Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: September 2013

Nobody sings about prawns

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

They never did, and never will.  But herrings are a different matter, as those of you familiar with Ewan McColl's "silver darlings", know.

A recent Bagehot article in the Economist about fishing in the river Clyde (well, actually about no longer fishing in the Clyde) illustrated how timid politicians, a valourisation of tradition, and self-serving on a massive scale, all conspired to clean the Clyde, not of pollution, but of fish.  It's a tale that would be cautionary, were it not so common as to be commonplace.

Not many fish, or much learning, around, as the ending of Bagehot's piece illustrates:

Fishing, for as long as anyone can remember, was more than an occupation in Carradale.  The community was founded on it.  Youths went to sea in their uncles’ boats, formed ring-netting pairs with their neighbours, married one another’s sisters and celebrated by drinking and singing songs about herring.  Support for the fishermen was bolstered by a desire to preserve these happy traditions.  But how misguided that was.  Carradale is shrinking.  Its young folk are leaving; one of the five boats is crewed by Latvians for want of local labour.  “Last year was a bad year, 18 deaths and the rest of us ageing,” was how an old fisherman greeted Bagehot on his return to the village.  Few sing about herring these days.  Nobody sings about prawns.


From the fens to Friends of the Earth with bells on

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My week began in Cambridge at EESD-13 about which I've probably said enough – except that the positive memory of it lingers.  And it ended at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust [WWT] AGM which turned out (well, almost) to be a rumbustious affair after a member decided she wanted to make a couple of points under AOB about the plight of the hare, and about the focus of the Trust's work.

She was a fan of the hare – indeed I don't know anyone who lives in the countryside who isn't – and was concerned that they were vanishing – as indeed they are.  She blamed the red kite, taking a swipe at badgers along the way, and I'm told that both are likely to be keen to take leverets.  The Trust's Director thought that agricultural practice and changing climate would likely be implicated somewhere along the line.  Her point seemed a legitimate one to make to the Trust, though whether AGM AOB was the best place is debatable.

Her second point was that the Trust had lost its way, focusing far too much on what she termed "human lifestyle propaganda".  We are, it seems, in a ringing phrase: "Friends of the Earth with bells on – where the bells were the nature reserves".  This is, she thinks, because one of the Trust's strategic objectives is to "Lead and support the transition of society towards more sustainable living".

I did wonder, as I listened to her assertions, and the cogent rebuttal from the Trust's Director, whether she had linked her two points in her mind, or whether they were quite separate, and whether this was an example of one of those nature not people false dichotomies that bedevil wildlife charities, from WWF across to more modest outfits.  WWT, as a Trust, understands the importance of people to conservation, and the need to educate them about it, and about sustainability.

Not all its members completely agree on this, of course, which is a common feature across all such member organisations.  In this case, whether it's the re-introduction, and subsequent spread, of the red kite, or agricultural practice, that's to blame here, the point is that the human hand is implicated, and only society (that is, more humans) can offer redress.  From this viewpoint, a strategic objective to lead and support the transition of society towards more sustainable living seems essential – especially as it may well result in more hares.


A man with his brains caught in the mangle

📥  Comment, New Publications

I guess only a man (or perhaps a 'new man') could have written the claptrap that appeared in the Daly News the other day.  I can hardly bear to copy it.  He's describing going back to hand washing laundry using cold water and "soap", a bucket, an agitator, and a mangle (wringer).  He says it's "fun".  Here's a taste ...

On the economizing front, the wringer, clothesline, and bucket are old-school technologies that draw energy from only the sun and a bit of personal labor. And there’s much less embedded energy in these tools than in a washer/dryer combo. A note about the labor: I thought it would be a more of a chore, but so far it’s been fun. There’s a degree of mindfulness that comes with washing clothes this way, and it doesn’t take very long.

There is little steady about this state.  It was my grandmother's life, and a hard one at that.  What a bleak future.  Thank goodness the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (and a good few others) have other ideas about what the future might hold.


