Chapter 6: Social and Cultural

Tai Munro

Key Ideas

In this chapter, you will learn about:

  • the importance of social justice and cultural vitality in achieving sustainability
  • the implications of only having a single story

In this chapter, we will look at social equity and cultural vitality. These two areas are often lumped together under social justice. Unfortunately, this can lead to ongoing inequity and cultural loss depending on how social justice is understood. If you look back at the doughnut model proposed by Raworth, culture is not mentioned. Can we assume that culture will be included in things like having a political voice, gender equality, housing, and food?

Let’s start by looking at what culture is. What do you consider to be part of your culture? The food you eat? The beliefs you hold? The way your family and social groups interact? The way you learn? Culture includes all of these and more. Culture is a set of shared practices, goals, values, and attitudes that characterize a group. We often think of culture as having geographic or racial origins; however, there are many different cultures that we move between in our lives. You may have chosen the school you are going to because of the culture. One challenge with culture is that it can be difficult to identify what is part of your culture when you are part of the dominant culture. This is because beliefs, practices, and things like stereotypes do not stand out when they are part of the dominant culture. They are perceived as the way things are. On the other hand, cultural elements that are not part of the dominant culture can stand out and can be challenging to uphold. This can lead to criticism that these practices are incorrect.

Let’s consider housing as an example. How big does a house have to be in order to house a family? Does the culture of the family make a difference?

In Western countries like Canada, refugees often live in small homes within multi-family housing units like apartment buildings and townhomes. But these types of dwellings are designed for small families, one or two children with one or two adults. Refugees with larger, multi-generational families struggle to fit within these small living spaces. This has the potential to lead to beliefs that this is not the correct way to live. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of this cultural bias and its implications.

A collaborative project in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, between a church, a community, and a not-for-profit looked to address this housing issue. They engaged a builder specializing in sustainability and net zero buildings to complete a project that created spaces for 16 larger, low-income families, a new church that was more affordable to maintain, a daycare, and an influx of children to the nearby struggling elementary school (P. Amerongen, personal communication, March 15, 2019).

Recommended Resource

Read more about the story from Edmonton in Stolte (Jan 09, 2018). Do you know of, or can you find, any projects like this near where you live?

Our cultures and the social contexts that we have been exposed to and gotten used to impact how we perceive and interact with the world around us. Therefore, social and cultural contexts cannot be separated from how we view sustainability. Listen to the following podcast (10:47) for an overview of why sustainability includes both social and cultural components. It was originally published at under CC-BY-4.0 (Munro, 2020).

Sustainability is Social and Cultural

Have you ever thought about how the place you grew up affected you later in your life? What messages did you receive from the places you experienced?

Was where you lived or spent time focused on the car or on the people?

Was nature a space to explore or fear? Was the idea of walking to school a necessity or an impossibility?

In keeping with the theme of this series of posts, I’m going to give you some time to reflect on those questions: What was the message of the place you spent time as a child?

What about the spaces that you inhabit now? What messages do they send to you, to your neighbours, or to someone who might visit?

I’m fortunate to have many positive memories of the places of my childhood; but when I think about sustainability, one particular memory stands out. I remember playing street hockey in the parking space for the townhouse complex I lived in. We would set up right in the middle of the road. For any of you who have played street hockey, you are likely familiar with the “car!” call and the momentary opening that allows the car through before the game continues.

Looking back, I’m both baffled and fascinated by this exchange. We had the road, it was our place, and we had to grant permission for the car to pass. Today, I can see the privilege in this story, but at the time, I only saw that the game, the community, the activity had priority over the car. This had an impact on my perception of what space is for, who space is for.

Today, I am a bike commuter and I have a very different perception of my place on the road. I want to have the place I had as a kid but I’ve experienced too many honking horns, swearing drivers, and an accident that resulted in multiple surgeries. Now, before you think that my childhood experiences left me racing through traffic and dodging between cars, I don’t. Half of my incidents, including my most serious one, have been when I have been riding on separated bike paths. I know the research says that these paths are safer, but my experience has not been positive. Unlike my street hockey games, cars don’t have to give me any space when I’m on a separated bike path. Of course, they take it a step further by yelling at me for being near their space. What was so clear as a kid, that public space was for community, is quite apparently not the case as an adult.

Place is an important concept. We will put effort into protecting places we love, and that can be positive such as events like the annual (except in covid times) river valley cleanup in Edmonton. But it can also be negative if we prevent, or try to prevent, others from using a space because they are different from us, as happened in May 2020, when a white woman called the police on a Black man who was birding in the area. Or as we looked at before with First Nations peoples being removed from their traditional lands in order to preserve the place as a national park.

Place also matters through processes like gentrification. With catch phrases like “revitalization,” communities are redeveloped. Public art, new transportation lines, and business recruitment can make the once-local residents wonder how they fit in with someone else’s vision for their place. Even buildings with their front and back sides can send messages about who belongs in what place, a reality that the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton actively tried to challenge with their new building by placing real entrances on three sides of the building.

