Learning for Sustainability in times of accelerating change: a review

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I have been reading Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change, a new book edited by Arjen Wals & Peter Corcoran, and published by Wageningen Academic Publishers.   Here's my review ...

This is an ambitious book, and is weighty in every sense.  Its 31 chapters are set out in three sections: [1] Re-Orientating Science and Society (in light of unsustainability) – 10 chapters; [2] Re-Connecting People and Planet – 8 chapters; and [3] Re-Imagining Education and Learning – 13 chapters.  There is an Introduction by the editors and a Foreword and Afterword by Juliet Schor and Stephen Sterling, respectively.  Its 550 pages also include editor / author biographies.

All told, there are 74 authors, although two of the chapters account for 20 of these.  The book draws ideas from across continents, but it will surely have been a disappointment to the editors that the USA, UK and Canada, between them, contribute ~50% of the authors.  However, it is surely a merit of the book that its construction was an “organic”, rather than a pre-determined, process: a call using networks and social media for abstracts (80 resulted), a sifting of these and the commissioning of (50) chapters, a review of (~40) drafts received, resulting in the 31 final chapters.  You only have to look across the contents and authors to see how successful this strategy was in attracting a range of people, disciplines and ideas.  For sure, there is the odd, lurking, usual suspect re-writing (yet again) their well-nursed ideas – you will easily spot them – but let them be, and look carefully instead for the different voices and new insights that have emerged through this process.

I do not think that many people will read this text from cover to cover as you might a good novel, or, indeed, an authored text; I expect that the editors would be surprised if anyone tried, as it has not been designed in that way, despite its three section themes.  Its origins militate against this anyway as its organic construction means that it is harder to construct a coherent flow of ideas than it is with an authored book, or with a book whose contributors have been lined up (inorganically) to try to achieve such an outcome.  Anyway, the editors encourage readers to “weave their own journey” which is a suggestion that links to the visual metaphor employed to effect on the book’s cover.  They end their editors’ Introduction in this way:

“… the cover captures much of what this book is about – change, learning and the weaving together of stories that may provide clues for creating the wisdom we need to move towards a more sustainable world.”

Well, up to a point.

I think the Introduction is only partially successful in its task of helping the reader decide where to begin their “weaving”.  Although space is devoted to each of the book’s three sections, this comprises fewer than 3 pages, out of 10, with the rest devoted to background context.  As such, the Introduction is more about the idea of the book than its contents; indeed, as far as I can see, only 3 chapters out of the 31 warrant any mention at all, which makes me wonder what the editors think of how (or if) this “dynamic landscape” coheres.  I wanted the help of the editors to identify what they thought each of the chapters were contributing, so I turned to the Epilogue to see if this offered an evaluative overview, but to no avail.  The Afterword successfully draws threads together – though not really those woven throughout the book.

A strength of the book is its broad conception of where learning occurs, and the way that a range of contexts are exemplified.  The blurb on the back of the book tells us that it “explores the possibilities of designing and facilitating learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability” which is reasonably clear; as is for whom the book is deemed “essential reading”, with a lengthy list (again on the back): “educators, educational designers, change agents, researchers, students, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike”.  Actually: “all those who are concerned about the well-being of the planet and convinced of our ability to do better”.  Where, I briefly asked myself are the economists in this list, and I wondered which entrepreneurs the editors had in mind.  More significantly, however, is the wishful thinking implicit in such a list.  Just considering England, for a moment, I wondered how many of its 20,000-odd school head teachers will read it; how many of its 100+ university vice chancellors; how many exam board CEOs; how many senior civil servants and ministers in the Department of Education; how many … .  You get the picture, and know the answers as well as I do; this book will only be read by those at the education and sustainability nexus: all those engaged in EfS, ESD, ESE, LfS, EE, SDE, EL, LSD, etc.  As Juliet Schor put it in her Foreword:

“If you are reading these words, you are probably familiar with the grim data on the built-up of carbon in the atmosphere, the decline of biodiversity, growing water shortages, eco-system degredation and global poverty and hunger”.

I fear this will be the case, and what a pity it is as there is material here that others would surely benefit from reading.  The likely narrow audience is, in part, because those who are most convinced that education is relevant to “the well-being of the planet” in the sense it is used here, are thin on the ground; and also, in part, because of the insider language many chapters are written in.  You and I will read it because we like this sort of reading and writing; we’re good at it, in fact; it’s how we ply our trade, and make our livings.  It is probably not going too far to suggest that authors know all this, and for whom they are writing.  But is it going to help anyone be more effective on the political stage?  Well, just maybe, but they will need to read selectively.

