29 Dec 2011

Transforming, reforming, or (merely) evolving?

In a brief, but aptly thoughtful, 'Thinkpiece' for the 2009 Universities that Count annual report, Stephen Sterling makes a distinction between universities whose sustainability-focused work might be seen as reformist in nature, and those where this might be viewed as more transformative.

Stephen writes:

The situation currently is that whilst debates are pushing into [transformative] territory, ... most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway.

In this sense, reformist is seen in terms of an 'add on' to current practices — a working within the current framing of HE, if you like; and transformative is viewed as significantly challenging of mainstream policies and practices — an attempt to change that framing. Stephen is, as well-read consumers of this blog will know, keen on the transformative conception, as I think are at least some of the other senior leaders at his university, Plymouth, although whether they would all go as far as Stephen does in seeing the need for what he describes as

a systemic shift of culture towards a more holistic, participative and engaged form of education reflected across the whole institution

is a more open question. Stephen makes this reformist / transformative distinction in the context of writing about how we might evaluate what could be seen as progress in the development of a university to address sustainability. He notes:

How we evaluate and measure anything ... depends on what we think it is [and this informs] the kind of indicators we choose. So while it may not be possible to achieve consensus on the nature and implications of ESD, we can at least attempt some clarification of its dimensions, so that debate on evaluation is in turn clearer.

Just so. But what is to count as reformist, and who are to count as significant reformers? And where does the locus of the transformative have to be centred if it is to count as really transformative? Purists will already have noted a flaw in these questions in that, in some readings at least, the transformative will necessarily be de-centred if it is to count as such. However, I shall side-step this awkward little issue – in this posting at any rate – whilst I argue that, to be seen as either transformative, or reformist, implies a degree of institutional endorsement and leadership which is implicit rather than explicit in what Stephen writes.

So, perhaps it is useful to think in terms of leadership, although this can be tricky as HE institutions are stuffed with leaders of all kinds and at every level. However, I am thinking of formal structures, as universities are essentially committee institutions with codified decision-making. A sharp(ish) question, then:

Can a university be thought of as being on a transformative road unless its senior leadership have endorsed this vision and trajectory, with say, senate and senior management group minutes to formalise this, with then policies enacted and funded to realise the vision? That is, both endorsed and mandated, with everything that should follow from such a stance. In this, an institution would be well beyond where merely signing international declarations or charters would place it.

It seems to me that the answer has to be No it cannot. It's also reasonably clear that such a formalised eventuality would come about as a result of significant activity over time across the institution both in a practical sense (teaching, researching, etc) and in an argumentation one (seminars, working groups, policy proposals, etc.). Thus, in terms of identifying potential indicators of development / progress along the transformative road, it may make sense to think of the journey, rather than the destination, and to conceptualise this in terms of a (small) number of stages of development.

But it seems to me that these arguments have to apply to the reformist position as well as to the transformative, as even an 'add on' will need to be consciously developed both within the institution, and by it, if it is really to be said to be happening. And as Stephen says:

most universities are in practice still struggling to embed sustainability through the [reformist] pathway

which imputes agency to the institution itself, and not just its members.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that there are institutions in the UK (and beyond) where leadership clearly espouses reformist or transformative positions, and yet there are also others which do neither, and yet these institutions do manage to research, teach and engage with the public, government and corporations about sustainability in many ways, thus probably being just as effective within society. They do this because of the interest and expertise of their staff, rather than because of any institutional drive or vision, and the university is quite likely to judge staff success in quite conventional terms: for example,

students, grants, collaborations and opportunities in

– student satisfaction, prizes, patents, papers and prestige out

... rather than in any overt or proxy contribution to sustainability: a green gown award, say, a People & Planet top 5 position, or accreditation through LIFE. And where this institutional recognition is conventional rather than focused around sustainability, the term evolving seems more apt in that there will be activity on the ground (teaching, researching, etc), and maybe argumentation, but nothing formalised or endorsed by a senate or senior leadership group.

