Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Oxfam's careful arithmetic

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I got an email from Oxfam the other day.  You probably did too.

Its subject line said: "8 billionaires have the same wealth as half the planet."  Shocking, of course, if true.  And of course, it is.  Well, it is if you make certain decisions during your calculations that help you get an answer that's good for marketing.

What Oxfam did, it seems, was to base its calculations on net wealth, not actual wealth.  That is, assets minus debts.  It follows from this that some of the poorest people in the world are in the USA; that is, those with $zillions of debt.  Those getting by on £1.90 a day (but with no debts) are rich by comparison.

For the distasteful details go this Reuters' blog.  There's a nice graph which shows the problem with the Oxfam metrics.  And here is Ben Southwood on the issue:

Oxfam is once again misleading everyone with its punchy wealth inequality stats.  By Oxfam's measures, the poorest people in the world are recent Harvard graduates with student debt piles.  The bottom 2bn don't have zero wealth, but rather about $500bn of negative wealth.  The poorest person in the world is richer than the next 30% put together.  Having negative wealth may actually be a sign of prosperity, since only people with prospects can secure loans.  But there is a bigger issue with the narrative: more meaningful measures show greater equality.  Those in the middle and bottom of the world income distribution have all got pay rises of around 40% between 1988-2008.  Global inequality of life expectancy and height are narrowing too—showing better nutrition and better healthcare where it matters most.  What we should care about is the welfare of the poor, not the wealth of the rich."


Horse manure will bury London 9 feet deep by 1950

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

This was an 1894 headline in The Times, warning of the doom to come.  It features in a YouTube video by the authors of Resource Revolution: How to capture the biggest business opportunity in a century.

The horse problem is now hard to conceive.  Here's a comment from nofrackingconcensus:

Horses are lovely animals, but when crowded into cities they cause a variety of problems.  The 15 to 30 pounds of manure produced daily by each beast multiplied by the 150,000+ horses in New York city resulted in more than three million pounds of horse manure per day that somehow needed to be disposed of.  That’s not to mention the daily 40,000 gallons of horse urine.

Here's what the authors of Resource Revolution write:

The chance to meet soaring demand for oil, gas, steel, land, food, water, cement, clean air, and other commodities in a sustainable way by transforming how companies and societies prosper represents nothing less than the biggest business opportunity of the century.  A combination of information technology, nanoscale materials, and biotech with traditional industrial technology can unleash a step-change in resource productivity and generate enormous new profit pools.  However, capturing these business opportunities – and avoiding the disruption they bring – will require an entirely new approach to management.

Don't panic, seems to be the message as it's a bet against human ingenuity.  I decided not to do that a while back.


New madness from UNESCO

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I see that UNESCO, bored with having to sort out ESD's contradictions, is trying to invent a new acronym:

ECCAR – Education for climate change awareness and resilience

This is less catchy than a dose of flu, and about as welcome.  It all came out of COP24369 in Morocco last year (something I confess not to have focused my mind fully on).  If you can bear it, you can read all about it here.

Meanwhile, as a guide for the unwary, this is what we missed:

The top feature of the day will be a high-level panel debate entitled “Education—A key driver to scale-up climate action” (1.15pm to 2.45pm, Pacific Room, Blue Zone), in which UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova, HRH Princess Lalla Hasnaa of Morocco, President of the Mohammed VI Foundation for Environmental Protection, Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdallah, Minister of National Education and Vocational Training of Morocco, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Patricia Espinosa and a number of education ministers, will examine ways for education to enhance the implementation of the climate agenda and Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs, which describe greenhouse gas emissions reductions agreed under the UNFCCC). ...

I wonder if anyone ever holds low-level panel debates?  Maybe those are the ones I was occasionally invited to sit on ...



Nature Schools

📥  Comment, News and Updates

You might (or not) have caught the BBC's brief news item saying that the Wildlife Trusts are planning to set up a Trust to run four nature schools.  The Nature Schools website says:

"A team led by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is working with specialist educational consultants to create a charitable company limited by guarantee called a Multi Academy Trust (MAT).  This MAT will apply to the Department for Education for permission to create four new primary schools in England.  These schools will be established through the government’s free school programme.  By writing the outline for their educational philosophy, the Wildlife Trusts can influence how the schools teach their pupils.  Our plan is for one school in the following locations; Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Devon (location to be confirmed), Chippenham, Wiltshire and Smethwick in the West Midlands.  If successful we intend to create more schools in the future."

