EE Forum, 2008
2008 looks like being a frustrating year. There are several reasons for this. One is that it is election year, and moreover, an election year when the concept of sustainability has become popular, part of the conventional wisdom. I read recently that this term was coined by the economist Kenneth Galbraith, and is not a positive one.
Conventional wisdom is associated with convenience. It accords with self-interest and personal well being, avoiding awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation. Economic and social behaviours, says Galbraith (according to Levitt and Dubner in their book Freakonomics) are complex and understanding them is mentally taxing. We thus adhere to a raft of ideas that come to represent our understanding. These are simple, comfortable, comforting, but not necessarily true. That is not to say 'untrue' (although they may be), rather, they are sloppy and self-interested. (Freakonomics examines some of these conventional wisdoms).
Suddenly, in 2008, everything is sustainable. Every advertisement now offers you consumption that will lighten your step on the Earth. A colleague sent me a news article posted by the Royal Society of New Zealand on their web site (June 4th) that reassured me that Kiwis are not altogether taken in by this hype/green marketing (two thirds considered green business to be a marketing ploy). None the less, the new 'conventional wisdom' (basically that the market and green business can solve all problems) will be to the fore in the run-up to the general election later this year. What is frustrating is that the concept of sustainability will become more common, more clichéd, and more obscure, and it is difficult enough now.
More than that though, last year many of us participated in a consultation process that we believed would contribute to a new set of Guidelines for schools. This project now appears to be on hold, so the faith many of us had, that finally there would be something that would increase both the profile and substance of environmental/sustainability education in schools has again been tested.
In this edition, Wendy Barry expresses something of this frustration. Wendy (a former chairperson of the association and long time executive member), in her role at WWF, convened a group of environmental educators and produced a substantial submission on the environment and sustainability in response to the 2006 draft curriculum. Her short article speaks for itself.
Next is a piece I wrote to the New Zealand Listener in response to some of the nonsense in the media about carbon credits. It was not published. Phil Smith, chair of the Australian Association for Environmental Education, then offers some of his thoughts. Phil visited our shores while attending the Dunedin conference in January. He is a very thoughtful and eloquent man. In his piece he comments on how we influence each other in subtle ways as we explore ideas, discuss and debate. Following Phil's piece is something I wrote earlier this year about paradox in our complex and challenging field. There seem to be parallels between some of the thinking here. After the conference I spent three days showing Phil some of the majesty of Canterbury, Otago and the West Coast, perhaps that partly explains the parallels?
Can I once again, invite contributions to the EE Forum: research, opinion, new ideas, provocative comment, material that might contribute to our field. These can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kia kaha, David Chapman (editor)
Advocating for EE /EFS in an election year
Wendy Barry, WWF.
As we approach the election, some of you might be considering taking this opportunity to gain the attention of prospective MPs with a clear message about the importance of environmental education and education for sustainability (EE/EfS). If you are looking for information to give weight to your case, then a recent research report released by WWF New Zealand may be of interest. In 2007, WWF commissioned the University of Waikato to conduct a baseline assessment of EE/EfS in New Zealand schools. A quantitative investigation of aspects of EE/EfS was used to take a snapshot of the field as it currently stands. While WWF intends to repeat this process in the future, the report has significant use today as both an advocacy tool and to inform practice.
Eight aspects of EE/EfS that are considered to shape and reflect practice and provision were selected for investigation: school staff professional development, pre-service teacher education, curriculum status, whole school approach, Education Review Office reports, school-community interactions, research and evaluation, and advocacy for the UN Decade for Education for Sustainability. For each aspect the report outlines a summary of key findings and a set of recommendations which, if addressed, would see significant improvements to EE/EfS in schools. Audiences for these recommendations range from local government, to EE/EfS providers and schools. However, it is central government that WWF feels should take greatest heed.