Place can also have cultural implications. Consider advocates for the 100-mile diet. As an Albertan, the 100-mile diet has little appeal, as I would face an upcoming winter of beef and potatoes. But consider a Syrian refugee or an immigrant from the Philippines; the 100-mile diet would likely mean no recipes from home ever.

Place matters for sustainability, but we have to make sure to ask — a place for whom? Do we want sustainability that makes a driver feel like they can yell at me for being near them on the road or one that lets the kids decide when to grant access to the car? Do we want places that barely tolerate someone who is different or where we can ask to learn from every visitor and resident? Do we want public art regardless of its cultural relevance? Do we want revitalization that pushes people from homes they can no longer afford? Or do we want places that invite people in no matter what direction they are coming from? Do we want to eat within 100 miles or do we want to eat the foods of our culture and family?

If you’ve followed the last two posts in this series, you may be noticing a trend. When we talked about the economy, we considered what values we have compared to what has value in our economy. In “What is the environment?”, we asked who gets to define what “the environment” even is. These both have implications for our social and cultural health. If we value consumption, then what is the point of putting a welcoming entrance on the “backside” of a building? After all, we wouldn’t have a reason to invite someone in who couldn’t afford our services. If we value nature that is untouched by human hands, then shouldn’t everyone be behind the fence regardless of any aspect of their identity?

Economy, environment, society, and culture are not the four pillars of sustainability because sustainability won’t be built on pillars. Pillars, or legs of a stool, or even interconnected circles — all common images when defining sustainability — all imply that these are separate topics that only connect to sustainability when things are right. But that’s just not the case. We can’t separate the environment from our culture any more than we can separate the economy from our society. Imagining that we can see these areas as discreet entities has led us to the place where we exclude people by default. It prevents us from recognizing that “small actions” like carrying reusable grocery bags mean nothing if you have no access to groceries. It prevents us from realizing that the trees we cut down because they disrupted the view were performing a service that will not be matched by building an erosion guard where the trees once were. It prevents us from realizing we are all in this together.

I used to run an activity with kids in the camp programs I led. We took a ball of yarn and connected the parts of a food web. But then we would remove something from the web, perhaps the nearby pond that had been filled in to make way for a shopping complex. The web would shift and change, parts of it would collapse, perhaps all of it would collapse, or sometimes one part of the web would grow in response while others withered and died. I feel like this is a much better analogy for the relationships among society, culture, environment, and economy. They are fundamentally interconnected, but when you let a component drop, like trying to extract culture from the First Nations through residential schools, the ripples spread out continually along the rest of the web.

So, what is the web of sustainability? What parts have overgrown more than they should? How do we support the re-emergence of what has been lost? How do we change our thinking so that we see connections rather than boundaries? Perhaps we once had those ways of thinking when we looked at our places through our eyes as a child, when places could be for community, recognizing that many people learn at very young ages all the barriers in the way of community.


Reflection 6.1: Culture and Sustainability

As you consider your relationship with sustainability and culture, consider these questions:

  • What was your relationship with the surrounding world when you were growing up? Who had the right-of-way? Was nature a place for adventure or fear?
  • What are some examples where you or someone you know might not be able to access culturally appropriate housing, food, or clothing? What are the impacts of this experience?

Just Sustainabilities

Dr. Julian Agyeman is a Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. He introduced the concept of just sustainabilities to counteract the focus on environment that most people have when they think of sustainability. In his talk, he discusses three areas of just sustainability: space and place, food, and culture.

Activity 6.1: Just Sustainabilities Discussion

Watch Julian Agyeman: Toward Just Sustainabilities (Conserving Nature for the Next 100 Years) (18:53). As you watch, consider the following:

Space and Place

  • What is spatial justice?
  • What examples can you identify of spatial justice or spatial injustice around where you live?
  • Are the streets where you live democratized? How do you know?
  • What influence do the streets where you live have on how you perceive the world?
  • What design change could make your favourite park or greenspace more inclusive?


  • Do you agree that food is a good place to start talking to someone about the environment? Why or why not?
  • What would you have to give up in your diet if you could only access food that should be grown in an area?
  • What is your local food?


  • What are the limits of multiculturalism?
  • What evidence do you see of multiculturalism or interculturalism in an organization you are familiar with?
  • In what ways does your city embrace or not embrace diversity?

Finally, what factors limit our imagination of what the system could be? What strategies might we be able to use to challenge those limits?

Sustainability Stories

In Chapter 1, we looked at a brief history of the modern sustainability movement. Chapters 2 and 3 then introduced a way of looking at the world called systems thinking. These two topics come together in this chapter. When it comes to sustainability, Selby (2000) argues that we are still grounded in reductionism. As a result, concepts like interdependence are viewed as “an intricate relationship between still separate parts” (p. 89). This statement helps illustrate the influence of culture on our perception of sustainability. Humans are not separate from the environment, yet Western society acts like we are. As we heard in Chapter 5, this view of separation played a large role in making colonizers feel that they were justified in removing Indigenous Peoples from the land.