EESD – a couple of good questions

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The highlight of Tuesday morning at EESD was not the Keynote by BP's Ellen Williams, provocative though that was (as well as being welcome in a post-Browne sense).  Rather, it was the pre-presentations questions posed by the Chair of parallel session 13 in an effort to gee up the audience ahead of the talks.  He asked:

"Is sustainable development to be seen as (just) a specialist topic within an engineering degree, or as a core aspect of that degree?"

This is the question which underpins a lot of the discussion that takes place in faculties as they decide how to frame and structure degree programmes. It is, of course, a classic curriculum question.

This would have been a good enough question, though not a particularly novel one, had it not been coupled with this:

"Is engineering to be seen as a fundamental element of sustainable development, or (just) an aspect of it?"

This is a question that, I'm surmising, doesn't get as much airtime as the first one in faculty debates.  This second question is not a curriculum question, but putting the two together like this suggests that they should never again be separated, as each reveals important aspects of the other.  And if I weren't writing this on a phone, I'd already be scribbling diagrams to explore the implications of different responses.

Of course, as stated, each question is incomplete as they both deny the possibility of a negative response.  Here are the questions again, in a more complete form:

Q1. Is sustainable development to be seen as (just) a specialist topic within an engineering degree, or as a core aspect of that degree — or neither of these?"

Q2. Is engineering to be seen as a fundamental element of sustainable development, or (just) an aspect of it – or neither of these?"

One intriguing aspect of these questions would seem to be that the first applies easily across HE disciplines, whereas the second does not do so as readily.  Q1 seems a sensible question to ask within any discipline, whereas Q2 does not, at least at first glance.  If this is the case, then it is probably because Q2 is not so much about the academic discipline, as about the social process which the discipline represents – in this case, the practice of engineering.  It's not so much that you cannot ask Q2 quite widely, it's just that it's not sensible to do so.  Umm.


EESD – a revisionist view of UBC

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I've long had the view that it was the University of British Columbia [UBC] that you should look to in order to see the intersection of higher education and sustainability at its best; that is, for an integration across research, teaching and estates, to put it in conventional terms.  Having listened to John Robinson, UBC's vice provost for sustainability, and its internal and external champion, I'm now not so sure.  This may sound odd given UBC's amazing development in terms of sustainability and its campus, which looks world-leading and a model to emulate, even to a serially jaundiced eye.

No, it's not that, and Robinson gave chapter and verse on what UBC has done, and is doing, with their vision to 2050.  Rather, it's what he said about teaching and learning that gives pause for thought.  Actually, he didn't say all that much, devoting some 6 hurried minutes out of a rather compelling 50 minute talk to this – odd in itself, given that this was an engineering education conference.

But what he did say did not present a picture of an academic community eager to focus on sustainability, nor of an academic leadership all that keen on suggesting they do that.  It all looked rather neglected: a B movie alongside that Hollywood blockbuster of a campus.  Whilst there are now some 480 sustainability-related courses (I'm not sure what this means), and voluntary pathways on sustainability learning (or that), none of it looked exceptional.  Of course, Robinson hasn't an academic role, so someone else might have painted a more positive picture of teaching and learning than his sketch of the academic as a bit of a problem having to be pushed by students, and nudged (pulled would be going too far) ever so very gingerly by the institution.

Well, I guess I'll have to look elsewhere for integrated excellence.  A pity; I was thinking of visiting.  Maybe Gloucestershire ...

EESD: Lord Browne, and half a speech

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The second keynote on day one of the conference was given by Lord Browne of Maddingley.  It  hadn't a title, which may have been because it didn't have much of a focus.  This was a keynote that could have been given to any engineering conference. It was hugely disappointing.  It was also short, at about 20 minutes in an hour-long slot, which left a lot of time for questions.  But these weren't much better.

He did talk about the key attributes that engineers need; one of these was the ability to communicate and work with communities, which is not something that Cuadrilla, an outfit that Browne is involved with, seem to be much good at. But he did plug his new book: The seven elements that changed the world, whose title is a nod to the output of the majesterial Henry Hobhouse.

Meanwhile, the first two parallel session that I went to were hugely informative.  I split my time between Curriculum development and Teaching and learning and listened to inputs from across Europe, and from Canada.  These re-confirmed my view that engineers continue to innovate in their work with students around sustainability, and are some of the most interesting folk to listen to, particularly when it comes to curriculum and pedagogy.

