Australia: Sustainability and Environmental Action

Key Features

"Before this semester I lived the way I had been taught to live by my culture and had the feeling that I really couldn't change anything. After being in Australia the last three months, I am beginning to have a whole new outlook and realize that changing the way we live is feasible."

—Australia program alumna

Hiking in Tasmania

Australia: A model of sustainability
Learn how Australia’s successes can be applied in the US and in your daily life.
There are few places on earth where the environment has had a stronger effect on both the traditional indigenous and contemporary societies than in Australia.

Australia possesses:

  • a climate governed largely by El Niño, rather than by the seasons;
  • a geologic history devoid of extensive glaciations or volcanism, which has resulted in very poor soils;
  • a unique assemblage of marsupials and plants that have Gondwanan origins;
  • a human occupation of the land extending back 50,000-75,000 years (earlier than the first humans in Europe); and
  • two centuries of ecological and social upheaval following the continent’s settlement by the English.

As a result of these characteristics, Australia began to suffer serious impacts from global climate change well before other developed nations and, therefore, environmental problems have a higher profile than in the United States. Australian economic, social, and political structures are similar enough to the US that it experiences many of the same sustainability issues, and solutions are often relevant to both countries. Students learn how Australia’s successes can be applied in public policy as well as in their own lives and communities.

Program components and themes
The program consists of a one-week orientation; a two-week homestay period in Lismore or a nearby rural location; local field trips and lectures around Byron Bay; three extensive field trips to Tasmania, Melbourne, and Sydney, and the Aboriginal camping trip; four intensive workshops; and a five-week period when students undertake an Independent Study Project (ISP).

The program’s major themes are: 

  • Sense of place
  • The natural environment
  • Ecopsychology and environmental ethics
  • Aboriginal relationships with the environment
  • Sustainability
  • Social change and environmental action

Live and study in beautiful Byron Bay
When not on excursions or in their homestays, students stay in apartments located two blocks from the beach in a quiet area of Byron Bay, a small coastal town of 9,000 people and the most easterly point of Australia. During their time here, students participate in workshops, group discussions, lectures, and one-day field trips to witness firsthand the innovative ways in which people in the region are adopting sustainable living practices.

Byron Bay is situated at the center of a stunningly beautiful region. It’s known for its impressive ecological systems, strong sustainability ethos, and rich culture. Byron Bay was the town in Australia to directly elect the first Green Party mayor, and the party remains very strong in the region. Permaculture education and organic and sustainable farming are highly popular, and farmers’ and craft markets are a way of life.  The region also boasts a large population of artists and musicians and has a strong Aboriginal culture.

Learn more about Byron Bay and the surrounding region.

Aboriginal excursion

Learn through interactive workshops
Most of the teaching on this program is done during educational excursions and in multi-day interactive workshops (described below). 

  • Ecopsychology Workshop
    The quiet and majestic eucalypt forest around the Forest Haven Meditation Center is an ideal venue for the two-day workshop in environmental psychology. Students camp overnight in the forest and wake to a dawn chorus of bird calls. Dr. Elizabeth Bragg, an ecopsychologist, familiarizes students with a range of philosophical perspectives on the natural environment, from economic rationalism to deep ecology and ecofeminism. This enables students to begin to pinpoint and develop an understanding of their own individual environmental philosophy and to appreciate the need to understand the environmental philosophies of others.
  • Aboriginal World View Workshop
    Mary Graham, a Bundjalung elder who has been teaching with SIT Study Abroad since 1993, leads this one-day workshop, which explores the way in which the land is central to Aboriginal identity. The workshop examines differences in the way indigenous peoples view and relate to their environments. By coming to understand a radically different world view, students are able to deconstruct dominant western world views and recognize how they affect our everyday actions and decisions. Students are led to critically analyze their own relationships with the environment and to reflect on what contemporary western societies can learn from indigenous cultures that might help them in their efforts to become more sustainable. The workshop is run in Aboriginal style with the group sitting in a circle and sharing stories.
  • Sustainable Futures Workshop
    Peter Cuming, a leading sustainability planner and educator, conducts a two-day workshop exploring the culture, concepts, and language of sustainability. Concepts covered include embodied energy, lifecycle assessment, ecological footprint, inter- and intra-generational equity, and the precautionary principle. The workshop provides context and confidence for students to personally engage in a range of practical measures to actively embrace sustainability. Peter instills in students a sense of excitement at the opportunities that exist to promote sustainability in all walks of life. Students undertake a number of practical exercises such as designing a sustainable house and community and developing a strategic plan to achieve a sustainability goal. The workshop is held in “The Crab," an inspiring and sustainably designed learning space by the beach.
  • Social Change and Environmental Action Workshop
    This workshop, led by Dr. Elizabeth Bragg, presents models of social change and examines the type and scale of changes that are needed to solve our major environmental problems. It presents examples of successful environmental campaigns, and students are introduced to a wide range of environmental activists. The workshop provides students with practical tools to take effective environmental action at different levels: personal, cultural, and structural/political. Students explore ideas for projects they can undertake while still an undergraduate, or soon after graduating, and are encouraged to identify and value skills that they already possess.

Independent Study Project presentations

Independent Study Project
For many students the Independent Study Project (ISP) is the highlight of their academic experience in Australia. The ISP allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they have obtained from the Sustainability and Environmental Action Seminar and the Research Methods and Ethics course to a sustainability issue. Students work with an assigned advisor to develop a proposal and then spend the last five weeks of the program in the field and writing up their report. Projects can be undertaken anywhere in Australia that is appropriate and safe.

Students engage in direct research on a wide range of topics related to sustainability, undertake a practicum with a relevant organization, or develop a piece of creative work on a relevant topic.

Past ISP topics have included:

  • A feasibility study for the introduction of solar energy at Macquarie University
  • An internship with the Wilderness Society campaign for river red gums
  • Developing a sustainability guide for students on the program
  • Developing a map and track guide for the Royal National Park in Sydney
  • A study of the voluntary simplicity movement in Melbourne
  • Creating the artwork for a National Parks Service campaign on bell-miner related dieback
  • A piece of travel writing on the Murray River and the meaning of sense of place
  • A study of the transition town movement in Australia
  • Practicums with community gardens, organic farms, and environmental education centers

Read how Sean Sullivan's ISP on the environmental impact of the surfboard industry made international waves and earned him a spot as keynote speaker at an international conference following his semester abroad.

Costs Dates

Credits: 16

Duration: 15 weeks

Program Base: Byron Bay

Prerequisites: None


View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Spring 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Fall 2012 Evaluations (PDF)

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