I do not wish to deflate the morale of EE/EfS providers whose hard work has brought about significant achievements; however, it is of great concern that the research revealed most schools still don't access professional development in EE/EfS, and there is not one teacher training institution that guarantees its graduates are competently trained in EE/EfS. As teachers prepare to implement a new curriculum that highlights sustainability as a key theme, up-to-date supporting documents and training are required. As an important first step the government should commit to responding to the recommendations from the recent consultation on the Guidelines for Environmental Education. With these issues in mind, I invite you to access the report from the WWF website www.wwf.org.nz/ and think about what its findings and recommendations mean for you and your organisation, NZAEE branch, practice, and advocacy efforts for better government support for EE/EfS.
Feedback, suggestions or general discussion are warmly welcomed. Please contact me at email@example.com. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the many NZAEE members who provided information for this research, and acknowledge the authors Chris Eames, Marianne Robertson and Rachel Bolstad.
There is a great scene in the film Madagascar that I consider a poignant metaphor for the human condition. Four slick New York zoo animals, lost in the jungles of Madagascar race for the safety of the beach. In the process, the giraffe's head becomes shrouded in a tangle of vines. As they reach the beach, he screams, "I can't see, I can't see!" At this, the hippo jumps on the trailing vine, which then falls clear of the giraffe's face. "I can see, I can see!" yells the giraffe, takes in the vista of endless uninhabited shore, screams again, and immediately buries his head in the sand.
The metaphor echoes our response to environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. The latter has risen in profile in the public and political consciousness to that point where action of some sort is required as an inevitable consequence of a considerable period of rhetoric. Sadly though, as politicians in election year actually try to do something, what is revealed is that our heads are buried in the sand.
Perhaps I am being unkind? Perhaps what I have uncharitably taken as avoidance is actually complete ignorance about nearly everything to do with climate change. I refer here to several statements by political leaders on the issue in the last half of May. One involved a wrangle between the main political parties that, on one hand, resented that responses to climate change were going to cost the consumer, and on the other, tried to pretend that they would not. Meanwhile, the Minister in charge of the issue was talking in terms of fixing climate change.
I do feel sorry for serious politicians on an issue like this though, and I mean the government here. As soon as governments attempt to actually do something, the armchair critics have a field day. Take the rail buy-back for example. It seems ironic that Robert Muldoon electrified the railways to protect the country from the spiralling oil costs. Since then, the rail system has been successively pillaged and abandoned by two multi-national companies. Meanwhile the private road transport option is about the least energy efficient you could have. An effective electric rail transport system is both more energy efficient and potentially uses renewable energy, a win-win situation. Parliamentary democracies are not well suited to addressing long-term issues.
The ignorance I mentioned previously stems from a failure to grasp several related key facts. One is that around 90% of the planet's commercial energy comes from fossil fuels (2 billion of the worlds poorest people have no access to commercial energy). The production of practically any manufactured good uses fossil fuels as the energy source, and thus contains the 'embedded energy' that was used to produce it. The second point is that coal consumption has been predicted (National Geographic, March 2006) to rise from around 5.4 billion tonnes per year to slightly over 8.2 billion tonnes by 2025, more than 50% increase. So any thought of 'fixing' climate change is an illusion. So is the notion that you can be carbon neutral by trading carbon credits. This involves paying someone else to plant or preserve in order to offset your carbon emissions. Okay, this is better than nothing as a short-term response but that is all it is. Some figures will illustrate this.
National Geographic's figures suggest global coal consumption over the next 20 years is close to 140 billion tonnes. National Geographic data shows a tonne of coal produces nearly two tonnes of carbon dioxide. Thus, something like 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will go up the stacks in the next twenty years.
How many trees would be needed to absorb this carbon dioxide? Not to stop global warming, just to hold things as they are. There are some tricks here. Trees do not absorb much carbon dioxide when they are little, they take time to grow and get going. When a forest matures though (and you don't hear people saying this), it is carbon neutral. Carbon dioxide use for growth is in balance with that released by death and decay. This is why tree planting is a short-term strategy, even if you could plant enough trees to take in that 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Unless! Unless, you cut them down and bury them somewhere where they cannot decay, like the ancient swamps in which the coal beds originally formed. Trading carbon credits misses the point really.
