Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: October 2012

Consuming Stourhead

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I am blessed by living ~45 minutes from Stourhead and go there at irregular intervals throughout the year.  It is a place to go with friends and visitors, and, as well as the gardens and house, there are extensive  walks round about, both in the estate, and on the Downs.  Yesterday was the latest trip.  The autumn colours this year were all that the BBC's PM programme promised they would be, and the sun was shining after days and days of hodden grey skies.

We got there early when, I swear, the camera tripod legs outnumbered the human ones.  And colour there was in abundance, and structure, and texture, and form, with even a katsura tree assailing the senses in its unique way.  We went round the garden, and then walked up to King Alfred's Tower as the crowds began to build.

IMG_1766I always have mixed feeling at Stourhead: the contrast of its artifice, against stunning vistas and the realisation of a picturesque vision.  However great you feel there, however much at temporary peace with the world, you are not at one with nature – unless it is nature at its most anthropomorphic.

Returning from the Tower, we found the garden paths full of other people, toddlers and buggies, and so we headed smartly for the exit and the pub as best we could, full of that sadly superior feeling that comes of getting up, and out, early.  No time to stand and stare; just enough time, however, to catch snatches of what was being said as we passed.  It was mostly quotidian: last night's TV, irritating parents, the latest Sainsbury's experience, Boden catalogues, and so on.  We could have been anywhere.  As we left, the commerce of the nation was held in check by queues on the main road as even more people tried to arrive.


Herman Daly's two populations problem

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I subscribe (no cost: what a bargain) to the Daly Post which is endlessly guaranteed to provide different perspectives on matters sustainable.  The most recent was on population – or, rather, populations.  It begins ...

The population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations — populations of both humans and their artifacts (cars, houses, livestock, cell phones, etc.) — in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans. In other words, the populations of human bodies and of their extensions. Or in yet other words, the populations of all organs that support human life and the enjoyment thereof, both endosomatic (within the skin) and exosomatic (outside the skin) organs.

All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives. The endosomatic equipment — heart, lungs, kidneys — support our lives quite directly. The exosomatic organs — farms, factories, electric grids, transportation networks — support our lives indirectly. One should also add “natural capital” (e.g., the hydrologic cycle, carbon cycle, etc.) which is exosomatic capital comprised of structures complementary to endosomatic organs, but not made by humans (forests, rivers, soil, atmosphere).

The reason for pluralizing the “population problem” to the populations of all dissipative structures is two-fold. First, all these populations require a metabolic throughput from low-entropy resources extracted from the environment and eventually returned to the environment as high-entropy wastes, encountering both depletion and pollution limits. In a physical sense the final product of the economic activity of converting nature into ourselves and our stuff, and then using up or wearing out what we have made, is waste. Second, what keeps this from being an idiotic activity, grinding up the world into waste, is the fact that all these populations of dissipative structures have the common purpose of supporting the maintenance and enjoyment of life. ...

Enough to whet an appetite?  If so,more challenges await ...


Anything to Declare?

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Alan Reid did a wonderful job recently in a posting to the EE Mailbase: making links to all those EE declarations / resolutions / reports / charters / strategies /  from 1972 onwards.  Reading the early ones reminds us how little "progress" we have made.  For the record, here they are:

The Stockholm Declaration 1972

The Belgrade Charter 1975

The Tbilisi Declaration Report 1977

The Moscow Strategy 1987

The Rio Declaration 1992

The Thessaloniki Declaration 1997

The Johannesburg Declaration 2002

United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014

UNECE Strategy for ESD

The Ahmedabad Declaration 2007

The Bonn Declaration 2009

Read Tbilisi, and weep ...


There's been an unexpected boom in the badger population, it seems ...

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This was the reason that the today's Today programme put forward for the government's decision to put off its useless slaughter of badgers till the new year.  But this idea is ridiculous.  There has been no boom; no massive increase in population (by ~80% if the much discredited Defra is to be believed), unless these are EU migrant badgers looking for better setts in Somerset and Gloucestershire.

Rather, there have been two separate population estimates; one back in the summer, saying that 4500 badgers needed to be shot; and one now, saying it's 7900.  So, estimated costs have gone up, and time has run out.  What a shambles.  Of course, had the cull gone ahead in the summer on the 4500 number, not enough would have been shot for even Defra to pretend its policy has been effective, AND all those unaccounted for (and un-shot) badgers would have spread TB farther into cattle herds.  Oddly, this was not something its hapless minister mentioned as he shouted at the camera on Chanel 4 news last night.  Desperate stuff.  Who'd believe anything they say.


A good word for Mr Gove

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Cynics might expect a post with this title to be blank, but not at all.  I met a man in a university coffee queue last week who was, whilst not overly-effusive, quietly grateful to Mr Gove and the DfE.  This was not just some ordinary bloke either; it was the University's Hebron & Medlock Professor of Information Technology who is as impressive as his title.  He told me that he appreciated the DfE's shifting of the school curriculum from ICT to [the much more rigorous] computer science.

