Looking globally: the future of education
Looking globally: the future of education

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Looking globally: the future of education

3.3 What is education for a sustainable future?

When thinking about what kind of education is needed for societies to deal with environmental challenges, you will have heard how the term ‘sustainability’ is often used.

The Oxford Dictionary offers two definitions of sustainability:

  1. ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ – usually applied to economic growth and sometimes referred to as sustainable development
  1. ‘the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’ – when used to talk about dealing with environmental issues.
(English Oxford Living Dictionaries, n.d.)

Activity 4 What is sustainability?

Allow approximately 30 minutes.
  1. Listen to the short audio extract of an episode of the OU BBC Radio 4 programme Shared Planet (2013) entitled ‘What is Sustainability?’. As you listen, consider the differing views of what sustainability is.
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PRESENTER: Now this week we are looking at sustainability which might seem simple enough, but it is a word bedevilled by controversy and interpretation. Sustainable is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level’. But sustainability first entered everyday speech as recently as 1965 just at the point when it was becoming apparent that modern life was unsustainable. Environmentalists are now telling us with increasing urgency that we are living beyond our means, especially in the West, and that’s with the seven billion people on Earth today, let alone the nine billion that it will rise to by 2050. Ecologists are telling us that we are using natural goods and services faster than they can be replenished, and in doing so depleting not only vital resources like oil and water, metals and minerals but devastating the natural world as well. And conservationists are telling us that we are creating a mass extinction event as other life finds it impossible to find enough space or habitat to survive. Now, this isn't just a liberal indulgent anxiety but clearly a matter of life and death, because if we destroy the ecosystem of the planet then we destroy the very stuff we rely on to survive. It’s simple. Clean water, fresh air, fertile soils, pollinated crops are all provided by nature. Destroy nature and we destroy ourselves. So are we heading for disaster? Certainly the only way for humanity to survive is to find ways to live within the Earth’s capacity to support us. In other words, become sustainable.
With me in the studio is Kelvin Boot, the Shared Planet correspondent. Now Kelvin, first of all the word itself. It’s loaded. Is it generally accepted by environmental organisations, politicians and the general public in fact?
KELVIN BOOTH: Well, in some ways it seems that it’s a word that’s still not quite grown up and it does mean different things to different people. Now you can't really argue against the idea of a world where we continue to grow economies and develop whilst balancing the social and environmental issues. And it is something that politicians do appear to back. There have been many high level international meetings where sustainability has been the focus, the recent Rio Summit in 2012 for example. But there's another phrase as well and that is ‘sustainable development’, and that’s first introduced as a concept as recently as 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, and it seems that it is the stated political agenda for this century. But when it comes to putting the rhetoric into practice, we don’t seem to be very sure what it all actually means, and we certainly don’t seem to have moved much in the direction of sustaining our environment while continuing to develop economically. Now in these austere economic times, sustainable development appears to mean quite literally sustaining development, ensuring business and economies have a future. When it comes to the environment, there's a strong feeling that the term sustainable development is an oxymoron. Intrigued, I typed this into a search engine and found that a hundred and eighty four thousand sites agree with me. The two words contradict each other, serving only to confuse or at least paper over other issues, and of course that makes it difficult for the public to understand what it means. James Lovelock had an interesting take. He came up with the Gaia hypothesis and that’s that the world can be thought of as a single giant organism with all things being interconnected and affected by each other. And he thinks that the time for sustainable development and the parallel progress of economies with sustainability of the environment is long past, and it’s time to retreat. So he’s coined ‘sustainable retreat’ and that’s about changing the way we live, how we get our food and how we are gonna face future challenges. In essence, how human civilisation will survive. But if you take a look at most policy documents it’s all about economic growth first, environment second.
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  1. Think about:
    • How are the history and tensions between these two definitions being used as competing agendas?
  2. Now read the following two scenarios, each with an associated additional resource, which illustrate these alternative definitions of sustainability. They are not directly opposed to each other but have ideas in common, reflecting the complexity of modern life and perceptions of how to live in society. Choose ONE to reflect on in Activity 5.

Scenario 1: Communities as problem solvers

The first definition of sustainability reflects a market-driven perspective. If you take this perspective as a way forward, decisions will need to be made to create industries which solve environmental dilemmas; for example, producing electric cars and renewable energy. These, in turn, create jobs. The changes they are associated with might also damage productivity in other job sectors, such as those that rely on consumption of fossil fuels. This view of the world is in keeping with the human capital view of the purpose of education as it focuses on productivity and humans as workers. Education would need to produce workers with the skills necessary for new forms of employment in this future, flexible enough to transition from one kind of employment to another. You will have heard in the ‘What is sustainability?’ video how there is an unresolved tension between how to achieve economic and environmental goals.

This definition reflects a particular perspective and dilemma. How to put this into practice has been part of the United Nations’ debate leading to the Sustainability Development Goals. The current goals offer a way of bringing together both economic and environmental agendas. The Organisation for Economic, Co-operation and Development (OECD) report The Sustainable Development Goals: An overview of relevant OECD analysis, tools and approaches (2016) summarises the OECD mission statement: ‘People, Planet, Peace, Partnerships and Prosperity’.