It is thus obvious that the implication that you can address climate change without it costing the consumer is simply deceitful. If you want to have the same 'stuff', you will have to find renewable energy sources, which are more expensive. Alternatively, you can pay the 'opportunity cost' of going without. Either way, there is a cost. The simple reality is however, that rich people have to use less.
It is amazing that while the cry of the 'Rogernomic' revolution of the 80s was the slogan "there is no such thing as a free lunch", the fundamental assumption behind the growth economy is exactly the opposite. The environment hosts the lunch. Despite the evidence though, the giraffes still will not face up to the obvious. In the meantime, the big superstores will still be banging on every weekend, " no deposit, no interest and no repayments till the cows come home". Another magnificent metaphor for consumer culture.... where there is always the bait of 'something for nothing'.
But what if we did become genuinely carbon neutral, what would we, as a nation, gain from it? The 'tragedy of the commons' is that if we stop polluting while the big guys party on, we still suffer the consequences. What we would gain is the moral high ground to work for improvement in the international community. Such a course requires a deeper sense of nationhood than supporting a footy team. It demands a proper sense of who we are and what our local and global responsibilities as human beings are.
It requires a sense of citizenship, both of Aotearoa and of planet Earth. This is not 'green', it is simply an inevitable logic. To protect something, you need to have a sense of belonging. Climate change is in the end, too big an issue for petty party squabbling. It needs to be the subject of nation-wide debate and multi-party consensus or the work of one government will be undone by the next, to the detriment of all.
Fundamental questions: ethics, political philosophy and sustainability
With some considerable success, Dr Leon Lederman has spent a lifetime searching for fundamental particles and the forces that cause them to cluster into matter. I find this a valuable parallel to my own emerging thoughts about the idea that there are fundamental questions that humans work consciously or unconsciously at. I have come to the view that there are three fundamental human questions, each opening up a bundle of sub-questions.
First, there is the question that has been asked almost forever: How are we to live? This is perhaps the question at the heart of ethics (and, some would say, Aristotle amongst them, happiness.
Second, there is the question that I believe to be at the core of all political philosophy: How are we to live together? People live in groups, small and large, and they need (and have always needed) to consider this question. It applies at the personal relations level, the broader community level and everywhere in between.
Finally, there is one question that has been made more explicit by current environmental circumstances. It is consciously and deliberately being asked today: How are we to live together on this planet? This is the sustainability question, and it expands the considerations about the local/regional viability of community to deeper, longer, broader issues associated with survival on a planetary scale.
Just to pick up on Aristotle's point, I would argue that happiness is tied up with all three. And about the answers, I'd offer two thoughts:
Answers are most often temporary. The trick is to be asking and answering rather than coming to an end with one answer.
Answers are most often compromises. Cultural politics determines the best we can do at the time. Here, the best answer can be deliberately sought, or it can fall out by default. Answers emerge from actions and interactions, power relationships and sometimes consensus rather than from deliberation alone.
We are in a climate where urgency has pushed the consciousness button. This urgency requires us to attend to these three fundamental questions in our personal, political and environmental lives. They are of course not mutually exclusive. Any question and one's set of responses to it are intimately and intricately linked with the answers to other questions and to the answers of other people. Our answers also influence others, whether consciously or not.
In relation to this mutual influence, a significant challenge is to ensure that there are opportunities and structures/processes that facilitate conversation. A successful and healthy society - at all levels of self, inter-relations, environmental - is one that facilitates questioning and answering...questioning and answering...questioning and answering. Who owns this challenge? I believe we all do. At home as well as in the community; at work as well as in social settings. Individually and collectively, we all own the responsibility for asking, answering, asking, answering these questions. It is through this continuous and iterative process that the power of human imagination can guide us in what we agree to be our correct - our best - direction.
