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.