Are you sustainability literate?

British universities must now teach students how to live a 'sustainable life'. It sounds nice, until you notice the implications for academic freedom.

Jim Butcher

Topics Politics

The three ‘Rs’ are making a comeback in our universities. But far from meaning ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’, they now stand for ‘reducing, reusing and recycling’. In place of old-fashioned literacy, we have a new goal for education: sustainability literacy.

The term was first coined by the environmental consultancy Forum for the Future, an organisation that has worked extensively with the higher education sector in recent years in exploring the implications of sustainable development. They suggest that a sustainability literate person is someone who understands the need for sustainable development, has the abilities to act in favour of it, and can recognise others’ decisions and actions that favour it (1).

Leading advocates of sustainability literacy are vague about content, preferring to accentuate the need for people to be ‘aware’ of the agenda and act on it in all aspects of their lives. The influential Centre for Sustainable Futures at Plymouth University, for example, aims for students to ‘leave with the values and skills and knowledge to drive the sustainability agenda forward in their personal and professional lives’. The vice-chancellor of Bradford University hopes that sustainability literacy will bring about ‘pro-sustainability behavioural change’ amongst students (2).

Sustainability literacy as policy

Though the demand for environmental education began in the early 1990s (3), the process has gathered pace in recent years. Most notably, in 2003 the Department for Education and Skills launched the Sustainable Development Action Plan. Objective one from the plan states that: ‘all learners will develop the skills, knowledge and value base to be active citizens in creating a more sustainable society’ (4).

In 2005, the government-sponsored lecturers’ body, the Higher Education Academy (HEA), commissioned research on ‘embedding education for sustainable development in higher education’ (5). The HEA seeks to ‘assist institutions and subject communities in their development of curricula and pedagogy to equip students with the skills and knowledge to live and work sustainably’ (6). Sustainability literacy is now identified as a ‘core competency’ for graduates by government.

A quick look at the ‘learning outcomes’ often quoted for sustainability literacy confirms an emphasis on changing moral attitudes and behaviour rather than improving education. These outcomes comprise: increased caring about the future of society and intergenerational equality; empowerment of students and a heightened belief that they can make a difference; and increased personal willingness to participate in solving societal and environmental problems. Elsewhere, discussions on promoting sustainability literacy feature references to ‘raising awareness’, ‘changing value bases’ and even ‘winning hearts and minds’. As such, the promotion of sustainability literacy calls into question the character of education on offer in the modern university. Should universities see it as their aim to bring about ‘behavioural change’ through ‘changing value bases’? Shouldn’t students, based on their exposure to ideas, decide such things for themselves?

Sustainability literacy moves seamlessly from ‘awareness’ to prescribing action. For example, the HEA subject centre for history, classics and archaeology expresses a view central to sustainability literacy, that ‘education about sustainable development should go hand in hand with education for sustainable development’. (7)

Leaving aside what sustainable development has to do with classics, why not simply educate rather than advocate? The overt promotion of sustainability (whatever it might be taken to mean) as the holy grail will only discourage students from raising doubts and differences of opinion because sustainability will be seen as the official line of the university.

The need for a new pedagogy?

Sustainability literacy is often presented as a necessary compensation for the deficiencies of existing disciplines that may not be equipped or may not have moved to address environmental critiques of economic growth (8). The disciplines are argued to be ‘too narrow’ to cope with the broad character of the environmental crisis.

The 1992 United Nations Summit on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) is widely regarded as the moment when sustainable development become orthodoxy. But well before this point, many disciplines had developed schools of thought that sought to engage with the perception and reality of environmental problems.

For example, within economics, most often criticised for its ‘narrow’ approach to resource use, ‘ecological economics’ was pioneered in the 1970s, as a way to factor the environment into economic calculations. The concept of ‘natural capital’ enabled nature to acquire a value through its non-use, rather than through its consumption in the process of development. Prior to that, the concept of ‘externalities’, and the role of the state in dealing with these, provided a way to examine the environmental impacts of economic activity.

In fact, the growth of concern with the environment has run parallel to a growing set of associated ideas and theories in sociology, geography, management and elsewhere. The triple bottom line of ‘economy, environment and culture’ is already in evidence, across the board, in higher education.

It is therefore disingenuous to say the university, via its curriculum, is a supporter of a narrow outlook. Collegiality and open debate have ensured that the disciplines adapt to, and influence, changing times. It is important that universities remain places where we can argue the toss over issues such as nuclear power, GM food, anti-globalisation protests, the merits of cheap flights, and even the efficacy of sustainable development itself, with neither side requiring the official backing of their institution or of self-appointed guardians of the curriculum.