We also own the responsibility for turning up and taking part in the conversations. For wondering and pondering. For acting and watching and learning. We need to be ethically and politically reflective. We need to incorporate the future and sustainability into our reflections and actions. Where Lederman went smaller and smaller, I believe we need to act with bigger and bigger consciousness. We need to embrace in our thinking humanity and all other species. We need to learn from the lessons of the past and consider the potential for the future. That is, we need to respond individually and collectively with an ecological approach to decision-making.
While I passionately believe this to be true, it remains much easier to say than do. Our patterns of behaviour exist within systems that are not sustainable and which are maintained by powerful structures and people who reap unimaginably rich benefit from them. Confronting this not only requires participation in conversation, but a revolution in thinking, combined with personal and collective action. This is the challenge of the three questions: none of them can be answered in isolation from the others and none can be fully answered without action.
Sustainability: Living with the paradoxes.
It sometimes seems that everything to do with sustainability is paradoxical. Without an ability to live with paradox, thinking about sustainability can be a gloomy and sometimes depressing occupation. As an illustration; I can work hard to reduce my footprint, to want less and to buy less, but if I do this alone, or if we do this as a minority, it has little impact; and yet if nobody makes an effort to reduce their impact on the planet.... there will be no reduction. Furthermore, it makes little difference if I conserve some scarce resource if it is then squandered by someone else. Johnstone (2003) referred to this as the tragedy of the commons. Making a start in these areas often seems to have little effect, and yet not making a start has none either. A paradox.
Beyond the purely individual level, there are matters of social infrastructure that support, or fail to support, reduced consumption of resourses. This is touched on by Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002). It is hard, for example, to avoid using a motor vehicle if there inadequate public transport, or to walk or bicycle if the streets are not safe. Environmental educators familiar with the foundational documents of our field (for example, UNESCO-UNEP, 1978) have long been aware of these interdependencies between social and economic factors and the way we treat the environment. The paradox here is that structures do not change until people change their behaviour, but that behaviour cannot change unless the structures that support, and sometimes cause that behaviour, are changed.
There is a paradox in travelling great distances to a conference on the environment and while there, listening to keynote speakers who have been brought from around the world. I often wonder whether, on balance, there is a 'cost benefit' for our beleaguered planet arising from these deliberations. Despite constant calls for critical thinking and challenge to our accepted ways of doing things, the paradoxes can be debilitating.
The paradox that I find the most interesting and challenging is what I call 'the paradox of scale', and this has many guises. For example, it is anti-social, if not illegal in most countries, to dump your household rubbish on roadsides, on public, or indeed someone else's private land. Yet cities, or large companies are permitted to discharge material into rivers or the sea. This is the case in my own local area where city 'grey water', that is only partially treated, goes into the river, and where a large corporation has permission to dump into the same river in 'emergencies'.
The biggest, scariest and most bewildering paradox of all though, is capitalism. Capitalism creates the conditions for itself to thrive. It appears, to my inexpert eye, to be the most destructive 'civilisation' that has existed. The economic activity of capitalism appears to concentrate wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of fabulously rich people and in doing so increase inequity, both between countries and within them. Under (but not exclusively under) capitalism, we rapaciously consume ever-increasing amounts of resources, driving our planet to crisis point some argue. So if this is a paradigm that serves only the interests of the wealthy few at the expense of vast numbers of poor, why does it persist?
In proceeding to pursue my theme, paradox, I can only speculate in response to my own question. While capitalism obviously benefits those who own or control the means of production, and while these people obviously have the capacity to exert a powerful hegemony over the global consciousness through the media, I think this by itself is an insufficient explanation. It would seem to me, that despite the staggering impact and cost of human economic activity on the planet, a large number of people in many countries benefit very greatly from capitalism at an individual and collective level. Capitalism is cool. It supplies us with amazing stuff, real cheap.
