Manchester, Bedford and the Steady State

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

This is a brief review of the discussion paper that Susan Brown, from the University of Manchester, has written for Steady State Manchester [SSM], and which I wrote about on Tuesday.

We learn from the Introduction to the paper (page 5) that Steady State Manchester (SSM) is concerned with how we transition to a ‘steady state culture’ – by which SSM means ways of shared living “where people thrive without harming the planet”.   SSM adds that a steady state culture emerges through and develops local economies founded on a ‘viable economic model; that is, a model which recognises a dependence on the environment, on the social structures the environment supports and on the well being of the individuals that make up those social structures.

There is a lot packed into these brief sentences, and some of it needs to be contested.  The first thing to say is that SSM is not the only group interested in people being able to thrive without harming the planet; arguably, everyone interested in sustainability / sustainable development would want that – more or less – although it does depend on what ‘thrive’ means, and who gets to decide this.  And I take “harming the panet” to mean really buggering up the biosphere rather than dropping the odd bit of litter or dog doo-doo, deplorable and distressing though these are.  It seems reasonable to conclude that, in SSM’s view, thriving implies ‘shared living’ as they link the two phrases closely together.  I am not really clear what shared living means, or what the implications are for those of a more individualistic turn of mind (and I don't just mean hermits).

The second thing to note is the stress on the need for a viable economic model: one that acknowledges the dependency of individuals and social groups on the planet.  I am sure that SSM thinks that this is not the economic model that we currently have, and many would agree with them.  However, a key question (but not for today) is whether such a viable model has to be a steady state one.

The next section of the paper shows the immensity of the task of transitioning to a steady state culture as this requires a “shift in underpinning understandings, values, and aspirations”.  That is, we shall have to change what we know, how we know it, how we think, what we value and what we want from life.  The point of the paper is that it is education (viewed broadly) that has a “crucial role to play in helping us make the transition”.  Or, I wonder, should that be that "in helping us want to make that transition".

Susan Brown asks:

“… what educational communications/activities can help shift understandings and values and develop the skills needed to make the transition to a steady state culture and the economy?”

In the space of a few lines on page 6, we’re told that

[i] education can be a primary force for change, enhancing the life chances of individuals and the workings of societies, and that ...

[ii] education tends to support change which accords with the values existing within society rather than striving to change those values.

And there is no contradiction here particularly when it comes to schools which tend to be conservative / status quo institutions.  Whilst they are capable of changing the lives of individuals for the better (I am one such), it’s always the case, for obvious reasons, that schools are easier to change by society than society is by schools.

Although the paper quotes Jacombs (2004) who describes education as "the most sophisticated instrument yet fashioned by society for its own conscious social evolution", that role is easier to see working in universities than in schools.  Indeed, some argue that it is the prime role of the research and scholarship that emanates from HE – and we might add technological evolution to the quote.  In schools, however, the instrument is a blunt one largely because learners don't learn what teachers teach.

It is undoubtedly the case that there is much questioning of the extent to which current educational provision (again viewed broadly) shores up economic models based on growth, trade, markets, capitalism, etc (which some term neoliberal), and which are taken to be inimical to both a well-functioning biosphere and human (and perhaps other) well-being.  But it's not obvious to everybody who thinks about these matters that a steady state culture would solve all the problems, and it is certainly to be hoped that were a transition to a steady state culture begin, there would be as much reflexive questioning of the appropriateness and effectiveness about what's emerging as there is of the current system.

We’re told (page 7) that, in a transition to a steady state culture, there would be a need for the following:

  • an emphasis on place-based education
  • a focus on interdisciplinarity
  • an open, inquiring, empathic mind-set

There’s nothing wrong with any of these (and much that’s right about them), but I’m sure geographers would want to say that they exist already in most schools – and environmental educators are always banging on about such things.  There also doesn’t seem to be anything particularly steady state about them, as far as I can tell.

The main body of the paper then helpfully goes on (pages 9 to 30) to ask what might the educational landscape for a steady state culture look like, and discusses wide range of issues in 5 sections:

  1. Skills
  2. A diversified learning landscape
  3. Involvement and contributions
  4. Communication
  5. The Information Landscape

The issues covered are not all the usual sort of thing you find in papers like this, and they warrant a read (and I shall return to these at some point – though not today).  The issues include, for example:

  • 1.3 Legal literacy
  • 1.4 Engagement with technology
  • 2.3 Grassroots learning
  • 2.5 Local Apprenticeships
  • 3.1 Ranking and value
  • 3.2 Access, accreditation and assessment

The points that that Susan Brown choose to emphasise in this core section of the paper included the following, and they illustrate the radical nature of what's envisaged:

  • We will need to nurture and value a much broader range of skills than are currently focussed on and ditch unhelpful dichotomies between manual skills and academic skills;
  • Informal and formal learning communities will need to work more closely together, with formal institutions finding ways of responding to the initiatives of local communities;
  • Formal institutions will need to significantly widen access to the knowledge and expertise they hold;
  • We’ll all be learners and teachers, drawing at whatever stage in life on our natural inclinations to learn and communicate information, knowledge and skills to others;
  • A focus on communication skills will be central to shaping a Steady State. Kernel to that focus will be listening skills, empathy and an understanding of the value of pluralistic conversations;
  • We’ll need to value and invest in a sense of ‘place’, with all of the rediscovery, innovation and creativity that this will entail.

But in the end, there was too much is this transitioning to get into the paper as Susan Brown notes that she might have discussed the following:

– the skills we need to establish local financial systems: this is an area that those with significantly more knowledge of such systems than I have may be able to address from an educational perspective.

– how education can explicitly tackle the deeply ingrained value systems associated with ‘over consumption’.

– the demands on our time that prevent many of us from engaging in community activities.

– the levels of playfulness, fun and imagination that will be needed as we learn new skills.

And so on – although (again) none of the above seems particularly steady-state to me.

Steady State Manchester is keen to understand how education can help shape a steady state culture and Susan Brown has done a useful job, I'd say, in helping them (and the rest of us) think about this.  This is part of the final part of her conclusion:

"There are a growing range of educational initiatives; a few alluded to in this paper, which are changing the learning landscape in ways that can shape a Steady State Culture.  The number of such initiatives needs to substantially increase and their activities supported and nurtured.  For this to happen we need profound change in the ways in which we think about education.  Through writing this paper I realize the vocabulary we use in most formal educational contexts is constrained, and relates, without many of us consciously realizing it, to competition, status, authority, recognition, power, intellect etc. ...

There is, undoubtedly, something in thus, but it's not the whole picture by any means and it's not helpful to hint that it is.  Anyway, should we really be opposing 'intellect' and 'competition'?   Will Premiership football be frowned upon in steady state Manchester I wonder.  And will status, authority, recognition, or power diminish?  I don't believe that for a minute.  I have thought for a long time that our education system has always been predominantly in the service of the economy – just as it would be, I think, were SSM to come to power.

The paper ends (it follows on from the previous quote) like this:

... This means that even when we wish to change education we end up reverting to default educational understandings and processes that are not conducive to shaping a steady state.  For them to be so they need to be fused at a fundamental level to the vocabulary of mutuality, shared ownership, collaboration, humility, creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination."

Again, there's nothing wrong with (and much that’s right about) creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination, but it's not helpful to think that they are wholly lacking from the current system – particularly, perhaps in primary schools.

My final thought (for now) is that I'm more likely (just) to found living in Manchester than in Bedford in 2045 – if I'm still around then, of course.  I say this because it looks more likely to be open-minded (only just though).  Mind you, my real plan is to keep on living (or dying) safely quartered down in Wiltshire where things are always steady.


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