Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Don't ask WWF or the Guardian how to grow food

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There was a picture in a recent Guardian of a boy with two potatoes firmly impaled on a garden fork.  The caption is:

"A pupil at Coastlands Community primary school in Pembrokeshire shows there’s a real appetite for growing food.  Schools are leading the way in promoting healthy eating, with 77% of children saying that they learn the most about food at school, according to a 2016 WWF survey of 500 UK parents and their children aged 7-12 years."

Whilst I don't really know what "learn the most about food at school" means – compared to where?  home, presumably.  One thing is clear, this hapless pupil doesn't know enough to avoid sticking his fork through the potato crop and hence reducing its quality and value.  Does The Guardian, I wonder?

Or was this a bright idea from WWF for a photoshoot?  If so, it makes you wonder how little WWF knows about food growing and harvesting.


Learning and education after sustainability

📥  Comment, New Publications

A rare event these days; I've had a new paper published – on Taylor & Francis Online in a special issue of the journal Global Discourse, edited by John Foster.  It's in response to a paper by Steve Gough in the special issue which is, itself, a review of John Foster's book After sustainability: denial, hope, retrieval.  All rather involved, but it worked as a process and it made me think about sustainability.  Of course, to make complete sense of what I write, you'll have to read Steve's paper, and John's book, and ...

This link will take you to the article.  To whet your appetite, this is how it ends:

My final point is to note that I read [Gough's] paper with the Abstract in mind because the last part of this holds out a particular promise for the paper.  It says:

The paper … identifies education as a common denominator; itself both a long term characteristic of evolved social behaviour and a short term social preoccupation.  It suggests that, when both these aspects are considered simultaneously, education has considerable unexplored potential for the reflective, iterative management of interactions between humans and the rest of nature, under uncertainty.“

At the end of the paper I asked myself whether it had done justice to that idea, and to that potential.  And I don’t think it quite does as much as it might have.  I thought about this as I read the last part of the paper, starting from “Modern Institutionalism …”.   I think that the way that Gough deals with Hodgson’s work (particularly through the 2007 quote) is valuable here.  It seems to me that the “people” that Hodgson was writing about must include the young, but I wonder if young people are sufficiently of a special case to warrant a separate comment.  They are, after all, subject to two forms of influence that most other people are not, both of which involve a moral guardianship: the home and family, and the school.  Both these institutions are intent on inculcating good habits, often under the general heading of educating, and sometimes are in sharp opposition to each other.  Think, for example, of Jamie Oliver’s school food trials and the Yorkshire mothers who thrust burgers through school railings to ensure that their children got, what was in their view, proper food.  Inevitably, they got little thanks for taking an active interest in their children’s welfare.

In the end, the most important of Gough’s points might just be this:

Education seems attractive as a solution because it offers the hope that people might come to make better choices for themselves, rather than be in any way compelled.”

Oh, if only all environmental educators saw things so clearly.


The Inaugural UK SDG Summit

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Here's an extract from the report of the inaugural UK SDGs Summit that was held last autumn.

The Inaugural UK SDGs Summit

The new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which came into effect on 1 January 2016, are a landmark agreement by all countries on a blueprint for a better future.   The inaugural UK SDG Summit was the UK's first high-level multi-stakeholder forum to advance national implementation of the SDGs.  The Summit, convened on 7 September 2016 in London, brought together 150 leaders and decision-makers from government, business, civil society and academia to explore what the SDGs mean for the UK, showcase existing commitments and implementation efforts, and identify what actions need to be taken collaboratively and by different sectors to achieve the goals.

