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)