Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Next Steps in Education for Sustainable Development

The realisation has become widespread that globally there are simply not enough resources and insufficient sinks for the wastes generated to enable economic growth in a business as usual manner to continue. The characteristics of business as usual are shown in this diagram (fig 1). It is a linear Take-Make-and-Dispose arrangement whose major output is waste, alongside a much smaller volume of useful goods and services.

Full_85fab041f582d2179440ca714dda4bd4ec9c3fd4.jpg © Richard Crookes

These characteristics have evoked a response in kind from those with responsibility for environmental protection: consume less, produce less waste in manufacture, recycle wastes, or dispose carefully. In education it has often been seen as a challenge for technology to assist waste minimisation or improve waste treatment or provide alternative energy sources. The watchword in both contexts is ‘eco-efficiency’.

Increasingly however, as we bump against resource and waste limits and the weakening of the ecosphere’s ability to maintain its services (clean air, viable soils, fresh water, diversity etc) there has been a renewed interest in system design. China for example has a long history of sustaining large populations through integrated food and farming methods where nutrients are retained and benign energy flows harnessed effectively. These systems persist despite the disruptions caused by cheap fossil fuels.

In industrial systems such an integrated approach is described as a ‘circular economy’, a closed materials loop that is powered increasingly by current sunshine rather than buried sunshine. It is also a system where toxicity is low and falling and where natural and social capital is restored so that improvements in the quality of life continue to be possible. It is modelled after living systems, that is taking the principles which sustain ecological systems and applying them to the economy. It is characterised in this diagram (fig 2). Since living systems don’t create certain types of technical materials – metals and polymers for example – these materials must become cycled at a distance from the environment. The underlying principle is consistent in both biological and technical cycles: that waste = food and materials be safe and energy, as mentioned, be increasingly based around renewables.
The significance of this model to the prospects for prosperity in a materials and energy constrained world of increasing population and aspiration cannot be underestimated. Even in heavily polluted China:
If we are to succeed…it is very important to develop a circular economy based on cradle-to-cradle design principles.
Madame Deng Nan, China’s Party Secretary for Science and Technology.
In the West this model is often called a ‘cradle to cradle’ or closed loop economy and its proponents insist that it should not be seen as an environmental movement, but as a different way of thinking: a design philosophy. Arguing that if design is an expression of human intention then we could usefully have a positive plan!
It’s about design, quality and about respecting other people and their right to exist. The debate about the environment is characterised by a level of ‘guilt management’, with a rhetoric stressing the need ‘to minimise’ and ‘avoid’ rather than ‘to optimise’ and ‘support’. This is tantamount to telling people that they don’t have the right to be here. But there is nothing wrong with consumption, as long as it makes a positive contribution to our surroundings.
Pr. Michael Braungart
The details of this design philosophy can be found in Michael Braungart and William Mcdonough’s book Cradle to Cradle and it is beyond the scope of this short introduction to elaborate on its contents and I turn instead to its implications for education, in general and more specifically.

General Considerations


The ‘circular economy’- really the circular materials and monetary economy- represents a different perspective or framework for thinking. Cognitive science tells us that all abstract thought is metaphorical (1) and that we cannot escape using frameworks built around core metaphors, but equally, escaping the dominant existing framework, which is essentially a mechanistic worldview (fig 1), is very difficult and will be resisted e.g. facts which don’t fit existing, dominant frameworks are routinely discarded by the mind/brain. Shifting to a new model requires rewiring the brain! Educationally there is large task to be done in comparing and contrasting a circular economy (fig 2) with existing linear models on a framework basis. This is big picture stuff. It is, after all, a question of philosophy, of ideas as much as what to do. To succeed the new model will have to reveal its advantages over the old. (2) But why bother?

We are caught in a multi toothed trap: the end of an era of cheap fossil fuel energy, threatens the surplus, the economic growth the financial systems needs to exist , it threatens food production and prices are trending upwards globally; disruption to climate is the flip side to fossil energy use of course and if that were not enough OECD economies have been experiencing jobless growth and aging populations.

To say the least education needs to have a positive and constructive response which addresses the possibilities as well as the immense challenges of transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy. For schools, colleges and universities this is particularly in re-skilling, rethinking and redesigning radically. As business guru Amory Lovins said in a recent interview, when asked about thinking outside the box ‘There is no box.’(4) A new economy, not just ‘green’ jobs, but restored natural and social capital set within a revised framework. Currently there are very few new, coherent and prosperity orientated models available except some form of circular economy and it therefore has a clear place in what we teach: even if it is to ask ‘if not this then what?’ There is also an urgency about change in such circumstances. The financial and economic crisis of 2008-2010 (?) is instructive- a collapse which cost the USA for example more than World War 2, the Marshall Plan the Korean and Vietnam Wars all rolled into one was widely deemed a surprise (perhaps a better general understanding of feedback and systems would have helped) But other more profound surprises might await in the real world of resources and energy.

An Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) approach based on this design philosophy ‘joins the dots’ around what it is we are trying to achieve – transition and it simplifies, in a big picture way (ah ha … I see!) enabling schools, colleges and universities to develop leadership practices that join up existing priorities within a powerful sustainable development vision: they have an ideal in mind. Ideal or utopian positions have a key organising role. (3)

In comparison, an education around sustainability which merely characterises it as education for a ‘slightly less harmful world’ or a world ‘where I don’t feel so guilty’ or one of ‘less and less’ is not an education for sustainability worth celebrating but an education for ‘just getting by’ and misrepresents the creative possibilities and energy of a circular economy and the chances of motivating change. As the Art of War noted: ‘tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’.
The ‘cradle to cradle’ design philosophy is, reassuringly, based around the best in scientific modeling. As we realise that most real world systems are non-linear and sensitive to feedback and initial conditions it makes sense to adopt these insights in designing economies, supporting communities, creating products and services and managing energy flows. The older machine like linear models (having only limited feedback) are now seen as special cases or of limited value. Systems approaches, based on feedback, are also the key to understanding participatory learning and how change happens – the existence tipping points for example. These approaches are also the basis of ecology, climate science and much more.

One key insight : many uses

Full_34a0fd088f0f0752eb4dedccd30e10c1f9f034b3.jpg © Richard Crookes

Applying a consistent systems approach also reveals the limits of current perceptions about education in regard to sustainability: ‘caring for the planet’, ‘doing with less’, ‘eco- efficiency’, ‘if everyone did their bit…’ all turn out to be based on a partial and linear worldview. This systems approach really feels like fresh air for education for sustainable development programmes.
Environmental education and ecology are still important in any education for sustainability They have added value: they illustrate the way living systems work. Insights from living systems provide models for sustainable economies and a guide to the successful redesign of product and services and the possibly the functioning of successful human communities. A particularly interesting development is that described as ‘biomimicry’ which uses Nature as ‘model, mentor and measure’ and reaches from ecological levels right down to materials and structures, into so called green chemistry. (4)

The ‘cradle to cradle’ notion works well alongside innovative business and local government and supports enterprise as technical and biological nutrient cycles reveal new business opportunities and employment. The ‘closed loop’ or circular economy is exciting product designers, industrialists, architects, community enterprises and municipal or regional governments all over the world (5). There is often no more powerful an illustration than successful innovation. Education needs to draw from, illuminate and share the aims and aspirations of businesses and communities who adopt these ‘living systems’ models. As a Foundation we are doing just that with our founding partners – and others – and in our local community project at Chale on the Isle of Wight.

In general, education’s main contribution to a sustainable low carbon circular economy will lie in its support for continual rethinking and redesign in an age of profound change.

Practical Support Opportunities

In looking towards supporting change in education there are many strands of interest to the Foundation But we have focused on a small sub set initially.

As a framework for thinking more than anything there is a great deal of work to be done to introduce it and enable discussion around its main features. The work of Donella Meadows on leverage points in a system (6) indicates that at the level of ‘paradigm change’ this is often very difficult, but that equally change can happen in a moment and from that point nothing, literally, is ‘seen’ in the same way again. Hence the Foundation’s interest in film, animation and a powerful resource base online.

As the focus is design- human intention -then exploration of the idea might be done most readily in Design and Technology, STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) Business Studies and the work related curriculum but an introductory programme based around the ideas is relevant almost everywhere, especially in the context of systems thinking, the constant companion of the circular economy.

Ken Webster, Head of Learning, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
(1) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh. Brian Wexler (psychologist) noted, ‘when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information’
(2) ‘You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.’ Designer, Buckminster Fuller
(3) Milton Friedman, the economist noted: ‘. . . it is worth discussing radical changes, not in the expectation that they will be adopted promptly but for two other reasons. One is to construct an ideal goal, so that incremental changes can be judged by whether they move the institutional structure toward or away from that ideal. The other reason is very different. It is so that if a crisis requiring or facilitating radical change does arise, alternatives will be available that have been carefully developed and fully explored.’
(4) In an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker,
(4) Biomimicry Janine Benyus. See also
Shandong University is running research in this area in China.
(5) Netherlands moving ahead with Cradle to Cradle (closed loop) initiatives at Regional and Government level
Key stimulus: Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, a German chemist, is a former professor at the University of Lüneburg, and has recently taken up a professorship at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.
The Region of Limburg has officially announced their ambition to be the first Cradle to Cradle region in the Netherlands and are going to start with the International Horticultural Exhibition Floriade 2012. However Almere, Groningen, and Utrecht are all developing strategies.
The Dutch Ministry of Environment and the half-governmental agency SenterNovem are working on the Sustainable Purchasing Order `Duurzaam Inkopen´ Braungart claims the 40 billion Euro disbursements will be along cradle to cradle lines by 2012.
Some Dutch-based international companies have already taken up the challenge, DSM, AkzoNobel, van Gansewinkel, Desso, van Houtum, VelopA and others.
NB: California – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared it is to become a Cradle to Cradle state.
(6) Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System , 1999

Teaching the fundamental facts of life

  • by Paul Clarke

To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species.
Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.” 

In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.
Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.
This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels – from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals. 

We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, the fundamental facts of life – that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.