Key discussion points

The SDGs provide a fundamentally new approach for addressing the social, environmental and governance challenges facing the UK and the world.  The SDGs framework provides a new way of articulating what a prosperous future looks like which is positive, comprehensive, tangible, measurable and relevant to the UK both domestically and internationally.  As such it provides opportunities for new conversations, partnerships and actions to help realise such a future.  We need to build on the growing momentum for action on the SDGs across all sectors.  There is already broad support and significant momentum for the SDGs from across all sectors in the UK, with a number of companies and other organisations already demonstrating the agenda’s practical uses and benefits.  This momentum was further demonstrated by the four sectoral statements of support for the SDGs launched at the Summit.

A way forward

Important starting points for taking implementation of the SDGs forward in the UK include:

  • Using the SDGs to build a vision for the UK's future and a plan to get us there.
  • Mapping how the UK is already performing against the SDGs – particularly to identify areas where we are not doing well.
  • Mapping existing activities from across sectors which are contributing to the SDGs, on which to build.
  • Developing the economic and strategic case to quantify a range of strategic, social, environmental and economic benefits in working towards and achieving the SDGs.
  • Developing tools, case studies and other resources to assist UK organisations in engaging with and contributing to the SDGs.

Collaboration and partnerships are critical to addressing the complexity of the SDGs.  Although partnerships can be challenging to build and maintain, they provide a range of opportunities.  To help forge strong partnerships, the SDGs should be used as a common starting point for discussion.  Communication and awareness raising is key to ensuring meaningful impact towards the SDGs.  It is important that a wide range of actors are engaged in addressing them – including government at all levels, business, civil society, academia and the broader public.  Currently the SDGs are neither well known nor well understood in the UK, so raising broad awareness of them is important.  To engage these actors, a positive vision of the SDGs should be articulated and an emotional connection built through stories showing what the agenda means for people’s own lives. ...

Interesting, you might say; promising even.  But why didn't I know about this meeting, you might add – or, if you're that way inclined: why wasn't I invited!

Well, that's because the summit took place in Sydney, and was about Australia.  This is the report.  We're still waiting for our summit to be even proposed, let alone held.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values was finally published in 1974 after being turned down by 121 publishers.  This remains a record for a successful book.

I have read it at least twice.  The first time was in 1976 after discovering that it had little to do with either Zen, motorcycles or maintenance.  Rather, as only perceptive reviewers discovered, it was about quality.  The Times obituary put it like this:

"... this idiosyncratic work can be construed as a far-reaching dissertation on the relationship between science and mysticism; mind versus machine; the western idea of enlightenment through reason versus the eastern idea of enlightenment through mystical experience.  At the heart of the book is the meaning and concept of “quality”."

I'm writing this now because Robert Pirsig, its author, died on April 24.  I have the copy on my desk as I write this: so creased and bruised with detached pages that I suspect I may have read it more than twice.  It was one of the great books of my life.

The last time I read it (I think) was around 2002 when the university sector was being hammered into line by the ludicrously-named Quality Assurance Agency.  Its hit squads toured campuses ensuring that universities conformed to its norms and standards in terms of teaching.  As Kipling so nearly put it:

England's on the anvil from the severn to the Tyne.

We're being hammered, hammered, hammered; hammered into line.

Pirsig helped me through what was the lowest ebb of my long university career.  It also regularly came to mind during those dark days when the HEA and QAA got together to try to set standards for ESD in universities.  QAA didn't understand sustainability and the HEA didn't understand quality; neither seemed to really understand what universities were for in a free society.  Whatever became of all those ideas, I wonder ...

The front cover of my copy of the Corgi paperback says: "This book will change the way you think and feel about your life."  It did.  And on the inside, just before Part 1 begins, there is this:

And what is good, Phaedrus,

And what is not good– 

Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

RIP QAA.  No one will miss you.


SDGs for the UK?

