English Gb


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