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Sustainability

Learning for turning?

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Welcome to this first blog on my new website.  It’s taken me a long while to develop my own site, and I hope you think the result is informative and stimulating – and also helpful to your own work. 

The intention is to bring together much of my more recent material and work into one place and make it more accessible and widely-known. I shall also be updating it and adding commentary through this blog column from time to time.

I feel like one of the old guard – like a number of my contemporaries working in education, I’ve been ‘banging on’ about the importance of environmental sustainability and related issues – and their implications for educational policy and practice – for decades.  Our voices, and the matters we were espousing, were acknowledged but more tolerated than embraced.

Now, and in the last year or so, the last few months, and even the last few weeks (at the time of writing), these issues are assuming more attention than ever. Rightly, and necessarily so.  Let me give a quick rundown of some of the reports and evidence that is galvanising this wave of concern.  Because, notwithstanding the Earth Summit of 1992 associated subsequent events, and recent climate change COP conferences on climate change, I don’t remember international concern on anything like this global scale since the wave of environmentalism around the first UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, and the Limits to Growth report, both of 1972.  This time around however, the need for urgent and transformative action is much more acute and evident.

The signals indicating the need for radical and intentioned change have been mounting for some time and include:

Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes in societies around the world is rapidly closing. These outcomes include economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and the potential collapse of social and economic systems. The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake.

IPPR Report 2019

Then last week, we witnessed the extraordinary Extinction Rebellion protest and movement, acting like some mass alarm clock to our collective somnambulant consciousness.

So awareness is growing, and we can well suppose that a form of social learning for many is also occurring – as well as for others, some evidence of denial and disavowal as core assumptions, beliefs and interests are exposed to scrutiny . But a sudden waking to crisis – whilst welcome – is reactive learning, and by definition is ‘late in the day’. 

Ideally, society now needs to engage in ‘anticipative learning’, or learning by design and intent, if we are to avoid the kind of ecological/social/economic collapse that increasing numbers of researchers are pointing towards. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053019618820350?journal; https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23731610-300-end-of-days-is-western-civilisation-on-the-brink-of-collapse/

In this perilous new world, ‘the learning society’ is one that seeks to understand, transcend and re-direct itself. It seeks to critique and remake its values, assumptions and practices consistent not just with survival but with the manifestation of ecological and human well-being, while time and current trajectories allow.

Reading the literature, I believe we are heading inexorably if not willingly towards a ‘post-growth’ world, because of the undeniable incompatibility of an ever expanding human footprint with a finite planet. There is now:

…….compelling evidence that the global economy is beginning to encounter the biophysical constraints to further growth first raised bythe Limits to Growth (LtG) study of the 1970s (p.2).

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053019618820350?journal;

One of the original authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth study, Jorgen Randers (2012) writes:

If humanity wants to become sustainable, it is a fact that humanity must organize its ways in a manner which fits within the physical limitations of Planet Earth. LtG reminds us that “one planet living” is a condition for sustainability. This should become the new ethic and the basis for human behaviour. Second, there is need for contraction of the human ecological footprint (p.102).


https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/oekom/gaia/2012/00000021/00000002/art00007;jsessionid=1t04wq8tw3u7b.x-ic-live-02 J

So what of the role of education?  All education surely  – in some way – is concerned with, and equips learners for, the future. So is not perhaps ironic that formal education systems on the whole have been long been slow – reluctant even – to recognise the extent, depth, implications and systemic nature of the profound changes that climate change and associated issues portend? Likewise, slow to grasp critically important potential that education still has to shape the future positively and to counter threat.

A recent Anthropocene Review research paper (2018) suggests:

Undoubtedly, a post-growth world will bring new challenges to education, but a successful transition in pedagogy will be instrumental in producing responsible citizens, cultivating social inclusion, and training leaders capable of guiding societies through difficult socio-ecological transitions. p15.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053019618820350?journal

So what is it to be: ‘learning for continuity’- for ‘business as usual’ – which, ironically, will hasten the manifestation of  unprecedented social and economic dis-continuities?

OR ‘learning for turning’ –  facing the unknown, bravely and boldly – exploring, testing, and facilitating the pathways and strategies that easing down, contraction and wellbeing may imply at individual, community and sector level?  The growing global educational response to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is an encouraging and very positive start, but there is yet a very long way to go.

Can education systems re-purpose themselves to bring foresight, skills, resources, deep inquiry and research, intelligence and even wisdom to bear on helping society through the difficult and extra-ordinary transitions that it will undoubtedly encounter, particularly the millennial and younger generations?  Because urgency requires agency, and that is something education can provide.

This is not ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD), it is anticipative education, or ‘education for sustainable contraction and wellbeing’ and it has to become the rationale of education systems everywhere. (Oh dear, I feel another acronym coming on….ESCW. Sorry about that).

What did the key UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM,2016) policy report,  Education for people and planet : creating sustainable futures for all  say?:

A huge transformation is needed if we are to create sustainable futures for all.

https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000245752

Quite.