📥  Comment, New Publications

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has produced a report on the SDGs.  This is the summary:

By adopting Agenda 2030 the Government has committed itself to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals - or the Global Goals - in the UK as well as overseas.  However, the Government’s doughnut-shaped approach - which is to see the Goals as something for the UK to help other countries do, rather than drawing on other countries’ experiences in implementing the goals here at home- suggests that it has little interest in, or enthusiasm for, maximising the opportunities and benefits presented by the Goals.  Successful implementation would not only encourage greater cross-departmental collaboration and policy coherence in Government, it would bring economic, social and environmental benefits to the UK.  The Business & Sustainable Development Commission have estimated that the economic prize to business of implementing the Goals could be worth up to US$12 trillion by 2030.  As the UK leaves the EU, the Government has a once in a generation opportunity to form a cross-party consensus about the direction of travel of the UK.  The Goals should form the basis of that new consensus and this should be enshrined into law.  All new government policies should be assessed for how they contribute towards achieving the Goals so that Britain in 2030 is a stronger, fairer, healthier society in which no one is left behind.

Raising awareness and encouraging engagement with the Global Goals will increase the number of people and organisations able to contribute towards meeting the Goals.  But today few people in the UK know about them.  The Prime Minister’s recent statement in response to an open letter from leading businesses ‘that we, as governments, international institutions, businesses and individuals, need to do more to respond to the concerns of those who feel that the modern world has left them behind’ is a good start.  However, the Government seems more concerned with promoting the Goals abroad, and has undertaken no substantive work to promote the Goals domestically or encourage businesses, the public sector and civil society to engage with the Goals and work towards meeting them.  The Government should work with the BBC and other national media to launch a national campaign to raise public awareness of the Goals.  It should also support initiatives designed to encourage businesses and others to contribute towards meeting the Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals represent a positive and ambitious commitment to develop sustainably from this generation to the next.  We will only achieve the Goals if the Government provides strong leadership and a high level of ambition from the very top - something which has been lacking.  There is no voice at the top of Government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the Goals and the interests of future generations.  In order to address this accountability gap the Government should appoint a Cabinet-level Minister in the Cabinet Office with strategic responsibility for implementing sustainable development, including the Goals, across Government.  The Government should also publish an implementation report and commit to participate in a voluntary national review by 2018, and every three years after.  We are concerned that the Government appears to have changed its mind about the ONS developing a set of national indicators.  This suggests an attempt to bury data which will be seen by the public - and us - as going against the spirit of the Goals.

You can see the whole thing here.

It's instructive to note the witnesses that were called:

  • Abigail Self, Head of Sustainable Development Goals, Office for National Statistics,
  • Dr Graham Long, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University,
  • Elizabeth Stuart, Head of Programme, Sustainable Development Goals, Overseas Development Institute
  • Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva,
  • Geoff Lane, Senior Partner, UK Sustainability and Climate Change Team, PwC,
  • Dr Christine Chow, Associate Director, Hermes Investment Management
  • Dominic White, Head of International Development Policy, WWF,
  • Stefano D’Errico, Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning Manager (IIED)
  • Nienke Palstra, Policy and Advocacy Adviser, UNICEF UK
  • Dr Carl Wright, Secretary-General Emeritus, Commonwealth Local Government Forum
  • Dr David Pencheon, Director, Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England and Public Health England
  • Catherine Pearce, Director of Future Justice, World Future Council
  • James Wharton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development,
  • Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, Cabinet Office,
  • Gwen Hines, Director, International Relations Division, DFID
  • Richard Curtis and Kate Garvey, co-founders of Project Everyone

Given their complaints about the lack of awareness and engagement within the UK, it's odd, perhaps, that there were no witnesses from educational programmes that focus on global learning (etc), or that Global Pearson wasn't called.  Similarly, where was the input from Wales where ESDGC has been the spirit of the land for many years now.  No sign of UNESCO UK either.

Their suggestion that:

"The Government should look at possible changes to the national curriculum to provide ways for young people to become agents of change and engage with the Goals. This would form part of a national conversation about the Goals with a view to enshrining them in law, so that future Governments put sustainable development at the heart of every new legislative proposal."

