home Fall 2021 Newsletter Integrating Sustainability into an Anthropology Course on Warfare and Peace

Integrating Sustainability into an Anthropology Course on Warfare and Peace

By Jessica Smeeks, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

The Office of Campus Sustainability, inspired by UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is striving to create a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable campus. As a part of this initiative, annual cohorts of academic and professional faculty work toward infusing sustainability into their courses and programs. Sustainability focuses on meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UNESCO 2015). This includes three main objectives: (1) economic development (the well-being of the people and the eradication of poverty), (2) social equity (access to basic needs such as health, and education, human security and rights, gender equity, and distribution of benefits and access to resources across the society), and (3) environmental conservation (conservation of natural resources and minimization of impacts on physical and biological resources).

As a 2020-2021 Sustainability Faculty Fellow, I integrated sustainability and the SDGs into my newly developed spring 2021 course ANT 393: Warfare and Peace. This discussion-based course is designed to overcome the disproportional focus on conflict, aggression, and violence within scholarship by considering “warfare” and “peace” on an equal footing. As such, peace is defined as a separate entity with its own forms, aims, tactics, and consequences, instead of just the “absence of war.” It includes the presence of freedom, equality, economic and social justice, cooperation, and harmony. These aspects of peace seem far more obtainable and promotable to a modern student (an agent of change) than the complete annihilation of war.

This breakdown of the peace concept pairs well with SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Thus, the UNESCO-developed learning objectives of SDG 16, along with the learning objectives of three other global goals—SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, and SDG 13: Climate Change—guided the student learning outcomes (SLOs) of ANT 393. SLOs center around human variation, cultural relativism (or objectivity), cross-cultural comparison, social inequalities, and climate change, as well as the student’s role as a current and future agent of change. The first four foci are important to every aspect of anthropological research, so they are undoubtedly a part of every lecture or discussion. However, I devoted two weeks to exclusively discussing social inequalities (gender, religious, and ethnic inequalities) in relation to the practices and perceptions of warfare and peace.

Social inequalities were also a significant component of the campus-wide panel that I hosted, as a part of this course, on April 26, 2021. Two prime objectives of the panel “What is it like to be a servicemember in the modern world?” were to provide personal insights on and change public perceptions of sexual, racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities within the current United States Military. Eight service members, including three SUNY New Paltz alumni, representing four military branches made up the diverse panel. The full panel discussion is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0iYk3wywLY.

In addition to these more subtle inclusions of sustainability education, an entire week was solely dedicated to the topic of sustainable development because warfare is a contributing factor and exacerbator in unsustainable development. First, we outlined the various ways warfare directly and indirectly impacts the three objectives of sustainability—how it worsens poverty and economic loss, health concerns, social inequality, and the destruction of ecological resources. Then, recognizing that society, economics, and the environment are not just “victims” of warfare, we discussed how continued social and economic inequality and environmental issues, especially climate change, create conditions that promote further conflict—lead to more warfare and ethnic conflict. We also discussed what countries are most vulnerable to conflict (e.g., those with competing political players and those that cannot handle major climatic and social changes). This was particularly interesting as the president of Chad, a country known for previous ethnic upheaval, died the day before class. This unfortunate but timely event allowed us to consider what the global powers should do in the coming weeks to prevent another ethnic conflict—to promote a peaceful transition of power. Our sustainability week ended with a discussion on how best to deal with climate change and conflict in the future—how students, as individuals, might become agents of change at the local level and how institutions of power should approach these global issues.

On the last day of class, we continued this important point of discussion, by considering the future of warfare and peace and the students’ potential roles in promoting peace in all its forms and decreasing the chances of war and ethnic conflict. Students ultimately recognized that the process of change will inevitably be slow-going (despite its necessity) and that most, if not all, the effects of current policies and regulations will become apparent in the distant future versus now.


UNESCO. 2015. Sustainable Development. UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-sustainable-development/what-is-esd/sd, accessed June 14, 2021.


For more information about incorporating the sustainable development goals, see UNESCO’s Resources for Educators: https://en.unesco.org/themes/education/sdgs/material