From “education for sustainable development” to “education for the end of the world as we know it” (reflecting on Stein et al., 2022)

A lot of things are happening around teaching sustainability at LU right now! As I am planning the second iteration of my “teaching sustainability” course, I am reading more about what we actually mean by “teaching sustainability”. It is clear that this is not a good title for my course, but we haven’t come up with a better one yet, and I think me struggling with finding a good name is a symptom of me struggling with what the essence of that course is. I don’t want my course “just” to be about how to teach about the SDGs or problems or solutions, it needs to be bigger than that. But then how to make sure there is still a clear focus?

I wrote about the “Four misunderstandings about sustainability” (after Block & Paredis, 2019) recently, and find them really useful to spark discussions. Similarly thought-provoking are the learning objectives related to prejudices against sustainability science by Brundiers et al. (2021) (and the list of competencies they come up with in a Delphi study is also interesting, just not as exciting for me right now):

1. Explain why sustainability is “not first and foremost about the environment” and not just about technical solutions and engineering; but is instead a layered concept with justice and equity as foundational elements. This would involve broadening the perspective on justice and equity beyond environmental justice to also include more general and explicit forms of social and racial justice.

2. Integrate values into scientific inquiry, countering the positivistic perception that “values are outside of the realm of science” as science “is considered to be objective” and the positivistic instruction that “scientists should not deal in values”.

3. Articulate sustainability science as a solution‐oriented field, which employs the same rigor, using systems‐, values‐, futures‐, and strategic‐thinking competencies, to researching solutions to sustainability challenges as to researching sustainability problems.

4. Articulate the necessity of stakeholder engagement (a ‘must’ have) in sustainability science research (trans‐disciplinary approaches).

In my next course, I am definitely going to put these up for discussion!

The article I found most inspiring today is “From “education for sustainable development” to “education for the end of the world as we know it”” by Stein et al. (2022). LOVE THE TITLE! Maybe this is where my course needs to go?

The main take-away I have from the Stein et al. (2022) article is that “education for sustainable development”, at least the way we currently understand it, is really not good enough. It carries the assumption that we can change from what we are doing today into some kind of sustainable future, when what we really need is a complete disruption of everything we commonly believe in (similarly to the need for transition that Block & Paredis (2019) describe). The lack of perceived urgency for action on climate change in the Global North might stem from the position of advantage we are in, where we are relatively sheltered from the impacts, but at the heavy cost that many others are carrying, only that they are out of sight, out of mind. This is both historically the case — our wealth is built on colonialisation and exploitation — as well as still ongoing as climate change impacts hit poor communities the hardest, both in terms of extreme weather events, declining biodiversity, sea level rise, and many more.

Stein et al. (2022) point out that the biggest barrier to conversations and “the predicament we face is not primarily rooted in ignorance and thus solvable with more knowledge, nor primarily rooted in immorality and thus solvable with more normative values; rather, it is rooted in denials that stem from harmful desires for and investments in the continuity of the securities and satisfactions promised by modernity-coloniality.” The world as we know it is “largely built on the stolen lands and broken backs of those whom it now excludes“. They state that there are two tipping points: Not just the ecological one, but also the relational one that has long been passed. Reparing the relationships is urgent, but takes time — so much time that it might mean passing the ecological tipping point — but it would on the other hand mean that we could deal with the catastrophe together.

The four denials we need to interrupt, according to Stein et al. (2022), are that

  1. systemic colonial violence is not that bad: that it is temporary, or exceptional, or justified in light of a bigger picture, like mitigating climate change
  2. ecological unsustainability can be fixed from within our system
  3. entanglement is voluntary rather than “a fact of our collective existence on a shared planet”
  4. the problem is somehow not that big, and that there are simple quick fixes

The question is not if, but when the world as we know it will end. So how do we prepare for it?

“Growing up”

“Growing up” is used in the Biesta sense of “face[ing] the world in all of its complexity, plurality, and indeterminacy, and see and sense ourselves as part of it, without projecting our desires onto the world or treating it as an extension of the individual self“. This is achieved by disrupting “the sense of self, meaning, security, certainty, futurity, and even reality that has been cultivated“. But this cannot be forced upon people, people can only be invited to join the process, “and those who take up the invitation need to be accountable for their own receptivity to being taught. This decision not to turn one’s back to responsibility is perhaps the first step in growing up, so that we might show up differently to the difficult work that needs to be done as we face the decline of a harmful system.

“Showing up”

In the next step, then, taking on the responsibility must lead to action, to “showing up”. This is by no means easy: “Accepting responsibility means ‘doing our homework’ and coming to the work with a deep commitment to interrupting denials, to digging deeper towards the root causes of our contemporary challenges and to relating ‘wider’ by activating the ethical imperative before will“.

Maybe you have noticed that I have used more and more quotes the further I got into this blogpost, and that is a symptom of me not having fully grappled with the question myself yet, so not being able to articulate my thoughts on the subject. Should I have waited with writing this blogpost until I can make full sense of this article? Seeing as you are reading this, clearly I think not. I am hoping that by writing this post, other people will join me in thinking about this, and maybe we can discuss and make sense of it together. And commit to growing up, and showing up.

A preprint version of which an updated version was published as: Block, T., Paredis, E. (2019). Four misunderstandings about sustainability and transitions. In: Van Poeck, K., Östman, L. & Öhman, J. (Ed.) Sustainable Development Teaching: Ethical and Political Challenges. London: Routledge, pp.15-27.

Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G., Cohen, M., Diaz, L., Doucette-Remington, S., … & Zint, M. (2021). Key competencies in sustainability in higher education—toward an agreed-upon reference framework. Sustainability Science, 16(1), 13-29.

Stein, S., Andreotti, V., Suša, R., Ahenakew, C., & Čajková, T. (2022). From “education for sustainable development” to “education for the end of the world as we know it”. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 54(3), 274-287.

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