Thus it seems that we might usefully think of three developmental positions: the evolving, the reforming and the transformative, especially if we are to make a clear distinction between something that happens within an institution, carried out by (some) of its constituent actors: academics, managers, students, and support staff, as opposed to that which the institution itself does, and enables, as an institution through its structures and systems.

If we are to gauge development and even progress, then making these distinctions clear seems an important step.

12 Dec 2011


Growth in all of its forms is one of the greatest conundrums facing humanity in the 21 century. It can improve our living standards and health and well-being. Yet as a recent global photographic competition (www.prixpictet.com) has depicted in graphic detail the dizzying growth of our cities and their dependency on scarce resources along with the relentless growth of the world’s population, all of which now threatens our very existence. We face a global environmental catastrophe in land use, food production and resource use which could undermine existing fragile economies and the sustainability of our civilisation.

And our politicians search relentlessly for solutions which will re-energise economic growth, with little evidence to date that their interventions are making any fundamental difference. So it’s not surprising that some of the worlds’ so – called sustainability experts have also found it impossible to reach any consensus on whether sustainable consumption and economic growth are compatible (http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/tss_growth/

The results, released today by international consultancies GlobeScan and SustainAbility in collaboration with independent organization the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF), are based on the views of nearly 1,000 experts worldwide surveyed in September and October 2011 on topics relating to sustainable consumption.
London, 31 October 2011 – A strong majority of sustainability experts believe that sustainable consumption is achievable, according to the latest findings from The Sustainability Survey research program. But two in five think it is incompatible with continued economic growth. Experts overwhelmingly disagree (70%) with the statement, ‘sustainable consumption is impossible to achieve’, with strong majorities in all regions endorsing this view. But experts are divided on whether there is an ‘inherent conflict between economic growth and sustainable consumption.’ Forty percent agree that the two are incompatible while a similar number (43%) disagree.
But some recent analysis of the UK’s Material Flow Accounts for 2001-2009 suggest we are using less stuff now than the previous decade (Guardian 1/11/11- The Only way is Down http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/nov/01/peak-stuff-consumption-data ).

It seems that the grand total of stuff we use (minerals, fuel, wood etc) in the UK amounts to roughly 2 billion tonnes per year about 30 tonnes for each and every one of us. For Boris’ benefit that’s as heavy as 4 Route Master buses!

This data is potentially good news because it implies at least as I read it that we have “decoupled “economic growth from material consumption. Genuine decoupling has been seen by many of us as unachievable. But is this really de-materialisation and hence the emergence of a Green Economy?

Steve Martin 6/12/11

6 Dec 2011

The changing face of the Sustainability movement

Inadvertently, the 'animate' video below might just represent the changing face of the sustainability movement. It highlights how much bigger it actually is if we take into consideration the more subtle contributions.

Tim Kasser (a psychologist and one of the architects of Common Cause) describes 'the high price of materialism' for: happiness, equality and the environment. He argues that as our materialism goes up, our emotional wellbeing and care for others and the environment goes down. This leads us to recognise that we should be reinforcing intrinsic values like empathy, altruism, kindness and selflessness, while inhibiting extrinsic values like greed, status, materialism and selfishness. As Kasser points out, the benefits of doing this cut across several areas. This is what has united apparently unrelated organisations behind the common cause all of whom, in different ways, are trying to foster a 'happier, more socially just, more ecologically sustainable world.'

In a previous blog post I labelled the philosopher Alain de Botton as an 'accidental environmentalist'. His books, documentaries and School of Life rarely mention the environment. However, by helping his audiences to question the wisdom of endlessly pursuing happiness through material wealth he is perhaps a more powerful educator for sustainability than someone who merely deliver's factual information on the environmental costs of materialistic behaviour. Alain de Botton is an unwitting participant in a sustainability movement that is bigger than that which currently meets the eye.

