There are three main approaches to teaching the concept of sustainability in schools. Firstly, we can teach about sustainability, its definition, its history and its application. Secondly, we can teach through sustainability by using the concept as a way of seeing the world and understanding an issue. Finally, we can teach for sustainability by encouraging pupils to accept its importance and to adapt their view of the world with it in mind. I would argue that the concept of sustainability is so important that we should teach for it but that to do this we have to teach both about it and through it. If we do this right, then the for sustainability should take care of itself.
The problem with simple definitions
The idea that development needs to be sustainable is so broadly accepted that it is almost impossible to find any dissenting voices. One reason for this might be that the most widely accepted definition of the term, from the Brundtland Report of 1987, is so open to interpretation that it meets anyone’s agenda; namely that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This definition is so open to interpretation that it allows people who purport to support it continue to argue for policies that lead to an increasing gap between rich and poor, the continued exploitation of fragile environments in the artic and tropics or a continued reliance on fossil fuels. There is a risk that teaching sustainable development becomes a simple acceptance of the status quo and ignores its radical roots.
Born out of the environmental agenda set by books like Silent Spring (Carson, 1962), Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973) and the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth (Meadows et al 1972) the idea of sustainable development was a radical departure from the technocentric view of unlimited growth and resource exploitation seen in the post-war years. The teaching of sustainable development needs to shake lose of its cosy and easily accepted Brundtland definition and accept its complex and contentious nature.
Posters don’t lead to action
We should be entering a period of soaring environmental awareness and demand for action. The previous generation to go through our schools, my own generation, had education for sustainability at its heart. We were taught that the destruction of the rainforest was wrong, that we shouldn’t drive if we could help it, recycle when we could and turn off the tv rather than leave it on standby. Strangely, despite the earnest assemblies, creating of posters and leaflets and the setting up of eco-clubs there doesn’t seem to have been such a change. Car use continues to rise, deforestation continues apace and a slow move away from carbon seems to more about dwindling supply than a reduced appetite by we the consumer. We need a different approach.
Knowledge enables change
One reason that the need for sustainable development has been relatively unconsented is, I’d argue, because it is the natural conclusion you reach from a position of knowledge about the consequences of unbridled growth. If you know the consequences of cutting down yet another section of rainforest to make way for cattle pasture, you stop. If you know the consequence of encouraging an endless growth in the use of private vehicles instead of public transport, you argue for another policy. This is why I’d suggest that the best way to teach for sustainability is to educate a generation of young people in a way that gives them an excellent knowledge of the world’s complexities and teach them to draw conclusions about this.
Consider the question of whether a water transfer scheme is sustainable. We could take the example of the Lesotho Highland Water Project (a common case study in GCSE geography). To reach a conclusion on this question the pupils would need a knowledge of the rainfall patterns in Southern Africa, including the impact of the Drakensburg Mountains, and the relative water needs of Lesotho and South Africa. This in turn would require an understanding of these country’s relative levels of development and industrialisation and patterns of population distribution. They would need to know how reservoirs are constructed and the advantages and disadvantages of this over other methods of securing a water supply. They would need to know about dams creating HEP and how this compared as an energy source with existing methods in the country. Only with all this information can they really make a judgement about whether this development is sustainable.
I passionately believe that we need to create a generation who fully appreciate the needs for sustainability and that a concept of this complexity needs to be taught in schools with this in mind. However, I don’t think the best way to achieve this is through assemblies once a year on Earth Day or by creating posters about the need to recycle. These tokenistic gestures might make it appear that the school has the environmental agenda at the heart of the school, with some nicely visible display boards in the topic, but it is unlikely to lead to any real change in behaviour. The only way we are going to help young people see the need for truly sustainable development is to ensure that they have the knowledge and understanding of the world to reach this conclusion.