Emphasising learning rather than behaviour

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Just before Christmas, I was asked if I'd write 400 words on "the link between education for sustainable development and behavior" for an "an international education for sustainable development project".  This is not the sort of invitation I get all that often, and the 400 words (max) was a worthy challenge.  So I gave it a go.  Here it is:

Education for sustainable development: putting learning before behaviour

It’s now clear that we shall need to learn how to live differently if the Earth is to enable everyone to live a life that, as Amartya Sen put it, they have reason to value.  Optimists may think we have made a good start, pointing to the steady shift to renewable energy, the decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the adoption of the sustainable development goals.  Meanwhile, those of a more pessimistic (they’d say realistic) turn of mind shake their heads and say: too little; too late.

Whether we’ll be able to change how we live through conventional socio-political processes characterised by consent and participation, or whether we shall be forced to change, will depend on how well and quickly we keep promises made on carbon and climate.  Given that these are government commitments, what can individuals and families do?

The need for such involvement has been acknowledged for over 40 years, usually in terms of behaviour change.  In 1970, IUCN called for codes of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality.  In 1990, we were told that the ultimate aim of education was shaping human behaviour, and that the strategies were known and the tools available.  Fifteen years on, the ESD Decade encouraged changes in behaviour to create a more sustainable future.

All this is well and good, but it privatises the problem by putting the onus on the individual, and there is much that individuals cannot achieve.  Recycling illustrates the difficulties.  If there are no local facilities for recycling the plastic packaging we’re now surrounded by, what can we do?  Acting individually to try to persuade a local council or supermarket to change their policies is useless, as social action and campaigning are needed.  People need to learn to work together to effect change so that everyone can participate.  Thus it’s fine if schools encourage students to create less waste, or get involved with fair trade, provided learning is prioritised.

WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report surely gets it right when it says:

“Sustainability and resilience will be achieved much faster if the majority of the Earth’s population understand the value and needs of our increasingly fragile Earth.  A shared understanding of the link between humanity and nature could induce a profound change that will allow all life to thrive in the Anthropocene.”

That is, learning needs to come before behaviour.


It remains to be seen whether it gets published.  I'll report back.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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