One thing to note was that whenever ESD was mentioned – which was not often – it meant 'engineering for sustainable development'.  No one in my hearing mentioned the other ESD.


EESD-13 an international affair

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The number of countries represented here is impressive.  They include:

USA     Canada     Mexico     Colombia     Chile     Virgin Islands     Ghana     South Africa     Malaysia     China     Australia     UNEP     Spain     Sweden     Belgium     Denmark     Austria     Netherlands     Lithuania     Italy     Ireland     Finland     Germany     UK

In addition to what look like half-decent keynotes, there are three parallel sessions focusing on:

[A]   Teaching & learning,  [B]   Curriculum development,  and [C]. Alternative pedagogies.

I'm drawn to the presentations in B, though I'd really like to dip in and out (how many time do we say that? ...) which looks impossible.  Anyway, the point is that there's something to look forward to.

The first keynote was by Paul Jowitt, of Heriot Watt.  It was entertaining enough, and certainly broad-ranging, but it hinted a matter's inwardness rather too often, only to leave the poor listener wanting more.  I thought it rather underdone as a talk.

A key theme was the need to integrate course programmes from the outset, rather than differentiate them.   This "upside-down approach" (neatly illustrated by a picture of a cake) was a useful metaphor throughout the address.  He also told us of his, as yet, futile attempts to update Tredgold's 1828 definition of civil engineering in its Royal charter, making it into something that takes society seriously – or perhaps notices that it is there at all.

He had a nice line about 'the engineer of responsibility' which seemed to work at several levels, and his plea was for an engineering education that explored how, in the real world out there, consequences were felt across systems, and not just in the vicinity of a project.

The following was not his final point, but it will do for mine:

"The search for a rationale for government decision-making on sustainability goes on."


Going to EESD 13 – still rethinking the engineer

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I'm off to EESD 13 this week – just to listen, and to represent ELSA ; the English Learning and Sustainability Alliance.   This is the conference blurb:

Much progress has been made over the last decade in introducing concepts of sustainable development into both undergraduate and post graduate engineering curriculum.  Many specialist lecture courses and even whole programmes have emerged which have steadily gained acceptance alongside the more traditional skills associated with the physical sciences.  However there is still a need to educate and develop a new kind of engineer who can add to the familiar analytical problem solving skills  new approaches to deal with wicked and messy problems, and who can apply a wider set of choice or assessment criteria when formulating solutions.  It is also increasingly recognized that those trained in the physical and biological sciences, as well as those involved in policy analysis and design, can be valuable partners with engineers in formulating and implementing policies to foster sustainable development.  For this reason, this conference welcomes an expansion of this series of engineering education conferences to include those working in these allied fields. In this way, engineering would be conceived of as a broad, all-encompassing term, going beyond the technical realm.

Engineers and associated professionals need to be educated to understand the effects of issues such complexity, uncertainty, environmental limits, social acceptability, and full whole life cost accountability.  In addition they need to work in multidisciplinary teams and engage across a broad spectrum of policy, governance and ethical dimensions.  To achieve these goals there is a fundamental need to rethink the engineers role and contribution in society, the skills needed to be effective, and how University education can help deliver a reconfiguration of an engineer’s professional outlook and responsibilities.

Just so.  I had rather hoped that all this might be common ground across engineering in universities by now, as these points were being made (including by me in a talk I gave to the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2008) a while back.  We shall see.

The theme of this conference, the 6th in the series, will be ‘Rethinking the Engineer’, and it will ...

... explore how to develop the new skills needed by engineers so they can be more effective in dealing with messy problems in an increasingly complex and constrained world.  A key theme will also be to reflect on how successful graduates who have received a sustainable development education have been in their subsequent working lives, as well as how useful their wider approach has been to their employers.  The conference is the premiere forum for the dissemination of new advances in the evolution of sustainable development thinking in young engineers and associated professionals and will bring together students, academics, graduates and practitioners to rethink the professional engineer’s role and responsibilities in modern society.