Kasser's short film, beautifully produced by the Center for a new American dream, neatly illustrates what the sustainability movement is beginning to look like. No longer is it just about highlighting environmental problems and positing lifestyle choices to address them. It is now burrowing deeper, recognising the benefits of exploring the underpinning value systems that shape (un)sustainable lifestyles. Tim Kasser does this wonderfully well:

If the sustainability movement is changing in this way, if it is taking a more systemic view of the forces that shape human behaviour (i.e. not assuming that people fly because they hate Polar Bears), what does this mean for environmentalists and environmental organisations? It could mean a painful identity crisis for established organisations, but does it have to?

Environmentalists have, for a long time been frustrated by the impotency of traditional approaches, there is a temptation to abandon old habits. But, can they adopt new more powerful approaches that focus on values and don't mention the environment without confusing their audiences and funders? Will they be stand accused of purporting to be concerned with wellbeing and equality when really their sole agenda is to save the environment? (As if you can only care about one thing at a time). Should they change tack, or should they expand and grow into new areas?

I suspect what is needed is evolution not revolution. Like a child maturing into an adult their identities should become more complex as they come to be characterised by a richer, broader set of attributes. It is still very important to talk about the environment, really important, it can reinforce intrinsic values in very powerful ways. They should definitely not stop talking about it, because if they do, who will take their place and will they be able to do it well? Living, breathing and experiencing the natural environment is a tremendous bringer of wellbeing and a powerful antidote to consumerism. It must not be abandoned or even reduced, it just needs to be incorporated into a wider, more complex definition of education for sustainability. It will sit more comfortably there too, for it will not be laden with over inflated goals and heavy expectations. Education about the environment should help us love and appreciate it, that's all it needs to do. Education for sustainability is broadening out, it comes in many different forms: read Tim Kasser, Alain De Botton and George Orwell; listen to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Scroobius Pip; watch Adam Curtis, Charlie Brooker and Into the Wild.

By Morgan Phillips (Waste Watch)

30 Nov 2011

Communicating Sustainability

Good article in the Guardian which summarises the 'Common Cause' project that WWF is involved in. To put it briefly, Common Cause criticises sustainability writings which appeal to extrinsic values (wealth, public image, social power and concerns about security) because it's been shown that people who focus on these values are less likely to be motivated to contribute to sustainability. Instead the claim is that it's more effective to focus on intrinsic values - social justice, care, acting ethically, improving people's wellbeing etc., i.e., representing sustainability as something that is life-affirming not a short-cut to self-aggrandisement, saving money, and avoiding fines. Here's the article:

and here's the very useful Common Cause project:

21 Nov 2011

Thoughts from Jane Davidson

What would a country committed to sustainable development look like? A country committed to balancing economic, social and environmental factors in its decision making; a country prepared to actively reduce unnecessary consumption and focus instead on improving the quality of life for its citizens, particularly those with least resources?  From 2013, that country might be Wales when the Welsh Government puts forward legislation to put sustainable development at the heart of not only what it does, but how the government relates to the wider public sector. Such legislation will make a flexible concept real and turn what is now at best good practice into meaningful legal obligations which can be monitored and reviewed and ultimately challenged in the courts.

This is a significant moment in the history of devolution. The National Assembly for Wales started its life in 1999 with a unique duty to have a Sustainable Development Scheme, a duty supported by all political parties. 12 years on, it has become clear that the original duty, although pioneering, is insufficient. The scheme is simply not enough to make a real sustainable difference in a world that uses too much.

Last month I was privileged to be invited to give the annual ENDS Report lecture in London which went up on SHED-SHARE last week. In it I argued that the time for voluntarism is past, that legislation will deliver better outcomes for Wales as it will enable ‘sustainable development’ and its indicators to be defined in law and in doing so, facilitate adherence from the government and public sector in Wales round a common agenda.

For those of us interested in the sustainability agenda, this presents an ideal opportunity to discuss what such legislation should look like. What should be its ambit? What outcomes would we like to see as a result of it? Could a ‘sustainable’ Wales be distinctively different? How precise should the definitions be? What would be the best model for independent critique?

Our discussions with the new Minister start on 1st December. Your thoughts would be welcome.

Jane Davidson
Trinity Saint David University
November 2011

17 Nov 2011

No country is an island ...

