Just don’t mention the other C word

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

An email yesterday from the SDE Network in Scotland, announcing a new year conference.  It said:

We are delighted to formally invite you to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development Conference jointly hosted by the Scottish Government and the SDE Network.  This year’s theme is

‘Collaboration – Not Competition’.

Our guest speakers will explore the cultural idea that economic competition is the way to increase standards of living/quality of life.  We will be asking if this thinking holds up to scrutiny or if there is now evidence that economic co-operating might be the better, more productive route.  Whilst practical workshops and seminars will explore these themes further and provide you with practical tools to take back to your workplace.

Another example (?) I wondered, of how collectivist the Scotland mindset is determined to be.  Why wasn’t this called “Collaboration and Competition”, I muttered half-aloud?  Then I thought back to the book that Stephen Gough and I wrote in 2003, which explored all this.  At the end of Chapter 7, referring to a number of case studies in the book, we wrote this …

In Chapter 5 we noted O’Riordan’s (1989) distinction between two world views, the one conservative and nurturing, the other radical and manipulative.  All four of our examples, and most others we could have chosen, exhibit predominantly the former.  In Chapter 1 we drew attention to cultural theory and its identification of four competing, but also mutually interdependent rationalities: the hierarchical; the egalitarian; the individualistic and the fatalistic.  A glance at both the social ambitions and the pedagogies of our examples reveal that they are overwhelmingly inclined towards an egalitarian view, in which things make sense if they are fair and just.  In many ways this does great credit to everyone involved in their design.

However, the following passage, focusing on the environmental management of land degradation, illustrates some of the difficulties at a practical, rather than a purely conceptual level.

"A reader ideologically inclined to the left may put forward the notion that under ‘real’ socialism, even if that could be defined an agreed upon, the necessary co-operation between producers themselves, and between them and a democratic and representative state, would be easier to obtain.  However, in all societies there will continue to be conflicts between private and collective interests, between local and national priorities in land use and management." (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987, 83).

The problem in our examples (which we chose because they are the best available in the English language) is that other worldviews and rationalities are missing or, at least, insufficiently explicit.  A sustainable world will not only be a world of justice and collaboration because no such world is possible.  For example, when the UNESCO multimedia programme says of ‘sustainability’ that “it will be shaped at the local level by the mosaic of cultures that surround the globe and which contribute to the decisions that each country, community, household and individual makes”, it overlooks the fact that the very essence of many cultures has been formed in opposition to others, and that good decisions at the level of a country, for example, may be bad ones for particular households or individuals.  Similarly, when Forum for the Future’s eighth ‘feature of a sustainable society’ requires that: “The structures and institutions of society promote stewardship of natural resources and development of people”, it is hard to see how this can be done without losers being created who are, whatever the curriculum tells them, unlikely to be pleased about it.  Other than in our imagined Utopias (Berlin, 1990), these are issues which cannot be wished, legislated, or educated away, no matter how some might want to.

Of course, this is not to dismiss our examples.  They make a real contribution to sustainable development through learning: but they are not complete.  Whatever sustainable development ultimately looks like it will need to have room for human ingenuity and inventiveness in manipulating the environment, competition for environmental and economic assets, rule-making, rule-breaking, and the self-interest of individuals and groups.  It will even need to accommodate a disillusioned (and one would hope one day small) minority who think sustainable development is a plot, a trick, or a bore; alongside generosity, justice and equity.  If we could remove from the picture complexity, uncertainty, risk and necessity it might all be different.  But we cannot. The greatest irony here is that even institutions which unequivocally advocate egalitarian values and collaborative practices have no choice but to compete among themselves and with others.

Indeed, as evidence from all around us (including from Scotland) confirms.


Berlin I (1990) The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West.  In I Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. London: Fontana

Blaikie P & Brookfield H (1987) Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen

O’Riordan T (1989) The challenge for environmentalism.  In: R Peet and N Thrift (eds), New Models in Geography. London: Unwin Hyman

Scott WAH & Gough SR (2003) Sustainable development and learning: framing the issues. London: Routledge

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations


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