Reviewing the Manifesto launch

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I wasn't able to be at the launch of the Manifesto we all Want the other day.  Had I been there, however, I hope that I might have managed to write the sort of perceptive review that the University of Worcester's Paul Davis and Peng Li produced.  With their kind permission, here it is in full:

Briefing NoteRio+20 Manifesto Launch, Westminster, London, 17th December 2013.

The Manifesto Strategy:

Opening remarks concerned the long run aspiration for this venture.  One speaker (JW) identified a need to adopt a ‘journey-based’ approach that engages and argues with naysayers – but potential opponents were not really identified or given due regard throughout the meeting.  IP depicted the Manifesto not as an 'end document' but rather, a prompt for dialogue around sustainable futures.

Instead, relatively bold commitments were made by MPs to engage in governmental action – a domain with which they are more familiar, of course.  KB criticised the lack of explicit reference to sustainable development in provisions of the Education Act.  It was noted that national curriculum requirements for sustainable development education in schools were present in early years, but that an unexplained break then occurred around Keystage 4, when that requirement lapsed.  The Shadow Minister undertook to incorporate the sustainable development theme more consistently into a revised Act and ensure alignment with sustainable development goals through enhanced inter-departmental discipline.  The emphasis was on cross-cutting action to make sustainable development goals an autonomic function of future governmental action.  KB signalled an intention to review curricular policy on election.  He observed, based on experience, that policy fragmentation frequently blunts ministerial edict.

Throughout the opening addresses, there was recurring use of phrases like 'our home'.  These themes of sharing and inherent unity underscored the strong appeal to collective interest and natural constituencies that was a mark of the session as a whole.  This theme recurred.  AF (SEEd) noted that efforts at environmental education have a long lineage – but again, the theme is still very partially present in the National Curriculum: it is not embedded, not ‘made safe’.  This suggests resistance – which could be active or (more difficult) passive in nature.  She posed the question of how to unlock that resistance.  She appealed, as part of this, to common needs and collective interests of a presumed collective whole, or a movement.  What one might expect, in this depiction of the future, is a high degree of volatility in stakeholder identities in future sustainable development politics.  This would feature much entryism and potentially, the formation of new alliances.

Social Identities and Stakes in Sustainable Development:

The Manifesto talks of the ‘moral responsibility’ of the education and training sector as a whole to argue the case for sustainable development.  It does not really specify exactly who might be expected to do what in shaping social norms.  The witness sessions addressed social roles in a ‘better future’, albeit in conflicting ways.  In this, young people were depicted as ‘custodians’, but it is notable that such an appeal to future generations carries no legal status in either English or European law.  As such, it is easy to talk in such terms, for it is without prejudice.

DA (NUS) was resolved that respondents to a succession of NUS surveys wanted to learn more about sustainable development.  He portrayed them as the primary stakeholders in future development.  This was based on a categorical assertion that a green economy will 'clearly solve our problems'.  If this were to come to pass, then the conduct of many others (businesses, governments, other citizens) would reflect that status.  Their conduct would demonstrate the moral care associated with normative stakeholder practice.  It evidently does not do so at present.

Further to Higher Education interventions, AT wryly noted the legacy of cleverness (with clear shades of arrogance) underpinning the claims of many academics.  This social positioning did not well fit them to adopt some of the egalitarian stances required of a co-authored future.  She was persuaded that, given academics’ own consequentialist pressures (Research Excellence; module-specific perspective et cetera), sustainable development appeals to them needed to be based on opportunities that were closely aligned with wider academic realities.  Her work had also identified specific opportunities for both reflection and reflexion, as well as relevant academic networks for the sharing of good practice.  In the HE academic sphere, normalisation of sustainable development should be the goal.

MJ emphasised the current reality that sustainable development advocates were members of multiple communities and that this was a potential source of strength.  Heterogeneity was, she opined, crucial to the generation of innovation (by which one presumes that she intended social as well as technical innovation).  Her bête noir was a syndrome of passive role obedience.  This theme was also articulated in subsequent discussion by a London Headteacher, in an attack on the undue conformism that he associated with compliance with a hyper-detailed National Curriculum.

In many ways most radically, CL called for the complete transformation of existing relations.  She noted the poverty of measures of well-being based on Gross Domestic Product, echoing longstanding calls for  ‘GDP-plus’, Costa Rica indices and French joie de vivre valuations.  What was more significant, she emphasised some of the practices of sharing – which can be reinterpreted here to emphasise the principles of non-reciprocity (giving without expecting in return) and ideas of the gift economy.

Echoing these themes, SE underscored that sustainable development would concern a learning process, not just curricular content.  Having said that, it was clear that sustainability literacy was a goal and Higher Education was seen as playing a central role in achieving that.  Its meaning does need closer specification, though, since for now it remains an opaque idea.  In pursuing what is recognisably an Enlightenment aspiration, central diktat can play only a very limited role.  What will be required is change within universities, focusing on alignment between institutions and individuals.  Here, subsequent discussion of values and their importance across the entire educational system made it clear that these could function as an important alignment tool.

A statement ‘from the floor’ by MD on behalf of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (who are specifically involved in Business School morals) outlined their current approach to this actor.  A twin track approach was described: inspired and morally rooted practices based on coideation, on the one hand, and (as he termed it) ‘rod of iron’ accreditation processes, on the other.

Key to Speakers:

DA – Dom Anderson NUS
KB – Kevin Brennan MP
MD – Mark Dreswell, Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative
SE – Steve Egan, HEFCE Interim Chief Executive
AF – Ann Finlayson, SEEd
MJ – Miranda Jupp, Conservative Futures
CL – Caroline Lucas MP
AT –Ashling Tierney, University of Bristol PhD student
JW – Joan Walley MP

Paul Davis, Peng Li   18th December 2013

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates


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  • Sustainablilty literacy will be aided by reading the Royal Society of Arts Social Brain Centre's Dec 2013 Report "A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels" a free-downloadable pdf which draws on a UK-based survey that identifies the widespread phenomenon of' 'stealth denial' of which most of us are guilty. To quote: "This human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions"