The Transformative Potential of Sustainability Education

by |August 31, 2015

As the school year begins, I am thinking a great deal about the revisions I’ve made over the past several months to my courses and curricula for graduate-level sustainability students. The field keeps changing, and so constant study is required to keep current. At the end of last week, I paused for a moment in my own preparation to visit with K-12 educators, parents and staff at the Ross School, to discuss their work at bringing sustainability education to their students. Ross is a very impressive preK-12 educational institution on the east end of Long Island that brings an extraordinarily high quality educational experience to their students and has also created an institute that disseminates its innovative curriculum.

In a draft statement of principles for the goal of integrating sustainability into their curriculum, I was struck by their deep understanding of the need to embed changes in education into new ways of thinking about how the world works. Their draft statement of principles noted that:

“Individuals, institutions, and governments all have a responsibility to safeguard the global environment, to protect the diversity of the biosphere and the diversity of human culture, and to preserve the Earth’s natural and cultural resources for future generations.”

And it concluded by observing that:

“Solving these problems and transitioning our global society in the direction of a more sustainable relationship with the natural environment demands changes not only in education and policy, but also in our values, and the ability to communicate and cooperate across disciplinary, cultural, and political boundaries.”

At the Earth Institute, we have been engaged in efforts to develop curriculum to bring cutting edge sustainability science to K-12 educators, but it is not yet a central part of our work. Other organizations, such as Facing the Future, out of Western Washington University, have been conducting very effective sustainability teacher outreach and curriculum development for a number of years. It is fair to say that while K-12 educators have long held the future of our planet in their hands, their influence on young minds could not be more important than it is today. I believe that the key that unlocks the door to global sustainability is the ingenuity and creativity of the human species. Teaching young people to value the planet and the resources it provides is the way to ensure that our potential to solve the sustainability problem is achieved.

When my children were engaged in K-12 education, I gave a great deal of thought to what they were learning and how their education was delivered. I know that is a common experience among contemporary parents. But I am far from an expert on the subject of K-12 education. When I was growing up, my mother was a PTA president, but parents back then were not deeply involved in curriculum development or in questioning the quality of their child’s educational experience. I suppose it has to do with the evolution of the meaning of “parent” over the past half-century. When I was a kid, being a parent was a status one held. Today, one engages in “parenting,” a verb that connotes a series of activities, responsibilities and concerns. Engagement in a child’s education experience makes sense because in the brain-based economy, education is even more central than ever to a child’s long-term success and well-being. Last week I started to think about how important that learning process will be to achieving the transition to a sustainable and renewable global economy.

What strikes me about the growth of sustainability in K-12 education is its capacity to be truly transformative. The stage of sustainability problem solving we find ourselves in today is riddled with misconceptions and ideological definitions of both problems and solutions. Politicians bring snowballs to the floor of congress to refute climate change and proudly proclaim their ignorance by declaring “I am not a scientist.” Environmental advocates sometimes fail to understand the political urgency of rapid economic development in developing nations, and climate scientists sometimes over-reach and propose politically infeasible environmental policies. My hope is that a generation of young people educated from Pre-K on to understand the sustainability challenge will approach it with a fresh and innovative perspective.

This means that sustainability curriculum must teach scientific, economic, social, cultural and political facts and concepts to help students understand sustainability problems, but must be careful about prescribing solutions. Dogma and environmental determinism needs to be avoided. Straight-line projections about the future based on current trends should be avoided and replaced by multiple projections based on varied assumptions. History is difficult enough to understand; predicting the future is as much craft as it is science. The challenges that humanity faces can be addressed, but they require a deep understanding of the tradeoffs caused by our modern lifestyle. The sustainability curriculum at all levels should stress interdisciplinary exchange and learning, team work and problem solving methodologies.

The challenge of sustainability is the seductiveness and appeal of our current mode of consumption and our way of life: instant information at the push of a button; instant entertainment at the push of the same button; creature comforts like climate control, plentiful, fresh and tasty food, mobility, time for leisure and relationships. The list is nearly endless. No one is going to willingly give that up and billions of people on the planet are aspiring to share in that lifestyle. We need to transform economic production and consumption while increasing its volume. A higher proportion of economic consumption will include less material-based goods and services, such as education, research, entertainment, social interaction, crafts, art and physical fitness.

The transition to a sustainable economy requires that we transform our production and consumption processes to reduce their impact on natural planetary systems. This means that young people must learn about those systems, how they function, how we make use of them, how we endanger them and how we might protect them. Our goal should be to maintain our way of life and expand it to others who seek it, without damaging the planet. That will not be an easy goal to achieve, but surely having young people learn about it as part of their fundamental understanding of how the world works is an urgent and critical task.

While I acknowledge the importance of shaping young minds, my own work as an educator is focused on professional education for people working right now on environmental policy and sustainability management. The transition to a renewable economy requires education at every level. We need students in public and private schools to develop a deeper understanding of the global sustainability crisis, but we also need aspiring professionals and current professionals to develop the expertise needed to begin the transformation in real time, today. In organizations all over America and all over the world, young people are pushing older people to develop and implement sustainable practices and organizations. Many professionals are returning to school to learn about sustainability, and many aspiring professionals are focusing their undergraduate and graduate education on sustainability science, engineering, policy, management, architecture, design, communication, and art.

I feel fortunate to work in a place where I am constantly exposed to the creativity and energy of students looking to make the world a better place. It fuels my sense of optimism and hope that we can research, teach and learn our way out of the world’s current crisis of sustainability. I suspect I will receive even more reinforcement when I welcome our new sustainability management master’s students on Tuesday and welcome back students in Columbia’s environmental science and policy program the following week. My visit last week to the Ross School reinforced my positive outlook. If I am lucky enough to be teaching in 15 years, I would welcome the challenge of teaching a Ross student who first learned about sustainability when she was four years old…


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