Optional further study

For further information you might like to consult this OECD (2016) document The Sustainable Development Goals: An overview of relevant OECD analysis, tools and approaches [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (in particular, page 10, which focuses on sustainability).

Scenario 2: Shared responsibilities

The second definition of sustainability calls on all citizens to work in communities to solve problems together, demonstrating a sense of social justice and shared responsibility for well-being. The recently coined term ‘glocalism’ (Globus et locus, n.d.) refers to the idea that to be global citizens we should act locally. A response in keeping with this view of the world would see the purpose of education as to produce citizens with an awareness of the issues challenging them in the world, a sense of responsibility to others and the skills of problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity to address the identified problems. Education for sustainability (EFS), sometimes termed Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), has become a branch of educational thinking and practice.

In association with this second definition, there is a framework which has been developed by the Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Futures (CSF) which summarises the dimensions needed for Education for Sustainability, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Described image
Figure 2 A butterfly model of Education for Sustainability

Three relational dimensions to be considered are:

  • biosphere
  • spatial
  • temporal.

Three pedagogical dimensions to accommodate and respond to the relational dimensions are:

  • critical
  • creative
  • active learning.

Optional further study

For further discussion of these dimensions you might like to watch the following video of Dr. Paul Warwick of the CSF talking at the 2014–2015 Open Lectures held at the University of Greenwich. This six-minute extract is taken from the start of his lecture Sustainability Education in HE – towards a pedagogy of hope, challenge and controversy? (Educational Development Unit, 2015). Although his team focus on the application of ideas around EFS/ESD to Higher Education contexts, their ideas are built on practical applications in compulsory school-age settings relevant to this course.

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I think finding a starting point is a really key issue around sustainability and around all members of staff feeling that sustainable environment is an area that they can connect to. And it isn’t just seen to be of interest to certain faculties. This is a definition of sustainability that’s been around for many a year now and that is still regularly referred to.
But again, I just want to show you this model. And I’ve got a copy of this slide, if anyone thinks this is of interest. But we’re using this as our framing of education for sustainable development. And again, you might want to come back and have some discussions around this, further down the line.
Because one of the things that we’re trying to do is, trying to make explicit that there is a value dimension to sustainability and that what sustainable development, I think, in an exciting way can be framed around is these notions of care and compassion and there being an active concern for well-being. And us thinking as educators, or us thinking as students, how we can engage in our disciplinary areas in ways that are thinking along these lines of, how can we make a positive contribution to well-being? How can we show care and compassion through our studies and through our learning?
And what sustainability, I’m presenting to you now, is – I think what sustainability does is stretches, in the twenty-first century, our consideration of what we mean by an active concern for well-being, along three dimensions. And that’s represented by this wing on the left, here. And so what sustainability argues and suggests we need to consider in today’s world is an active concern for well-being along the biosphere dimension, recognising the interconnectivity of human life and the natural environment, the natural world. So not just thinking about social justice, but thinking about environmental issues, and thinking about the interconnections across those two spheres.
Another dimension that sustainability encourages us to think about is the spatial, and recognising that we need to have an active concern for well-being that is able to stretch from the local to the global and from the global back into the local dimension. And I would argue that sustainable development requires us to engage with the temporal dimension, in the twenty-first century, and to think about not just present but future generations.
I’ve just had a meeting with an ethnographer who’d been doing some research with an indigenous community out in North America. And he said – he provided a really interesting example of that temporal dimension being enacted, where he said that the village, the Indian village that he was living in, they would have weekly village meetings and that there was a deliberate scaffolding and landscaping of that gathering in a circle. But in the middle of the circle they would always place a candle, and that candle would be lit. And that candle was to represent the voice of the seventh generation into the future. So whatever decision they were considering and weighing up, what they were reminded constantly of: what would our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children say about this decision, say about the action, the resource use, the choices we are making here? And what sustainability requires of us to try and encourage our students and our staff to do is to think that long-term, to think around not just probable futures but preferable futures and what we need to be doing in the here-and-now in order to reach those.
So that represents the first wing of my model. And then, on the back of that, the second wing is exploring this idea of what that means educationally and in terms of our pedagogy. And this is a theme that hopefully we’ll touch base on again shortly. But it’s this idea that universities, I think, are excellent at encouraging us to be critical thinkers and developing that critical dimension. And that’s something that sustainability certainly requires us to do.
But, just as importantly, what sustainable development argues for is that we need to really mine the depths of our students’ creative dimensions and to think about how we can incorporate creativity into our pedagogical practice much more. And I think the most challenging thing – I used to work in schools and with children in care homes and who’d been involved in offending behaviour, and so I’ve been involved in a variety of different settings, and I think universities, this is the most challenging area – is the sixth dimension, where what we’ve got to do is actually engage in educational classes and endeavours beyond rooms like this and to actually be engaged in active learning opportunities for students. Because sustainable development is very much based in the experiential and learning through doing and learning through trial and error, of being out in the real world, so to speak, and trying to make practical actions happen.
So this is a model that we’ve been using at Plymouth, again to engage staff and students. And we’ve found that it’s provided a hook for a number of people to be able to connect to.
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