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I am looking for resources (books, websites, etc.) for mathematics relevant to or in the context of sustainability, broadly construed, at upper secondary or early undergraduate level - so not necessarily assuming calculus or differential equations as background, although possibly introducing some notions of these subjects.

So far, I have found the book Mathematics for Sustainability by Roe, deForest & Jamshidi; Springer 2018, in the Texts for Quantitative Critical Thinking series (Book website: https://math-for-sustainability.com/; review at https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/202011/rnoti-p1784.pdf). It would appear to be an excellent book, although those outside the US will perhaps prefer a version with more use of metric units. It is organized around the concepts of measurement, flows, networks, change, risk and decisions, along with relevant case studies.

For a dynamical systems approach, there is Critical Transitions in Nature and Society by Scheffer, Princeton University Press 2009. The dynamical systems concepts are explained with the assistance of diagrams and graphs, with relevant equations in an appendix. Well worth reading and a useful supplementary resource.

What are other good resources for teaching sustainability topics using mathematics, or teaching mathematics applied to sustainability?

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, I'm not sure I understand what "mathematics for sustainability" is supposed to mean. Sustainability is mainly a word for the general insight that it's a bad idea to constantly use more resources than we have available in the long run. In real life, this is related to almost every field I can think of: mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, chemistry, physics, geology, metreology, biology, various social sciences, economics, finance, and many more. Thus, I don't see a reason why saving the planet should require significantly different maths than destroying it. $\endgroup$ Jul 14 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Of course mathematics is sustainable, it has timeless truths! $\endgroup$ Jul 14 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook Tools are always morally neutral, but the unfortunate reality is that (in our current society) almost all tools are primarily employed for the purpose of "economic growth", which is essentially synonymous with environmental destruction. Mathematics is no exception. $\endgroup$ Jul 14 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JochenGlueck I'm so glad that my children are too old to take "mathematics for sustainability". $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 15 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook just as long as there are still humans alive to believe that. $\endgroup$ Jul 15 at 6:54
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Possibly worth looking at is:

Earth Algebra: College Algebra With Applications to Environmental Issues by Christopher Schaufele and Nancy Zumoff (1995 1st edition and 1998 2nd edition)

See this review and this project/funding document. For what it's worth, in Spring 1993 I interviewed (on campus) for a tenure-track position at the university this was developed and saw a copy of the 1993 preliminary version. I don't know how well this experimental approach to the traditional college algebra course went (I was not offered the position, and back then you couldn't google on the internet for information like this), but the faculty were certainly excited about it when I was there. Although there were a lot of innovations/criticisms around this time (in the U.S. at least) about "rainforest math" [1], up to this time I believe the innovations were limited to various extended exercises, tangential text discussions, etc. in otherwise traditional type textbooks. I think (but I'm not entirely sure) their book was the first college algebra textbook in which the algebra was framed and developed in order to analyze a single theme of topical interest. As I understand it, their idea was to pick a single theme of topical interest that algebra could be developed around, rather than sprinkle the text with a large number of disjointed and unrelated non-traditional applications, and for this theme they chose environmental issues.

[1] A pejoratively used term for what some considered to be ill-fitting/forced applications of school-level mathematics in order to capture students' interest. I don't know if the term "rainforest math" was widely used in 1993, but it was definitely widely used by the late 1990s.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the suggestion. By the way, I wonder if "rainforest math" is still regarded that way over two decades later. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Jul 14 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ @J W: I don't know, but if this has changed (due to the huge increase in awareness of climate warming), then it's probably only been in the past 10 years or so. For what it's worth, the searches "rainforest math" and "rainforest math" + "fuzzy math" seem to show two entirely different camps on this topic! $\endgroup$ Jul 14 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ I used this book, back in 1995 or so. (The authors don't sound familiar but the title does.) I did not like it. I'd have to think hard to remember details. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jul 14 at 21:29
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Before listing 'resources', let me start with some official documents (e.g. to clarify the difference of sustainable math and math for sustainability, see xkcd:Sustainable :-).

The official UN Site lists the 17 Goals for sustainability; especially Goal 4: Education. Still debating what this all means, I find the paper by Brundiers et. al. (2021, see below for reference) gives a nice overview. Although the article is behind a paywall, the relevant figures are available on researchgate, put short: different 'competencies' intertwined yield what is called 'key competencies for sustainable development'.

Math relevant: problem-solving, strategic-thinking, ... So to speak: All math is relevant! To me, what's important is not to think of the modelling aspect only. In math we need to sort this out a little more!

In the UN-model, there are different aspects of 'eduacation for sustainable development' (ESD) mentioned: Relations to environmental, economic, social and political questions. I like the 'Math of Planet Earth' Series exactly for this reason: It shows more that just applications of differential equations to environmental questions.

Let me first add: UNESCO & MGIEP have a wonderful text about general aspects for textbooks in relation to ESDs and explicate that in examples. What I find interesting is that they don't start in high school. It starts in Kindergarten: Kids getting their grips to quantities, measurement and numbers. That's where maths starts relating to ESD: Discovering you in the world around. They list different affordances that are also met by resources that are not specifically mentioned in relation to 'sustainability' (see p. 50), such as:

  • use real world contexts that relates to the life of students
  • use real data in your teaching, not given numbers (or discuss with students realistic guesses)
  • don't oversimplify, but enable students to grapple with complexity ('corse at the appropriate level)
  • respect, courage and agency in teaching are important; thus it is not only about the material but also how you enact with them when teaching.

In this broader sense, I would like to add different resources, trying not to repeat the ones already mentioned in other answers. Also, I didn't check the list for the age group appropriate for the materials. And of course this is far from complete...

General:

  • Kaslik (2016) Math in a Vibrant and Sustainable Society. Resources on different topics: I like it because it (now) drives on a positive path showing opportunities; many other models are quite pessimistic; this book startet like that and switched...
  • Issue to Action: Maths Nice examples related to climate, gender and migration.
  • Community Based Math Project from Philly shows ways how to connect mathematical questions to your local environment and see the world around you through 'math lens'.

Political:

Social:

  • Steen (2001) Mathematics and Democracy is a classic as well, showing the importance to be able to think about quantities in everyday life and different aspects of it.
  • Radical Statistics. Talking about the use of 'real data' and where to find it; e.g. on
  • GapMinder. Still one of the best tools to explore real world data!

Economical:

Yes, just about every book on Econometrics or aiming about 'financial literacy' (many others know any good resources on that...)

Environmental:

Most of the resources I know... mentioned in other answers and :


Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G. et al. Key competencies in sustainability in higher education—toward an agreed-upon reference framework. Sustain Sci 16, 13–29 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00838-2

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Since asking the question, I've come across Thomas J. Pfaff's website, Sustainability Math. Plenty of material there, including projects and links to further resources. Contains a blog that refers to current/recent events.

I found Pfaff's website when perusing Mathematics of Planet Earth, specifically the list of curriculum materials.

(Made this community wiki - feel free to upvote (or not) based on intrinsic usefulness, without me gaining rep for an answer to my own question.)

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