Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked to many people that are in one way or other involved in teaching about sustainability at high school or university level. One thing that has struck me is how many seem to be teaching about sustainability without actually believing that we can and will “fix” the big issues like climate, biodiversity, hunger, wars. And while I don’t have a solution to them either, I found it so disheartening to see all these teachers that talk to so many young people and that seem to have no hope for the future. Surely this cannot be the way to do things. If they don’t see the point of changing things because we are all doomed anyway, how will they support their students to develop skills and strategies to deal with all the big challenges they will be faced with?
This is where the article I’m summing up below comes in:
“Hope dies, action begins?” The role of hope for proactive sustainability engagement among university students. (Vandaele & Stålhammar, 2022)
Hope isn’t a well-defined construct. It has often been linked to positive action being taken, but only as long as hope isn’t just “wishful thinking” (i.e. denying negative emotions), or denial of the seriousness of what is happening, leading to no action being taken. Vandaele & Stålhammar (2022) use the construct of “constructive hope” which refers to a “form of hope fostering long-term, proactive environmental engagement at the collective (e.g. political engagement, participation in social movements, organizational change) and individual (e.g. lifestyle choices, individual actions) level”. They investigate what role constructive hope plays at university, and how students can be empowered to develop constructive hope. In the framework they use, constructive hope consists of four components: goal setting, pathway thinking (i.e. figuring out how to work towards a specific goal), agency thinking (actually working towards the goal) and emotional reinforcement.
Those four components manifest in students:
- Goal setting is often about being able to imagine a desirable future, and recognising that the vision can be used to guide actions. Visions that were often mentioned were about a future free of environmental threats and of just societies with focus on values rather than on materialistic goals.
- Pathway thinking is often about trust in others (mostly people in general, or NGOs, not so much companies or governments), that we are all working towards a shared goal and can do it together.
- Agency thinking is about a feeling of control, trusting ones own abilities to contribute to change in a positive way, mostly through collective action with the wider society or their own networks, less so individually
- Emotional reinforcement. Emotions are reported as the driver of action, both negative like anger to get going, and then positive ones as reinforcing feedback loops to keep moving. But also negative reinforcing loops were mentioned and can act as a driver of action if they are reflected upon and conscious action to break them is being taken.
But then can these four components be supported, or what is playing against them?
From student responses, there appear to be four levels of their university experience playing against developing and maintaining constructive hope.
- University structure does not include enough sustainability teaching in various programmes to create a community, expressing emotions isn’t encouraged in the context, and too little support of hopeful conversations.
- The university programme does not seem to provide enough (or any?) support for dealing with strong emotions, even those directly caused by learning within the programme.
- At course level, students would like a stronger “so now what” component where they learn what to do with the theoretical knowledge in order to translate it into practical constructive action, and how to communicate their thoughts to the world beyond their peers.
- Student interactions also contribute to hopelessness because they reinforce each other when they express their negative emotions. There is also a sense of guilt about the gap between what one should do and what one really does, and the feeling that there isn’t enough space to figure out how to actually make things better.
In the discussion, Vandaele & Stålhammar (2022) describe that “awareness of the role of hope to turn negative emotions into proactive engagement is important for students to sustain constructive hope“: hope and active engagement iteratively support each other because they lead to positive emotions of meaning, empowerment, living in accordance with ones values.
They suggest how the four components of hope can be supported in a university setting, for example:
- Goal setting is supported by peer reflections on practical things students can do to make a change, and how local change can contribute to global change
- Pathway thinking can be supported by supporting trust in humanity, NGOs, …
- Agency thinking needs the integration of what happens at university with what happens outside of it, discussions of responsibilities, alignment between values and actions
- Emotional reinforcement is supported when students become aware of their emotions and the effects they have on their well-being, and learn coping strategies.
(Many more suggestions in the article!)
Ultimately, they state that “constructive hope should be cultivated in university education at multiple levels by fostering: a sense of community; discussion and visions of the future; a sense of agency at the individual, collective and professional level; trust toward external actors; and providing space for emotional expression.“
And I have nothing to add to that other than that is clearly what we need to do!
Vandaele, M., & Stålhammar, S. (2022). “Hope dies, action begins?” The role of hope for proactive sustainability engagement among university students. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 23(8), 272-289. [link to pdf]