There is a strong University of British Columbia contingent attending, which is one of the reasons I'm going.  More later ...


Schools meals for all – probably not

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Well, we shall see whether the government's new policy of free school meals for all under 7s will deliver its desired outcomes in terms of increased pupil concentration in the afternoon, and greater attainment – well, in the narrow sense that government sees attainment.  The general evidence for both of these is pretty plausible, though context is likely to be a confounding factor.

The government's new policy is based on two pilot studies, and the BBC Radio 4's More or Less asked the researchers involved in these to comment on how soundly-based the policy seems.  You can listen to them here.  Needless to say, it's not at all clear-cut.  One snippet from the research was that the amount of fruit eaten at lunchtime in the experimental groups went down.  One question is, did it go up at home to compensate?   Another is what does this say about school meals?

It will be instructive to see whether the policy, which is both a middle-class subsidy and an electoral bribe, will succeed in getting anywhere near 100% take up.  I suspect it will not come close.  There are (at least) two groups who will resist:

[i]  those parents who think that the standard of food in the school meals offered to their child is too poor and that their own packed lunch is better nutritionally.  Generally, these are parents who know and care about food and nutrition.  They may (or not) be organic in preference, and they are not all in north London.  A recent Woman's Hour feature on BBC Radio 4 saw this bunch well represented – and vocal.

[ii]  those parents who think that the food in the school meals offered to their child is not to its liking and so opt for the packed lunch quiet life.  By and large, these are not parents who know and care about food, though some obviously do.  They are largely invisible to Radio 4.

We shall see.  We'll also see how many school meal fascistas try to ban the packed lunch – probably on equal opportunities grounds.


Wildlife, human population, and confusion

📥  Comment, New Publications

The Wildlife Trusts have produced a statement on population, resource use & consumption in the UK.  It begins:

The Wildlife Trusts believe that it is insufficient simply to prevent the further decline in the quantity and quality of existing habitats, species and natural places.  We must enable nature to recover, on a grand scale.  We must create Living Landscapes and secure Living Seas.  For nature to recover, a broad cross section of society must:

  • understand that humanity is part of a complex natural world and wholly dependent on it;
  • understand the true value of nature to us, to our local communities, to wider society and to our economy;
  • appreciate the consequences of our decisions and actions for nature – and in particular for the natural environment on which our health, happiness, wealth and wellbeing depend;
  • translate that understanding into action that reduces the harm we cause to the natural environment and that helps nature to recover.

An important part of this is the impact of the growing human population on the natural environment.  Increasing population is only one contributor to our increasing impact on the natural environment, but the presence of more people will inevitably make nature’s recovery more difficult.

The overall impact of the UK’s human population on the natural environment can be represented using a simple equation

EA  =  PS x C x EIUC

where: EA =  environmental impact, PS =  population size, C =  consumption per head of population – and

EIUC =  environmental impact per unit of consumption

An increase in any of the three factors that contribute to this equation will increase the pressure on the natural environment caused by human beings, unless there is a corresponding reduction in one or both of the other factors.  Some aspects of our environmental impact (such as disturbance to wildlife from recreational use of local natural greenspaces, or building houses on floodplains) will be greatest close to where we live, so they will be felt most acutely in places with a high population density.

In many ways is a splendid (if rather sad) rationale for why the Wildlife Trusts need to exist. The emphasis on the urban, and how urban living needs to change to something much more restorative of natural and social capital, is very welcome.  That said, I still think that there is a problem at the heart of the paper.  Just below the equation (which is anything but "simple" to my mind), we find:

To reduce our environmental impact, we must all play our part in:

  1. reducing the harmful environmental impacts of the goods and services that we consume;
  2. reducing the amount we consume; and
  3. stabilizing the population of the UK;
  4. helping nature’s recovery by investing to create Living Landscapes and secure Living Seas that will help to provide for the future needs of society and the economy.

The problem is this: When a Chair or a Director of a Wildlife Trust is asked what their Trust is doing about all this, they will give convincing responses in relation to the 1st, 2nd and 4th points – but what (on Earth) will they say about the 3rd?