This is a development to welcome.  The Nature Schools website says:

"Education is one of our charitable purposes – the reason why we exist.  Our long track record of delivering education to 100,000s of children each year has shown us the benefits of learning in a natural setting.  It has also demonstrated the limitations of this learning if it is a one-off addition to a child’s other education.  By using a school’s local environment as a place for learning and a medium for learning we believe children’s education will be enhanced.   At the same time we believe children's relationship with their local environment will be nurtured, strengthened and deepened

Commendably, the website also says this:

"Greener school environments (such as the presence of natural features in the playground) have been linked with better motor skills [1], psychological restoration [2], and rates of physical activity [3]

[1] Fjørtoft, I., Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development. Children, Youth and Environments, 2004. 14(2): p. 21-44.,

[2] Bagot, K.L., F.C.L. Allen, and S. Toukhsati, Perceived restorativeness of children's school playground environments: Nature, playground features and play period experiences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2015. 41: p. 1-9.,

[3] Fjørtoft, I., B. Kristoffersen, and J. Sageie, Children in schoolyards: Tracking movement patterns and physical activity in schoolyards using global positioning system and heart rate monitoring. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2009. 93(3–4): p. 210-217.

How this evolves will be instructive, particularly seeing how DfE manages the permissions process.  The problem here is that, in order to set up an innovative free school, you have to pass all sorts of bureaucratic tests that have been designed to demonstrate just how mainstream (ie, un-innovative) you are.  Then there's the question of how to manage the balance between the outdoor and nature elements ... .  As I said, a development to welcome, but will it be environmental education ...



The Path Ahead is surely a rocky one

📥  Comment, New Publications

At the end (page 122) of WWF's 2016 Living Planet report we find this:

The Path Ahead

The facts and figures in this report tend to paint a challenging picture, yet there is still considerable room for optimism.  If we manage to carry out critically needed transitions, the rewards will be immense.  Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch.  There are several countries that have managed to raise the standards of living for their populations with much lower resource intensity than industrial countries . Furthermore, the world is reaching a consensus regarding the direction we must take.  In 2015, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted.  And at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, 195 countries adopted a global agreement to combat climate change, and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future.  Furthermore, we have never before had such an understanding of the scale of our impact on the planet, the way the key environmental systems interact or the way in which we can manage them.

Ultimately, addressing social inequality and environmental degradation will require a global paradigm shift toward living within safe Planetary Boundaries.  We must create a new economic system that enhances and supports the natural capital upon which it relies.  Earlier in this chapter, leverage points were identified to support the necessary transitions.  These were mainly focused on changing societal patterns and systemic structures either by implementing incremental changes or by supporting the development of niche innovations.  Changing mental models, societal attitudes and values underlying the current structures and patterns of our global economy is a more challenging course of action.  How can we “repurpose” businesses so that they are not just focusing on short-term profit but are also expected to be accountable for social and environmental benefits? Or how should we redefine what desirable economic development looks like?  And how can we reduce the emphasis on material wealth, confront consumerism and the throw-away culture, and promote the desirability of more sustainable diets?  These kinds of changes to societal values are likely to be achievable only over the long term and in ways that we have not yet imagined.

Still, the speed at which we transition to a sustainable society is a key factor for determining our future.  Allowing and fostering important innovations and enabling them to undergo rapid adoption in a wider arena is critical.  Sustainability and resilience will be achieved much faster if the majority of the Earth’s population understand the value and needs of our increasingly fragile Earth.  A shared understanding of the link between humanity and nature could induce a profound change that will allow all life to thrive in the Anthropocene.

This sentence: "Sustainability and resilience will be achieved much faster if the majority of the Earth’s population understand the value and needs of our increasingly fragile Earth" shows the problems to be overcome and the limitations in our abilities to do this.  It also shows why optimism (it'll all likely turn out ok ...) is not enough.  Some will say it shows the need for environmental education (though this hasn't been all that successful over the past 60 years); others will see that it's education itself that needs to be re-oriented (given that it's been part of the problem for far longer than 60 years).  Meanwhile, others who ought to know better, will babble on about paradigm shifts.


It's almost enough to allow gloom to take over and hope to be extinguished ...


Do ministers really plan to give Britain’s natural assets monetary value?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There was a report very late last year (ie, 31st December) that the government plans to give Britain’s natural assets monetary value and include them in the national accounts.  This is, it's said, to be part of the 25-year plan for Nature which is being steered by the natural capital committee (NCC) that is chaired by Dieter Helm, professor of economics at Oxford.  The object of the plan (I'd missed this) is "to reverse 60 years of environmental decline".

Some scepticism is due but you could likely sell tickets for the squabbles to come.