In a recent mailing, Arran wrote:

Just wanted to encourage you to read Jane Davidson's article … I really appreciate the way it represents sustainable development. … I like the way it starts off by talking about "quality of life and community wellbeing" rather than economic growth with a bit of resource conservation, the way it describes "the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given" and mentions the vision of Wales "using only its fair share of the earth's resources so that its ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources". That's a long way from the language of Whitehall, and clearly embraces the contraction end of contraction and convergence which often gets forgotten. Hopefully it's a reflection of the wider discourse used in political circles in Wales, but even if not it certainly encourages the reclaiming of the term sustainable development.

Yes, hopefully it is.

Prompted by this encouragement, I read Jane’s article, and looked again at the 2009 report: One Wales: One Planet. In the article, Jane herself asks: "So what would a sustainable Wales look like?" and then reminds us that a cross-party vision was agreed in One Wales: One Planet last year:

Across society there is recognition of the need to live sustainably and reduce our carbon footprint. People understand how they can contribute to a low carbon, low waste society. These issues are firmly embedded in the curriculum and workplace training. People are taking action to reduce resource use, energy use and waste. They are more strongly focused on environmental, social and economic responsibility, and on local quality of life issues, and there is less emphasis on consumerism. Participation and transparency are key principles of government at every level, and individuals have become stewards of natural resources.”

For me, this doesn't quite picture a "sustainable Wales"; rather, it's a view of Wales's becoming less unsustainable, and (then, perhaps) more sustainable, over time. The verbs used here are all about the journey "… are taking action ..."; "… understand how they can ..."; "… a recognition of the need ..."; etc.

But this is fine, as sustainable development is just that: the reflective social learning that this descriptor captures – albeit in too little detail. It was Jane's question that was misleading with its definitive notion of a "sustainable Wales".

Actually, the view of a sustainable Wales presented in One Wales; One Planet is not quite this:

Our Vision of a Sustainable Wales is one where Wales:

  • lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that our ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and we are resilient to the impacts of climate change;
  • has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably;
  • has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change;
  • has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health;
  • is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

… but here there is no hint of social learning, or any sort of learning and education, although the document as a whole does address such matters.

I do think the omission significant, however, as none of what I have just quoted will occur without a great deal of learning, and un-learning, by all concerned, and absolutely not just through ESDGC in schools.

Thus, there will be development of a less unsustainable, and then of a more sustainable sort, and One Wales; One Planet details some of the initial steps along this track. It is less clear, however, when it comes to forming judgements about effectiveness and progress; ie, about indicators, an issue that the UK itself continues to struggle over – especially in relation to education.

I mis-quoted John Donne in the title of this post. Here's the original:

... No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

We are all involved in humankind, and Wales will only be properly sustainable when everyone else is too. But I think they know that.

11 Nov 2011

Occupy Universities

The Occupy movement is about drawing attention to system failure. (in my opinion)

So what if we occupied universities? Does anyone doubt that universities are failing to enable humans to create systems that will allow humans and species to thrive on our planet? If that's not the role and goal of a university, then let's create spaces and places that will enable humans to head for and reach this goal.

So, whilst it's certainly important to raise awareness around tuition fees and the marketisation of higher education, that doesn't go far enough.

What if students at university around the UK (the world!), launched sit-ins, demanding that they be educated about the system and how it is failing and about alternatives and how to implement them? Do the professors not have the answers? Then let's co-learn.

21 Oct 2011

What unites those who joined SHED?

I sent a question to Shed-Share in the form of a conundrum. I, and colleagues at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, would like to develop a ‘special interest group’ to bring together university teachers who share an interest in the broad and undefined  area of higher-education contributions to ….(something along the lines of … sustainability). I made the case that terms such as environment, sustainability, development, being ‘for’ anything in particular, and advocacy, tended to divide rather than unite, in the context of perceived roles for higher education. I wondered if others had something working elsewhere that succeeded in bringing disparate mind-sets together.