So, what would I select?  What would I inter-weave?  In section one (Re-orienting science and society), perhaps I’d begin with Chapter 10 (Getting Active at the Interface) which is about social learning processes that involve real people and communities (the authors patronisingly call these “non-academic participants” – you see what I mean about the insider language).  Absorbing stuff, but how much more so had there been a parallel chapter written by these benighted, non-academic types.  Then there’s Chapter 8 (Building Resilient Communities) which argues that ...

“… resilient communities can be engendered by unleashing and strengthening their adaptive potential, through creating awareness of and space for emergent behaviour and, by laying an enabling foundation for competent collective behaviour.”

Just so, I thought, but looked in vain for local voices talking about how they were putting all their adaptive potential to use.

I thought too much of the writing was rather overly-assertive and self-regarding.  I didn’t agree with the author that “… ecology and environmentalisms need to consider ‘queerness’ as an alternative to the ideology of organic wholeness” (Chapter 7) in order to explore nature’s uncertainties, given the methodological choices available.  Nor did I think that “Deciding what is ‘right’, and then teaching others about that ‘rightness’” had much to do with education (Chapter 6).  Far too evangelical for me, and I wondered, in a chapter focused on ethics, why the views of the subject of a critical commentary were only mediated by an interviewer.  Was any thought given to rendering this a jointly-authored chapter, I wondered, given that the subject was, himself, an environmental educator?

On balance, I thought the other two sections were stronger.  In section two (Re-connecting people and planet), there are explorations of: using catastrophes for environmental learning; a dialogue about art, learning and sustainability; the use of practical outdoor tasks to build relationships; learning from indigenous American cultures; learning from traditional knowledge in China; lessons on relatedness from Grandmother Bear; the spirited practice of transformative education; and how reflective practice can enhance learning (for sustainability).  In section three (re-imagining education and learning), there are explorations of: how to handle knowledge uncertainty; using controversy to enhance learning; mental models in public perceptions of climate change; designing and developing learning systems for managing systemic change in a climate change world; building capacity for mitigating and adapting to climate change; living systems and institutional change; a dialogue around a frameworks-based education programme; Swiss failure to implement ESD; science education in Africa; the possibilities of organisational learning-based change; global storylines as transformative ecological learning; engaging youth in developing urban plans; and learning about energy and sustainability.

To illustrate something of the richness of the book, let me focus on two chapters, one in each of sections two and three.  These focus on congruent themes and, curiously, are written in a similar way to each other, but quite differently from other contributors.  They examine non-linear ideas and practice through writing dialogues.  Both chapters are about design, and about social transition to something more sustainable, or less unsustainable, perhaps.  Both, in their very different ways, emphasise “positive mental pictures of the future that feeds the transformative process … .”, though one of these is exploratory in nature, whilst the other sets out to be much more than this.  One is rather utopian; the other rejects this idea(l).  Both have significant things to say about education, and about sustainability – and about education and sustainability. [Note 1]

Chapter 12, by “academic, artist practitioners” Natalia Eernstman, Jan van Boeckel, Shelley Sacks and Misha Myers, is a dialogue with a focus on art, learning and sustainability.  The authors argue that, in order ...

“to effectively grasp and address sustainability challenges, … we need to expand our predominantly logocentric and linear ways of knowing with more presentational, embodied and sensory means.”

Their conversations focus on the following questions:

“From the position of a citizen, artist and educator, what are the key elements in a (learning) process that facilitates transitions towards sustainability in today’s society?  How do we understand art and what is the role of art within such processes?  And what does this mean for the way we shape and conduct learning?”

Although the actual dialogues took place between one author (Eernstman) with the others, separately, they have been written up as “an imaginal account … as if they had happened concurrently”, and the reader is invited to take a seat and listen in.  This works in an effective way and brought out, for me, issues that were as much a commentary on education and on sustainability, as on art:

“If a process isn’t open-ended enough it immediately shuts itself down, and people don’t engage with it.  If you impose too many restrictions, or ask questions that contain prescribed answers or directions, those things will immediately close off communication – you will know because people become disinterested.”

Although I know very little about their academic (and practitioner) worlds, I was drawn into their conversation, and inevitably, perhaps, wanted to join in.  Theirs is a scholarly take on the issues though not one I am used too; all the more valuable for that, of course.