... suggests that the committee never got to hear about DfID's Global Learning Programme which has spread across schools despite DfE indifference.  The bloke from DfID didn't seem to mention it in his evidence.

This issue of how the SDGs should apply within the UK is an interesting question, however.  There's one approach which might focus minds: identifying within-UK targets for the goals; that is, replacing / reformulating the 176 existing targets with UK ones – or maybe English / Northern Irish / Scotland / Wales targets; or maybe ones particularly pertinent to communities.  Maybe Manchester would need different targets than Maidenhead.  Glasgow than Galashiels. Bangor than Brecon.  Etc.

It strikes me that the process of agreeing such goals would be a worthwhile exercise and might provide much needed clarity about the differences across these lands.


Meanwhile, I see that DfID has produced into own report on the goals: Agenda 2030: Delivering the Global Goals.  More on this later – maybe ...


Hail, Shakira

📥  Comment, New Publications

Goodbye, then, Malia; absolutely no one will miss you.

In a bold move, the NUS has bundled its terrible President off the stage after only a year in office.  Malia B was challenged by Shakira Martin whom I know as she was a member of the NUS Sustainability Advisory group upon which I have the honour to sit.  As I'm out of touch with day-by-day events at NUS I didn't know that Shakira was standing.  She'd have had my vote had I known (and had I got one) as she will bring a welcome interest in student welfare (as well as sustainability) to the office.

Congratulations, Shakira.  Much deserved.  Well done, NUS.


EAUC reaches parts others can only dream of

📥  Comment, News and Updates

EAUC has made what must have been a hurried submission to the government's 'Building our Industrial Strategy' green paper.  I say this because it seems the only way to explain this sentence:

"The combined budget of our members is some £25 billion, with responsibility for the education and training of over 2 million students supported by half a billion staff."

If this isn't an egregious typo, the sector must have expanded since I retired.  Still, it's only a response to government ...

I'm sure EAUC will let you see the whole thing if you ask nicely – then you'll be able to play that much-practised game, Count the Cliché.


BBC nature programmes on TV are good for you

📥  Comment, News and Updates

So says a less than critical article on the Mother Nature Network [MNN].

Well, to be picky, it actually says that "Watching nature documentaries boosts happiness.  Anxiety and fear give way to joy and awe when we tune into scenes of the natural world", but given that the study was commissioned by the BBC, it amounts to much the same thing.  The article starts:

"Need a mood boost, but don't have time to hit the great outdoors? Try the next best thing and turn on a nature documentary.  A recent study has found that tuning into nature documentaries can have an immediate impact on increasing happiness and reducing overall stress. The study was commissioned by the BBC to mark the launch of its new critically-acclaimed nature series "Planet Earth II."

There you are.  Could it be that it's the happier people who tend to watch nature programmes?  MNN goes on:

"Using special facial recognition software fed by webcams, the research team analyzed the expressions in real-time of 7,500 participants from the U.S., UK, South Africa and Australia.  Before and after watching clips from the series, the volunteers were also asked to complete short surveys on their emotional well-being.  According to the study results, those engaged in watching nature programming had significant increases in feelings of awe, amazement, wonder; curiosity, interest and wanting to explore.  Conversely, feelings of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and low energy were significantly lowered."

You can read the report all this is based on here.  I wonder if people get the same reaction from watching those meerkat TV adverts.

Remembering Henry Hobhouse

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I mentioned Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: The 6 plants that transformed mankind the other day.  I read this many years ago now, along with his  Seeds of Wealth: 5 plants that made men rich.  I read his Forces of Change: an unorthodox view of history relatively recently.

It was my desire to be sure of the full wording of these titles that led me to the Guardian obituary (April 2016) and to the knowledge of his death.  Given that Hobhouse was a conservative economic historian (with no academic training), the Guardian obit was generous:

"Where Hobhouse succeeded lay in inventing the form and mixing meticulous research with the brio of a feature writer on deadline. He was no botanist, economist or academic, but he had a voluminous capacity for facts, loved an argument, knew instinctively what was interesting and, above all, how to tell a dramatic story.