I think that it was a fair question. As I have researched the field for many years I have been thinking about it for some time now. But I did not have high expectations of an easy answer as I do not have one myself. In some respects my question was rhetorical, but in others it was a plea for a good discussion on a way forward.

I had six responses and I am grateful for them all. I was helpfully reminded that: this should not be a ‘special’ interest; that academics characteristically may not notice the wood for the trees; that the issues are value-laden and that values are deeply-culturally embedded; that we may, if we wish, blame our current situation on defective leadership; that even where things appear to be working well at a superficial level, they may not be deep-down; that as individuals we are capable of making highly subjective interpretations of even simple language constructs; and that there are amongst us colleagues with a far greater proclivity for the esoteric, or academic, than I.

Two colleagues emphasised the value of embedding our concerns within the label of ‘graduate attributes’ but did not say how successful their own experience of this approach had been. [My own research, publications and institutional role do emphasise graduate attributes, but my experience is that many university teachers interpret these attributes (including as they often do, ‘literacy’ and ‘teamwork’) as ‘skills’ and doubt the extent to which they should be ‘teaching skills’. Graduate attributes can easily become another dividing line].

But the situation is serious. No doubt we share common interests but we appear to have some mutually exclusive goals. We are not communicating effectively. We have different conferences, journals and embedded academic values. It would be difficult to interpret these as strengths as we are in danger of undermining our commonalities. For example, as peer-reviewers (in a profession that is heavily dependent on peer-review) we may damage even those academic endeavours that could lead to common purpose. We have constructed an academic divide to match that between the disciplines themselves and wonder why we are not making progress.

Please do respond, support, criticise or develop. Useful discussions could, as examples:

·         Focus on bridging the most obvious divide amongst those likely to be reading these words [Those whose concern is ‘for’ sustainability, often in a human-centred paradigm and those whose focus is the environment, generally from an ecological and conservation perspective]. Pollution, habitat destruction, economic collapse and spiralling loss of indigenous cultures have failed to bring us together (sufficiently for Higher Education to unite) but surely something as basic as ‘HE’s role as ‘critic and conscience’ offers hope for mutual goal setting?
·         Address the structural issues that currently keep education for sustainability/sustainable development/environmental education outside of mainstream debates in higher education, or consign them to box-ticking exercises. Could our peer-review processes become more respectful of new, interdisciplinary or just-different perspectives? Could we collectively become more focused on evaluating our impact on our students, before we get too agitated or complacent about whether or not we should be trying to influence our students? What else could we do, collectively, to make progress?
Kerry Shephard
University of Otago

10 Oct 2011

Should We Celebrate the Reporting of Failure?

I remember 2002 as a time of hope for progress on the environment. I had the privilege of chairing a meeting on Business Sustainability at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hilton Hotel, surrounded by armoured vehicles and high security because Robert Mugabe was staying there. It did not feel very secure or sustainable.

2002 was also the year that stories about corporate irresponsibility surfaced in spades. CEOs of Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi and Marconi went from heroes to zeros, as the corporate governance debacle spread in the USA and Europe.

And whilst there was no shortage of rhetoric about lessons learnt, there was no serious attempt to make CSR reporting more rigorous and worse still, little pressure on corporations to meet higher standards of corporate governance. So I welcomed Ed Miliband’s assertions at the recent Labour Party Conference, that we need a new corporate culture to address the problem of the asset strippers and profiteering predators in our society.

I think he’s right; we need a paradigm shift in our institutional culture and consciousness in the public AND private sector. But like anything new that encompasses radical and worthwhile ideas – it is much easier to conceptualize than implement.

Cynics at Johannesburg moaned about an implementation gap and still lament the fact that many sustainability reports lack transparency, rigour and credibility. The Universities that Count Sustainability reporting and benchmarking process has also been criticised along similar lines because it focussed more on process than assessing impact.

Let’s face up to it; there is a huge gap between the stuff that gets reported and rewarded and the reality in most of our universities and colleges. It’s still pretty much business as usual with a few pioneering green stalwarts struggling to initiate real change, especially in reform of the curriculum and teaching and learning. The new LIFE Index must seriously address this challenge.