ENSI Update

📥  Comment, New Publications

The venerable ENSI programme seems to have taken on the role of cheerleader (in the nicest way) for the SDGs.  Its latest newsletter shows the range of its new focus.  There's

  • a first Report on the SDG’s 2016 with a quote from Ban ki-Moon.
  • TVET at the centre stage of the new sustainable development agenda (greening TVET)
  • a gender equality Project for the Goals
  • New publications from UNESCO

  Action for Climate Empowerment, guidelines for accelerating solutions through education, training and public awareness

  Planet: Education for environmental sustainability and green growth/

  Not just hot air - putting climate change into practice

... and a feature on indicators for the Goals that I've already written about.  All this seems a long way from the original ENSI, but that's all to the good, especially as the UK's allowed to take part.



The EAC has the Treasury in its sights

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Thanks to Steve Martin for his post to SHED-SHARE just before Christmas about the EAC's comments on UK efforts at sustainable development.  Here it is:

"You might like to read the recent, highly critical report from the Environment Audit Committee, on the role of HM Treasury in Sustainable Development: Its introduction states:

1.Our remit includes a responsibility to audit the Government’s performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.1 Our predecessor Committee carried out this function through a series of ‘sustainability audits’ of government departments.  This is something we have continued in this Parliament. This report contains the findings of our audit of HM Treasury.

2.We recognise that the Treasury, and indeed the whole Government, has undergone significant change over the past few months. Since our inquiry started, a new Prime Minister has appointed a new Chancellor and a new ministerial team, and the Government has developed a new focus on industrial strategy. This report aims to learn lessons from the past and provide proposals that we hope will be useful to Treasury in the future. In Chapter two we look at the role and influence of the Treasury. In Chapter three we explore how the Treasury takes account of the environment. In Chapter four we assess the Treasury’s track record to date and focus on a number of specific policy areas. In Chapter five we identify areas where it might improve its performance in the future.

3.To support our work we asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate whether the 2015 Spending Review process led to well-informed decision-making in relation to environmental protection and sustainable development (referred to as ‘the report’).  Separately we asked them to look at whether the Government was meeting its recycling and waste diversion targets and the extent to which the cancellation of PFI credits may have impacted its performance in this area.4 We are very grateful to the NAO for their help and support throughout this inquiry. In addition, we issued two calls for evidence and received 68 written submissions. We held three public evidence sessions with a range of stakeholders including Treasury Ministers and officials. All written and oral evidence can be found on our website. We are grateful to all those who contributed and to Dr Martin Hurst, our Specialist Adviser during the inquiry.

Defining sustainability
4.There are three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. These pillars of sustainability were brought together in the 1987 ‘Brundtland report’ which set out a definition for ‘sustainable development’:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.

5.The Treasury most frequently uses the term sustainability in the context of economic growth. Its departmental objectives include placing the public finances on a sustainable footing and ensuring the stability of the macro-economic environment and financial system, enabling strong, sustainable and balanced growth.  Jane Ellison, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told us that the Treasury “takes sustainability very seriously” and that “sustainable economic growth is absolutely key”.  However, it was not clear whether the Treasury’s use of the term sustainability aligns with the concept of sustainable development.

6.The Treasury acknowledged the relationship between the economy and the environment stating in written evidence that, ‘there is a complex relationship between the natural environment and economic growth.  Environmental capital plays a valuable role in supporting our economy’.  This was reflected in the views of a large number of respondents to this inquiry.  Karen Ellis, Chief Adviser on Economics and Development at WWF, told us for example that the, “environment completely underpins the economy and the economy has a huge impact on the environment”.   In this report we focus on environmental sustainability.

There's more from this here, including this conclusion:

  • The Treasury’s technical and political framework for assessing environmental interventions is geared towards favouring short-term priorities at the expense of long-term environmental sustainability, even when it could lead to higher costs to the economy in the future.  In part, this is because its framework does not take account of long-term benefits adequately.  Ministers cannot make well-informed decisions unless they have access to all relevant information including long-term costs and benefits. (Paragraph 31)
  • The Treasury needs to improve the way it captures and takes account of long-term environmental costs and benefits.  It must ensure that it has the best available evidence when making decisions about specific interventions, for example, by including wider costs and benefits and establishing a consistent framework with which departments can provide supplementary evidence in addition to NPV calculations.  It should also make more use of relevant independent advisory bodies during spending reviews to scrutinise bids and green-check – asystematic environmental stress test – initial high-level assessments prepared for Ministers to inform their decision-making.  The Treasury should, after a spending review, make public who it has consulted with and how they incorporated any feedback into their decision-making. (Paragraph 32)
  • We welcome the Treasury’s work to incorporate new evidence on natural capital into its decision-making processes.  A natural capital approach has the potential to help account for the long-term environmental risks.  However, we want to see evidence of how the Treasury will take this work forward.  In its response to this report, the Treasury should set out concrete proposals about how, and by when, it intends to take forward and incorporate new evidence on natural capital into its policy appraisal process. (Paragraph 33)


The key phrase for me in all this was:

"... it was not clear whether the Treasury’s use of the term sustainability aligns with the concept of sustainable development."