This is the danger of having a single story. If we only ever hear of a single way of being or doing, it is easy to assume it is correct in every situation, but is that the case?

Reflection 6.2: A Single Story

Watch The Danger of a Single Story, a TedTalk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. As you watch, consider when you have held a single story or been subjected to someone else’s single story.

Agyeman challenges the single story of sustainability in his talk about just sustainabilities. He challenges ideas like the 100-mile diet and what a street must look like. In the next video, Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional owner of Uluru, Bob Randall, explains the connections between him, the land, and every other living thing.

Reflection 6.3: Comparing Stories

Watch The Land Owns Usa video from the Global Oneness Project featuring Bob Randall. As you watch, consider how his story compares with your own.

Wicked Problems, Multiple Stories, and Systems Thinking

Recall that sustainability problems are wicked problems; we are missing information, many people need to be involved, the requirements change and sometimes contradict each other, and there is no single solution. Another way to think about this is that there is no single story for sustainability, even though that is what most of us know and want. We want to know that if we all switch to reusable straws, we will achieve sustainability, but that isn’t the case. We want to know that if we can just get our energy from renewable sources, we will achieve sustainability, but that isn’t the case.

One of the values of systems thinking is that it can include multiple stories or perspectives; in fact, multiple stories will make your understanding of a system more robust. This was shown by Cole et al. (2022) in a study on making landscape decisions in order to achieve net zero. Scientific modelling and knowledge need to be connected and situated in the social context to succeed. As a result, the right solution needs to be identified for each place and include local decision-making.

Activity 6.2: Connecting Stories with Wicked Problems

Choose a social issue that affects your community. You may define community however you would like, but you must include an explanation of the community you chose. The social issue may be well documented, such as homelessness, but it may also be something that is more anecdotal.

  • Identify the issue and describe why you think it is relevant to your community.
  • Do an internet search to identify two potential strategies to address the issue. Don’t forget to record the reference information. For each strategy:
    • What is the story that is revealed by the proposed strategy? Think about what the proposed strategy implies about the causes of the issue. For example, if you are considering overdose deaths in a community, and a proposed strategy is to strengthen drug laws to allow for increased charges and incarceration, what does that say about how drug users are perceived?
    • Does the strategy use a systems thinking perspective or not? In other words, does it address the system or just symptoms?
  • Identify two actions you could take to learn more or contribute to addressing the social issue.

The devastating injustices that First Nations, Inuit, and the Metis Nation, along with Indigenous Peoples worldwide, have experienced at the hands of colonizers is another example of the danger of a single story. In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action were developed to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” (p. 1). Reconciliation is something that we all play a role in. In engaging, we can hopefully all begin to see both the dangers of a single story and the importance of the Indigenous stories that we are at risk of losing and those that we have lost.

Activity 6.3: 150 Acts of Reconciliation

Fraser and Komarnisky (2017) developed a resource called 150 Acts of Reconciliation in relation to Canada’s 150th birthday. The acts range from the small and every day to more provocative acts “that encourage people to think about Indigenous-settler relationships in new ways.”

Visit the resource 150 Acts of Reconciliation. Choose at least one act and complete it. Record your experience, including:

  • which act you chose and why
  • what did you do to complete it
  • reflection on your experience
  • description of how actions like the one you completed contribute to cultural vitality as part of sustainability


Adichie, C. N. (2009, October). The danger of a single story [Video]. TED Conferences.

Cole, B., Saratsi, E., Earnshaw, K., Willcock, S., Gardner, E., Bradley, A., Fremantle, C., Bezant, J., Finan, J., Ziv, G., & Balzter, H. (2022). Making Landscape Decisions to Meet Net Zero Carbon: Pathways that consider ethics, socio-ecological diversity, and landscape functions. University of Leicester.

Forest Preserves of Cook County. (2014, May 2). Julian Agyeman: Toward Just Sustainabilities (Conserving Nature for the Next 100 Years) [Video]. YouTube.

Fraser, C. & Komarnisky, S. (2017, August 4). 150 Acts of Reconciliation for the Last 150 Days of Canada’s 150. Active History.

Global Oneness Project. (2009, February 26). The Land Owns Us [Video]. YouTube.

Munro, T. (2020, October 5). Sustainability is Social and Cultural. Connecting with Science.

Raworth, K. (n.d.). What on Earth is the Doughtnut?… Kate Raworth: Exploring doughnut economics.

Stolte, E. (2018, January 9). Aging church creates space for 16 large immigrant families in North Glenora. Edmonton Journal.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Introduction to Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Tai Munro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book