I agree with a commentary by Rory Sullivan in August, that sustainability reports should acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of progress towards being more sustainable. But as he stresses most reports have an “unhealthy fixation on good news and corporate PR”.

Much of the current criticism of sustainability reports as well as some celebratory awards that have surfaced alongside them reflects the limited influence they have had on institutional performance. If the reporting and awarding process is reduced to a form of tokenism then it is a failure. And the good reporters are also not necessarily the best performers. The true value of performance reporting is in facilitating greater efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and remedying weaknesses.

Celebrating failure seems to be catching on too, but in a different way to “tokenistic failure”: a new Stanley Cup sized award called “the Heroic Failure Award“has just been introduced in the USA to reward creative risk taking! I wonder if celebrating heroic failure of this kind should be the next evolutionary step in sustainability reporting.

Ideas on measuring and celebrating progress through sustainability reports, indicators and awards have proliferated in the wake of the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits. Of course they have their place in motivating individuals and organisations but if they are to make a real contribution to sustainable development they must ultimately contribute to action that leads to transformation in our prevailing model of progress which is predicated on unlimited consumption driven growth.

Steve Martin

7 Oct 2011

Talking past each other

John F Disinger was an American environmental educator, and scholar. His was often a rational and clear voice amid the competing clamour and battle as one disposition or other tried to out-shout another persuasion, particularly in the shameful (and shameless) culture wars that afflicted environmental education in the early 1990s.

He wrote this in 1983:

“… though EE is ideally interdisciplinary – an eclectic assemblage of interacting disciplines – its practitioners typically approach it as if it were multidisciplinary – an eclectic assemblage of discrete disciplines. Because EE’s practitioners typically are grounded in no more than one of the multiplicity of disciplines involved, logic leads them to approach EE through the intellectual filters of their own disciplines. Thus, practitioners in EE typically continue to talk past one another, rather than with one another”.

Quite so. This was true then, and remains the case today to too great an extent, and even the faltering advent of ESD, with its seductive appeal to an integrating holism, seems not to change matters much. Indeed, how could it without great effort, given Disinger’s diagnosis of the problem?

The lion’s lying down with the lamb may be some people’s vision of harmony, but mine is where teachers from different disciplines begin to interact with each other with student learning (rather than their own certainties) in mind.

6 Oct 2011

What stories are we telling ourselves?

At least one story is always running through our heads. If someone cuts us off on the road, we may mutter, "Idiot!" – thus implying the perpetrator has particular characteristics and motives. If a group of hooded teenagers walks past us, we tense up – indicating fear around youths with particular characteristics. If we dig deeper, we uncover stories -- assumptions, beliefs, worldviews.

As education for sustainability practitioners, what stories are we telling ourselves? If we look at our behaviour first, this will indicate the narrative. What are we teaching our students? How are we behaving with our colleagues, family and friends? What is our underlying story about the future of humanity, climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion and social (in)justice?

Do our actions imply that we think:

humanity is doomed?

catastrophe is inevitable for the vast majority of the population?

technology will protect civilisation?

everything is fine, nothing needs changing?

Are we acting quietly, cautiously (but calling it "strategically")? If so, what does this imply? That there is time?

Do our own actions imply that action on the above challenges is:

needed urgently?

important but not a priority?

ineffective? misplaced?


Perhaps your own answers to these questions are too private to post in comments below. But have a think. I've had to face my own stories in the past few weeks and it's been radicalising.

Storytelling mother, 40, seeks others who believe it's urgent and that people are powerful enough to prevent catastrophe and to create flourishing communities worldwide... having zesty fun along the way. Be in touch.

30 Sep 2011

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), where are you?

Something which Stephen Martin and me have argued for some time (see “Educating Earth-literate Leaders” or “World Wise: Can universities be models for ethical and sustainable communities?”), becomes more and more urgent by the day. It is the question about both the effectiveness of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and its most important target audience.