What the EAC means is that it's blindingly obvious that they don't align.  In other parts of government, sustainable development can mean what you want it to; that is, whatever makes your policy likely to be achieved.  House building is probably the best (ie, worst) example of this.  It will be the case until sustainable development is the beating heart of government.  Or do I mean until government is the beating heart of sustainable development?  A question for 2017.



Is there too much escapist wildlife fantasy at the BBC?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

As I've long held the view that the BBC's flagship nature documentaries, particularly those coming out of the Natural History unit in Bristol, were uninterested in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, it's good to see that some parts of the BBC are also now taking that view.  In a Comment piece for the Guardian, Martin Hughes-Games, a presenter of the BBC’s Springwatch describes Planet Earth II as "escapist wildlife fantasy".   I might well have agreed with that view had I watched it, but I'd given up on the BBC wildlife programmes long before PE II.  I'm not even sure I watched PE I, or Blue Planet, etc.

Producers claim such series encourage conservation, Hughes-Games writes, but in fact, he says, "their brilliance and beauty breeds complacency about our destruction of the planet".  He goes further, saying:

"I fear this series, and others like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife.  These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over."

The programmes, Hughes-Games says, ignore the worldwide mass extinction that are happening, and by fostering that lie they are lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security.  I should say, of course, that I am writing all this because the article appealed to my deep-seated prejudices.  I don't normally read the comments under Guardian articles as they are usually too much for my snowflake-like sensibilities, but I did this time.  My favourite was:

"Surely the essence of a nature show is to present me some nature.  Not the bit we've destroyed.  That's for other documentaries."

Just so.  You wouldn't want a whole evening of extinctions.  These are the sorts of claims that might well get Hughes-Games cold-shouldered in the tea room, but if you think about the programme in educational terms, and look at what the messages are, you can see he must have a point.  He goes on:

"The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense."

Environmental educators might be sitting up here and looking around nervously as, although they cannot be accused of ignoring these problems, the rather flawed argument that awareness leads to concern which leads to involvement that results in change is rather beloved of them.

Emphasising learning rather than behaviour

📥  Comment, New Publications

Just before Christmas, I was asked if I'd write 400 words on "the link between education for sustainable development and behavior" for an "an international education for sustainable development project".  This is not the sort of invitation I get all that often, and the 400 words (max) was a worthy challenge.  So I gave it a go.  Here it is:

Education for sustainable development: putting learning before behaviour

It’s now clear that we shall need to learn how to live differently if the Earth is to enable everyone to live a life that, as Amartya Sen put it, they have reason to value.  Optimists may think we have made a good start, pointing to the steady shift to renewable energy, the decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the adoption of the sustainable development goals.  Meanwhile, those of a more pessimistic (they’d say realistic) turn of mind shake their heads and say: too little; too late.

Whether we’ll be able to change how we live through conventional socio-political processes characterised by consent and participation, or whether we shall be forced to change, will depend on how well and quickly we keep promises made on carbon and climate.  Given that these are government commitments, what can individuals and families do?

The need for such involvement has been acknowledged for over 40 years, usually in terms of behaviour change.  In 1970, IUCN called for codes of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality.  In 1990, we were told that the ultimate aim of education was shaping human behaviour, and that the strategies were known and the tools available.  Fifteen years on, the ESD Decade encouraged changes in behaviour to create a more sustainable future.

All this is well and good, but it privatises the problem by putting the onus on the individual, and there is much that individuals cannot achieve.  Recycling illustrates the difficulties.  If there are no local facilities for recycling the plastic packaging we’re now surrounded by, what can we do?  Acting individually to try to persuade a local council or supermarket to change their policies is useless, as social action and campaigning are needed.  People need to learn to work together to effect change so that everyone can participate.  Thus it’s fine if schools encourage students to create less waste, or get involved with fair trade, provided learning is prioritised.

WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report surely gets it right when it says:

“Sustainability and resilience will be achieved much faster if the majority of the Earth’s population understand the value and needs of our increasingly fragile Earth.  A shared understanding of the link between humanity and nature could induce a profound change that will allow all life to thrive in the Anthropocene.”

That is, learning needs to come before behaviour.


It remains to be seen whether it gets published.  I'll report back.