So it was that he unearthed arresting facts such as the practice of giving coca leaves every 45 minutes to the impoverished workers in Bolivian tin mines, not only to ward off altitude sickness but also to reduce the appetite. He discovered how the Jesuits exploited the antimalarial properties of quinine, that HMS Victory was made largely from American wood and that the British drank more wine in the middle ages than they do today. These and a thousand other observations made for intensely readable history and gained the respect of academic historians."

At his funeral, Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

"Once people read it, they saw history in a new way.  He discovered relationships that nobody else had thought about, but once he had they were stunned that they had not managed to think of them before.”

I think that's spot on.  My favourite insight is his notion that the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century CE meant that much intellectual talent was released into secular life to the significant and lasting benefit of civil society.  Rather obvious when you think about it.  I hadn't but Hothouse had.  His are three of the best books I have ever read; as they are all about the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of globalisation, they remain pertinent today.

If you read them, you will likely be informed, astonished and (if you're a Guardian reader) probably annoyed every 6 pages.  This will be good for you.


Who needs satire any more?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A few years ago, The Onion ran a story about the growth of teen suicides in the USA.  They reported that the large numbers involved were seen as less of a problem than the evidence of (il)literacy in their suicide notes.  Judging by a recent 'Staff Editorial' in the Wellesley College Student Newspaper (essential reading), the literacy problem has not gone away.

Here's the editorial ...

Many members of our community, including students, alumnae and faculty, have criticized the Wellesley community for becoming an environment where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right. Many outside sources have painted us as a bunch of hot house flowers who cannot exist in the real world. However, we fundamentally disagree with that characterization, and we disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

This being said, the tone surrounding the current discourse is becoming increasingly hostile. Wellesley College is an institution whose aim is to educate. Students who come to Wellesley hail from a variety of diverse backgrounds. With this diversity comes previously-held biases that are in part the products of home environments. Wellesley forces us to both recognize and grow from these beliefs, as is the mark of a good college education. However, as students, it is important to recognize that this process does not occur without bumps along the way. It is inevitable that there will be moments in this growth process where mistakes will happen and controversial statements will be said. However, we argue that these questionable claims should be mitigated by education as opposed to personal attacks.

We have all said problematic claims, the origins of which were ingrained in us by our discriminatory and biased society. Luckily, most of us have been taught by our peers and mentors at Wellesley in a productive way. It is vital that we encourage people to correct and learn from their mistakes rather than berate them for a lack of education they could not control.  While it is expected that these lessons will be difficult and often personal, holding difficult conversations for the sake of educating is very different from shaming on the basis of ignorance.

This being said, if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted. If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others, then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions. It is important to note that our preference for education over beration regards students who may have not been given the chance to learn. Rather, we are not referring to those who have already had the incentive to learn and should have taken the opportunities to do so. Paid professional lecturers and politicians are among those who should know better.

We at The Wellesley News, are not interested in any type of tone policing. The emotional labor required to educate people is immense and is additional weight that is put on those who are already forced to defend their human rights. There is no denying that problematic opinions need to be addressed in order to stop Wellesley from becoming a place where hate speech and casual discrimination is okay. However, as a community we need to make an effort to have this dialogue in a constructive and educational way in order to build our community up. Talk-back, protest videos and personal correspondences are also ways to have a constructive dialogue. Let us first bridge the gap between students in our community before we resort to personal attacks. Our student body is not only smart, it is also kind. Let us demonstrate that through productive dialogue.

The context of all this is the denial of platforms at the college to those whom the student elite disapprove of because of their opinions, and it was the sentence: "Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech" that got commentators excited – along with muddled thinking about what the Founding Fathers were up to when the constitution was constructed.

Maybe it (the editorial, that is) was all written in a hurry ...