What of the naysayers?

Advocates of sustainability literacy often argue that those who disagree are naysayers who need to be shown the error of their ways (as opposed to people with ideas to be argued against). One discussion document from the University of Hertfordshire refers (not untypically) to the need for ‘carrots and sticks’ to get backsliders into line (9).

Apart from the patronising tone, this could have implications for academic freedom. ‘Carrots and sticks’ are ‘bribes and threats’ to think the right way and do the right thing. Is that healthy for a university? What about those dissenting voices, that minority of academics (and students) who feel, and are prepared to argue, that the concept of sustainability is problematic, or who feel it represents a backward step rather than progress? What about respected academics who see ‘consumerism’ (frequently cited as a key area for behavioural change by advocates of sustainability literacy) as a good thing, or who do not think that industrial carbon emissions are a significant factor in climate change?

With regard to rural development in the developing world, a subject I have published on myself, I often find myself in the camp of the ‘backsliders’. In the rural developing world, ‘sustainable development’ often means very little development at all. Perhaps I should attend a workshop to ‘self-review’ my ‘core standards’, a process that has been openly argued for in one University’s documentation on developing sustainable literacy.

A new etiquette

One university, as part of launching a drive for sustainability literacy, organised a ‘sustainable lunch’, with food that was local, fairly traded and organic. This small example is typical of the understated but clear agenda of sustainability literacy – small-scale and organic food, especially when sold at farmers markets, are good, whilst genetically modified food and supermarkets are bad. Academics can, and frequently do, take sides on such issues, which is a healthy situation to be in. Yet the etiquette of sustainability literacy marks out some positions as running counter to an educational and social imperative that all universities are to uphold.

It is certainly true that there is a strong consensus around some things that tend to be considered ‘sustainable development’. For example, the belief that human emissions of greenhouse gases are leading to climate change is widely held, along with the assumption that the proper response is to reduce such emissions. Equally, there are other aspects of sustainability literacy that invite considerable contestation, such as localism, organic agriculture and challenging consumerism.

But even if a position is considered received wisdom for 99 per cent of academics, there are strong reasons to object to universities taking a moral stance on the views and behaviour that graduates should adopt. Universities should teach. They will reflect the prevailing body of knowledge, and they should aim to encourage students to question received wisdoms and orthodoxies. They should trust undergraduates to act and live as they choose, based upon what they have gleaned of the world through their studies and beyond.

And this is where I think that anyone – from the deepest green to the biggest champion of acquisitive growth – should be against the drive for sustainability literacy. Ideas, agendas and moral imperatives should stand or fall through an open ended, rigorous enquiry. The university is the institution that can ensure this takes place. Yet it is clear that for those promoting sustainability literacy, the agenda is about universities, as public institutions, taking a clear position on the political issue of development. Once that is enshrined in the public pronouncements or private articles of a university, then the university has diminished its commitment to open-ended academic enquiry. That bodes no good either for those who take the environmental crisis to be immanent, or for those who suspect that the planet is robust; the majority who accept that global warming is a product of human industry, or those who doubt this wisdom.

Finally, it is worthy of note that the rise of environmental education, most recently in the form of sustainability literacy, seems to parallel a decline in scientific literacy. It is far more likely to be scientists, experts in their respective fields, who produce solutions to environmental problems. A promotion of scientific literacy would be a far more worthy aim for today’s academics than moralising about how we should live our lives.

Jim Butcher lectures at Canterbury Christ Church University, and is the author of Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: a Critical Analysis, published by Routledge (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued that carbon offsetting reduced the developing world to eco-enslavement. Josie Appleton described climate change as a moral fable, and suggested we should stop trying to live ethically. Peter Smith reviewed Jim Butcher’s new book and argued that ecotourism is a trap for the poor. Or read more at spiked issue Ethical living.

(1) See Sustainability Integration Group, Forum for the Future

(2) See Bradford’s green learning backed by funding council, University of Bradford, 5 June 2007

(3) Wood, D. ‘Greening Education’, chapter in The Routledge Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Higher Education, Routledge Falmer, London pp. 103-7

(4) See Sustainable development action plan for education and skills, DfES, p.6

(5) See Sustainability, Higher Education Academy

(6) ibid.

(7) See Education For Sustainable Development, HEA

(8) Sterling, S (2002) Sustainable education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, Green Books on behalf of The Schumacher Society, Warminster

(9) See Learning and Skills for Sustainable Development (LSSD), University of Hertfordshire Environment Team, p.5

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Topics Politics


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