In 40 years of Environmental Education and Development Education and well over fifteen years of ESD the focus has been on turning pupils and students into human beings fully equipped with the competencies to cope with the challenges of a world which the present and the last generation have turned into anything but paradise. In other words, the target audience has always been the next generations which is disingenuous on two counts: first we expect those who aren’t responsible for the mess we’re in to clean it up and second, it is an implicit but stark admission on our part that we are not capable of cleaning it up ourselves. All we can do, so we signal, is hope that our successors will turn out to be a notch cleverer than we are.

To come back to the audience question, this means that those who really need to be educated, who need ESD, who clearly lack the competencies to deal with our sustainability crisis, are the current political and economic and spiritual leaders. If Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, wants to take the lead in tackling Climate Change in Europe and at the same time makes every effort to exempt German car manufacturers from more stringent (but still wholly inadequate) new CO2 emission limits, if Doris Leuthard, member of the Swiss Government, says that tackling Climate Change cannot mean less economic growth, one is sadly reminded of George ‘the older’ Bush’s punch line for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992: ‘The American Way of Life is not negotiable’.

In reality, statements (and the ensuing politics) like the above mean that these leaders have not even grasped the most basic fundamentals of sustainable development. For the industrialised Euro-American societies of this planet, there are 3 of these basic laws:

  1. There is no unlimited growth in a materially non-growing system like planet Earth.
  2. If you have taken over many years, if not centuries, more than your fair share, it’s time to give back and make do with (much) less.
  3. If your way of life, taken as a role model and emulated by the rest of humankind, is a sure recipe for destroying the life-support system Earth, it’s time to abolish it, deter anybody from copying it and to establish pretty fast a new one that is sustainable (i.e. one-planet living).
As soon as you hear points like these uttered by leading politicians and economic leaders, you know that ESD has started to work and you can safely turn your attention towards pupils and students (but not before!). Rolf Jucker, 30/9/2011

25 Sep 2011

Some thoughts on Universities and Sustainability: And graduate, fiscal and soil moisture deficits!

In itself sustainable development is not new. According to Genesis, Creation was launched with a statement of sustainable development policy; man was set in the garden “to work it and take care of it”.

But whilst man has responded impressively to the first part of this commission, he has taken much longer to grasp the implications of the second. Indeed it is only within the last decade or so that the complexity of sustainability has become better understood. As I talk to people who grasp some of the urgency surrounding the impact of our current un- sustainable lifestyles, I am constantly reminded that there is still scope for scientific and public disagreement about probabilities, timescales, and detailed causation and response. And yet the cataclysmic effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc on our” global garden” (see: The Climate Reality Project; 24hourly reports on climate change from numerous locations around the world -http://climaterealityproject.org/the-event/ )

In my own backyard in the Vale of Evesham we have had the lowest rainfall this year since 1910. In March and April this amounted to a miserable 14mm; eight of the past 11 years have seen less than average rainfall. This area is the “salad bowl” of the UK with thousands of acres devoted to lettuces, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, all of which require vast quantities of water from rivers, ground water wells and reservoirs. All of these are becoming more and more limited in meeting the needs of local growers; many of the ground water wells were dry in June and still dry in September. According to the Environment Agency soil moisture levels are at an all time low, meaning that unless the deficit is made up in September and October, our salad bowl might look a little sparse next year. So whilst our politicians continue to hammer home the need for fiscal deficit reduction we in the Vale are more focused on another form of deficit reduction-the soil moisture deficit!

So our attempts at caring for the “garden” are becoming fundamentally more difficult, complex and uncertain. Can we in the university sector help our graduates take better care of the “garden?” Any attempt at defining a role for our universities is beset with controversial assumptions and yet I think a university’s treatment of sustainability is increasingly being seen by prospective students and employers as an essential element of a” good” university education.

So I particularly welcome the Higher Education Academy’s ambitious but relatively small scale pilot with 8 universities called the Green Academy – A Curriculum for Tomorrow, which aims to promote new approaches to the curriculum. It is fundamentally aimed at achieving what are described as “Graduate Attributes for the 21 Century” after a radical curriculum restructuring programme carried out by the University of Melbourne- which became known as the Melbourne Model. Harvard, Hong Kong and Yale have undergone similar reforms along with a small number of universities in the UK: Aberdeen, Manchester and Southampton.