All they have to do now is to pony-up some teachers who are qualified to do this – something the HMPIT told me the university was working on.  Double cheers, then.  I am pleased to be the bringer of glad tidings.

NB, the verb to "pony-up" is not one I habitually use, but it seems apt.  It derives from the Pony Express in the USA which, as all western movie fans will know, was used to convey precious cargoes from place to place, protecting them, if Hollywood is to be believed, from bad guys, and indians (ie, Native Americans), along the way.   Well, there are plenty of the former around these days (metaphorically speaking) to lure potential computer science teachers with mega salaries.  I wonder, then, who's riding shotgun ...


ESD in HE – a supply or demand issue?

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How to "integrate ESD into disciplines" within HE seems a topical issue, at least amongst those who see "promoting ESD" as being important, as opposed, say, to changing curricula.  However, I think it's possibly (ie, probably) the wrong question.  I think I'd ask:

How can disciplines integrate a focus on sustainability into what they do?

I think these questions can be rephrasing as:

A – How [can we] integrate ESD into disciplines?

B – How can disciplines [themselves] develop an integral focus on sustainability?

Superficially, of course, A and B look the same, and the outcome may well be of the same form and structure, but they start from different positions, and, in the way that I have set them out here, the development force is differently placed:

In B, the locus of the activity is the discipline itself, and the process if one of absorption and assimilation, and the volition lies with those responsible for the discipline; it looks like an organic growth model.

In A, however, the volition seems to be external (those promoting ESD) and the process seems one of penetration; it resembles an infection model.

In other words, A takes ESD seriously (and sees this as a supply-side issue); B takes the discipline seriously (recognising that it's really a demand-side issue).  Both say they take the learner seriously, but this seems questionable.


Whatever happened to the RCEs?

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I remember going to the launch of the East Midlands Region Centre of Expertise [RCE], way back in 2007 (where I remember giving one of the worst talks of my life).  Since then, a number of RCEs have been set up in England (and elsewhere in the UK).  But whatever happened to them, I wondered, given that they don't seem in the ESD news very much, so had a browse the other day, looking for insights.  It was quite odd.

I looked up what's new in Severn, where the last entry was 22 months ago, and the main page advertises the 2010 Christmas lecture.   London is a little better, with the last entry in the news archive being April 2011.  The North East was more encouraging, and the entry on Canny ubuntu brought back happy memories of my (all too) brief time 'up there'.  There seems evidence of a vibrant culture, and there was even a September 2012 newsletter, and a full projects page.  The East Midlands, was worst of all, with the 'What's on' page only showing the opening launch event, and Newsletters stopping in 2007.

I am relying on the web, of course.  Could be, I suppose, that the seeming moribund RCEs have moved on from the internet as a means of communication – pigeons, or telepathy, maybe.

All rather disappointing, given that they promised so much – especially to themselves.


Welcome to another NUS survey

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For the past couple of years, the (almost wholly) admirable NUS (supported by the HEA) has carried out research which showed that a majority of first year university students say that they want to learn about sustainability through their degree, seeing that this will help them in their future employability.  A significant feature of this, for me, is that the students say they want this to be integral to their studies, and not some free-standing provision:

Over two thirds of 2011 first and second-year respondents (66.6% and 70.3% respectively), as in 2010 (70%), believe that sustainability should be covered by their university.  There is a continued preference among students for a reframing of curriculum content rather than additional content or courses.

The reports are here 2010/11 and  2011/12 .

It’s good to see that there is to be a third survey this autumn.  NUS says it will cover issues such as understanding of sustainable development, skills development, perception of skills for employability, and the role of HEIs in developing these understandings and skills.  All very welcome.


School food US style

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Softish liberals usually think that nutritional standards for school food are an obvious social good, whereas many traditional (large L) liberals would be likely to think that parents might take more responsibility for their children's welfare than many seem to do.  This is a hot topic in England as the government has gratuitously removed the need to adhere to such standards from its favourite schools.

There are, however, clear perils in messing with standards if you don't take student views on board (adding in a tbs of common sense).  The New York Times reports on the disquiet that local interpretation of the Congress's 2010 Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act has resulted in.  It reports Malik Barrows – a senior at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, who likes fruit but said his fellow students threw their mandatory helpings on the cafeteria floor – as saying ...

Before, there was no taste and no flavor.  Now there’s no taste, no flavor and it’s healthy, which makes it taste even worse.

And here is an entertaining, if rather over-long, video [We are Hungry] from Wallace County High School, Kansas, on the state of high school food where price and quality have gone up (a bit), and portion size (ie, the calorie count) has gone down (by considerably more).  Someone, it seems, thought that students would be ok with this.  That they are not seems unsurprising.  Couldn't happen here – could it?

I was struck by this in the NYT article ...

Research shows that children must be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will eat them on their own, said William J. McCarthy, a professor of public health and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  “If our task is to get young kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have to be willing to put up with the waste”.

... though the cautionary tale from Los Angeles, which follows this, is sobering – but you'll have to read that for yourselves.