Reorienting Education Toward Sustainability

The greatest dilemma that humanity faces today is an unprecedented need for large scale and rapid change.  Our situation is urgent, as the environmental and social challenges before us indicate.  We face a convergence of crises, from climate change and global warming, to the increasing number of environmental refugees and the effects of rampant consumerism.  All of which urgently call for action.  Although there is no universal solution to our vast array of problems, it is quite clear that we must change the ways by which we think, act, consume and waste, collectively.

Ultimately, many of the problems that face us today are the result of yesterday’s solutions.  We have arrived at our current situation only because we have been so successful.  Industrial and consumer outlooks have increasingly dominated our ways of thinking over the last two hundred years.  These ways of thinking have brought forth extraordinary successes beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

This is, in part, what makes our challenge so daunting.  We are faced with the reality that our old ways of doing things will no longer serve us, and yet they have been so astonishingly successful in the past.  What needs to change is an established norm, and such changes do not come about easily.  In his book, The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge writes that the Industrial Revolution “did not simply change the way we worked; it transformed the way we lived, the way we thought about ourselves, and the way we viewed the world.  Nothing like it had ever occurred before” (2008, p. 14).  This is the magnitude of change that is needed today.

The impacts the Industrial Revolution had on quality of life were undeniable.  As industrial expansion continued into the twentieth century, life expectancy in the industrial world roughly doubled, literacy jumped from 20 percent to over 90 percent, and benefits hitherto unimaginable sprang up in the form of products (from private cars to iPods), services (from air travel to eBay), and astounding advances in medicine, communication, education, and entertainment.  With this kind of success, it is little wonder that the side effects of the Industrial Age success story went largely ignored. (Senge, 2008, p. 15)

The dominant modes of thinking of the Industrial Age have produced astounding progress and success, but also severe side effects.  The very advances that have enabled such perceived increases in quality of life are also the causes of critical imbalances in the natural orders of things.  Advances in industrial production and consumption of goods, among other advances, have contributed to several unsustainable crisis situations, both socially and ecologically.

Although the concept of sustainability is not new, it is being discussed more frequently.  In a recent guide, the steering committee for the Saskatchewan Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Network (2009) notes that “calls for sustainability date back to the 1970s, when the combined effects of human population growth and resource consumption started to appear at the global level” (p. 4).  As the discourse around the concept of sustainability develops, it is becoming increasingly clear that in order for significant change to take place, a shift in the role of education is necessary.  “It is also clear that sustainability is ultimately about transforming the values, beliefs, and attitudes that support, and are reinforced by Western industrialized cultures” (SaskESD Network, 2009).  Dr. Glenn Sutter, curator of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and chair of the Saskatchewan ESD Network has written that in order “to foster a culture of sustainability, we need to develop appropriate technologies, policies, and regulations at various scales, but these need to be supported by a fundamental shift in our thinking and actions, ostensibly through education” (2005, p. iv).

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One Response

  1. “Many of the problems that face us today are the result of yesterday’s solutions.”
    So true!
    Though there is a great need for a large scale and rapid change, the question is: Can it really result in sustainable change? (Refer to Swami Vivekananda’s lecture on the true method of reform : http://ow.ly/2uxNl )
    Thanks for the book review…
    We’re also trying to awaken the people in India for the necessary revolution 🙂

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