Chapter 25, by Ken Webster and Paul Vare, is an abridged version of an extended dialogue between the authors in which each explores the other’s ideas about the other’s ideas: Vare begins by critiquing an aspect of the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation where Webster is Head of Innovation; Webster responds, Vare has another go, and then so does Webster.  Vare has the last word, for now; as with the discussion in Chapter 12, none of this is quite finished.  All this works very well, and is valuable because the ideas under critique seem rather important.  Webster sets out the thinking behind the Foundation’s circular economy ideas, based on Lakoff & Johnson’s arguments that all thinking involves frameworks:

“All choices depend on the frameworks we use, furthermore these frameworks are mostly unconscious and not infinitely varied; the commonality comes from the use of shared metaphors and groups of metaphors in humans which are based on our physicality.  In this model of how we think there is no meaningful learning without its framework or context … .”

There is then a clear review of the Foundation’s assumptions about learning.  Vare uses the ESD 1 / ESD 2 conceptual framing as a means of critique of the Foundation’s ideas and activities, attempting to identify which aspects of its work are ESD 1 or ESD 2 [Note 2].  It is a friendly critique, but a pointed one which focuses on what some perceive as the neglect in the Foundation’s work on social justice.  As Vare notes ...

“Attending to resource flows will be of little consequence to most of humanity if we don’t simultaneously address issues of access and equity.  Solving problems in one sphere without heed to the implications elsewhere is unlikely to provide a lasting solution.”

This is all excellent, though perhaps I should not be the one saying it, given that I work closely with both Webster and Vare, and with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and because I’d had a very minor hand in the co-construction of the text, as they are kind enough to acknowledge.

Both these chapters stand out for me because the writers are unafraid to expose their ideas to critique, and it is a pity that more contributions to the book did not adopt a similarly reflexive stance, rather than being content with promoting them.  I have not done justice to the richness of these two chapters in this review, and suspect that each may well need to be read more than once if what they have to offer is to be fully absorbed.  This is not because they are hard to read, but because they are worth reading – and reading together.

As I noted, earlier, Stephen Sterling’s Afterword draws some threads together.  He does this with the help of an Irving Berlin lyric which affords him a teasing metaphor:

There may be trouble ahead, … Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance, Let’s face the music and dance.”

Sterling adopts a positive, though cautionary, tone (balancing what’s possible, with what’s unlikely) as his quote from AtKisson (2011: 21) [Note 3] illustrates:

“… the good news is that this is a transformation already underway.  The bad news comes in the form of a challenge: How fast can we make … beneficial changes happen?”

Although brief, Sterling’s is a broad-ranging text packed with issues and comment: a concentrated distillation of his work and ideas over time, and a pointing forwards, for example, in his discussion of the advantages of an anticipative learning / education approach which represents a “willingness, openness and intention to learn in response to perceived innovation, threat or opportunity.”  This ties in well with a neat metaphor about a car with three drivers heading towards an abyss with the drivers wanting to take heed of, ignore, and deconstruct (respectively) the warning signs.  This is far too familiar for any comfort; in fact, we are all in that car, academics included.  Sterling ends the book like this:

“… while many are like Irving Berlin’s dancers – content to party yet dimly aware the bill is as yet unpaid – we need to demonstrate a much better party is possible, one that can take us through the long night and usher in a new dawn”.

Indeed we do, but my reading of Berlin is not quite Sterling’s.  The song ends:

“Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance
Let's face the music and dance.
Soon we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune and then
There may be teardrops to shed
So while there's moonlight and music and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance.”

I think that Berlin’s dancers are fully aware there’s a bill to be paid, and that they will have to pay it; they are just making the most of what circumstances have to offer before it arrives.  We are not so aware, I think, and therein lies the pathos of it all.  Although there may be glimpses of some slight lightening of the darkness in this book, there are not many.  But, then, it’s unlikely to be our generation who will have to pay the bill, or whose tears will be shed.  A pity, for that might concentrate minds wonderfully.


1. There is a third chapter [#17] that involves separate contributions of a number of authors, and which is written up, in part at least, as a dialogue.  I have not dwelt on it in this review as, to me at least, it does not illustrate the sort of author to author challenge of the other two chapters.

2. The irony of my approval of such insider language is not completely lost on me.  Thanks to SM for reminding me of this!

3. AtKisson A (2011) The Sustainability Transformation: How to accelerate positive change in challenging times. London, UK: Earthscan

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • See also Yannick Rumpala, The Search for “Sustainable Development” Pathways As a New Degree of Institutional Reflexivity, Sociological Focus, Volume 46, Issue 4, 2013, pages 314-336.