The Melbourne Model is based on 6 well defined graduate attributes: Academic Excellence; Knowledge across Disciplines; Leadership in Communities; Attuned to Cultural Diversity; and Active Global Citizenship. Two of these attributes directly focus on international learning experiences. Graduates of the University are expected to have an understanding of and respect for social and cultural diversity and value different cultures. And I’m really impressed that graduates are expected to accept social and civic responsibilities and be advocates for improving the sustainability of their environment. On top of which they must have a broad global understanding coupled with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics. Whatever your perspective, these are stretching and ambitious objectives for any university.

But all of this is small scale, relatively limited to a few academic staff and institutions. Can it be ramped up? Is it realistically possible to embed graduate attributes of the kind pioneered by Melbourne University into a wholesale curriculum change process? Unfortunately, our institutional structural processes are slow and internally contradictory and some commentators argue that like many other large organisations there is no institutional learning architecture to allow joined up thinking and practice. There is lots of a talk, but relatively little action, a lot of strategic discussion, but mainly its business as usual. We need a clarion call for action from the academic community to accelerate and scale up the change processes that are being pioneered in a few of our universities and as an immediate priority we need to avoid the short termism of projectitis that currently prevails.

Steve Martin  25/09/2011

19 Sep 2011

TEDx London: the education revolution

I'm just back from TEDx London: the education revolution, at the Roundhouse in London. A spectacular event aimed at building on Sir Ken Robinson's famous talk on creativity. One after another, enthusiastic sincere people pushed their messages across with stirring words and fancy graphics. The revolution has begun! Or has it? During the breaks unedited tweets were flashed up on a big screen and one read 'Typical TED, smug and empty'. I detected a thread of something a bit more sinister than 'emptiness' though.

Clearly we do need an education revolution, because the current education system is preparing students to further an unsustainable industrial civilisation rather than preparing for what comes next. However, a thread within TEDx seemed to be saying that we need a revolution because current education isn’t effective enough in furthering industrial civilisation - that we need more creativity, improvisation and innovation for students to become more ‘successful’ (in the conventional, and suicidal, way that current society defines success). And, what's more, to achieve success, students need more technology. By technology, they don't mean clever reed-bed filtration systems; they mean high-spec PCs, tablets, gadgets and mobile phones. New media can, of course, be used to resist the structures of an unsustainable society (as this Blog attempts to do). But there’s a danger that just letting them go and be creative and construct knowledge for themselves in the world of new media is delivering them straight into the hands of big corporations.

To take a specific example. The mission of one of the presenters, from the company Tribal, was described on the programme as "embracing the power of web2.0, Social Media and Open Source Solutions to help to make learning work better for all - with a particular focus on hard to reach, excluded or disadvantaged learners."  He described how 1.2 million learners were using their educational materials, with a picture of African school children learning from mobile phones because there were no books. A little investigation reveals, however, that among Tribal’s biggest clients are McDonalds, KFC and the US Department of Defence (see http://www.tribalgroup.com/global/Documents/PO%20-%20AB%20-%20e-Learning.pdf). This potentially gives these organisations influence on 1.2 million people’s education – perhaps not directly, but can Tribal’s educational materials be honest about US war crimes, or the ecological, social and cultural impact of the fast food industry if these are their major clients?

Of course, not all presentations had the uncomfortable combination of technology, cult-like persuasion tactics and big corporations hovering in the background. Dougald Hine, for instance, gave a thought provoking presentation on the University Project - a project which is genuinely radical and is working towards an achievable alternative to conventional education (see http://univproject.pbworks.com/w/page/45692087/The%20University%20Project).

To conclude I’ll just say that before being let loose to construct their knowledge in cyberspace students need critical awareness of the forces that shape information in the new media and a desire to work towards a different kind of society, otherwise the danger is that they’ll end up ‘successful’ in all the wrong ways.