In New Zealand, the vast majority of people are not only housed to a standard that is luxurious in any historical sense, but also have sanitation, hot water, electricity, television, music, instant communication and motor vehicles. Even for those on relatively modest incomes, supermarkets contain fresh fruits from around the world at unbelievably cheap prices. Clothing is also remarkably cheap. While it is sometimes suggested that for all our material wealth our societies are not happy, we enjoy a level of luxury, particularly when technologies such as cell phones and computers are included, that is beyond the comprehension of people even 50 years ago. How could anyone feel negatively about an economic arrangement that has us living better than royalty of years past.
Of course, there are costs and down sides like unemployment, poverty and indebtedness that we prefer not to think about. There are environmental costs too but the separation of production (in Asia) and consumption (here) serve to hide this from us, the beneficiaries of a such wonderful economic system. And here is the rub: if I, concerned for the environment and those who suffer as a consequence of this economic activity, criticise capitalism, I am likely to be regarded as out of my mind.
Capitalism then, is a classic paradox of scale, it is a wonderful benefactor at the personal level, but a destructive force when viewed on a global scale. As well, most of the destruction is very subtle, occurs somewhere else, or is not apparent to ordinary people. Further, structures within capitalist societies predetermine many of the behaviours that are part of the problem.
How then do we grapple with this closed circle? I have attended many workshops, conferences and meetings of educators that have tried to confront the issues of behaviour change. Zero waste has been a theme of many of these, a solution to high consumption that does not always confront the issue directly. My own take on the high consumption in industrialised societies is to tackle advertising. My view is, simply put, that advertising drives over-consumption by making us want things we don't need and tempting us to pay for them with money we don't have. My responses to this onslaught include suggesting that a critique of advertising and its message systems is central to environmental/sustainability education and go as far as advocating that advertising be banned. People's responses to this suggestion are often more uncomfortable than their reactions to my criticism of capitalism. Many of the folk I rub shoulders with understand the dark side of capitalism, but not so many seem to have analysed the importance of advertising in driving the growth paradigm. Advertising is designed to make us unhappy it seems, and we love it. What would we buy if we didn't have ads?
The goals for environmental education, established at Tbilisi in 1977 call for new patterns of behaviour toward the environment by individuals, groups, and society as a whole (UNESCO-UNEP, 1978). As I have mentioned though, many existing problematic behaviours are supported by social structures that aren't even conscious of. Moreover, our whole social paradigm is largely based on the premise of ongoing economic growth. This is the air we breathe, it has neither taste or odour, most people take it completely for granted.
So as always, the question becomes, what do we do? There is no simple answer of course. Yes, keep doing things at a personal level, but know that that is not enough. Work for change in structures. My effort goes towards curriculum and advocating for a mandate that requires schools to confront environmental issues. (How to do that is also complex and requires both a change in approach and an improvement in quality, discussing it is for another time.) New guidelines for schools would help, provided they contribute to improvement and do not just contain rhetoric. But further, we need political change. It is election year! Unless we support the Greens, or perhaps the Maori Party at the political level, all the rest is for nothing.
Suggesting who to vote for is a big call, so I will briefly explain. Firstly, Labour and especially National are locked into the growth paradigm. Roger Douglas is back on the scene wanting to raise our standard of living and 'beat Australia', and United Future considers environmentalism to be 'stone age'. Unless there are people in politics who confront the 'growth at all costs mentality', and ask serious and penetrating question on behalf of people and the environment, nothing will change. Also, these people need to have the balance of power so the big parties need their support to govern. I don't think any of our parties go far enough, but at least the Greens and the Maori Party ask some hard questions.
In general though, we need to be more politically active. This means lobbying the local MP, and using your party vote with care. Even then, the challenges are far from simple. What I am advocating is collective political action that supports the action that you might take as an individual. More than just voting, it is about raising these issues in discussions with friends and family. This is education, or perhaps consciousness raising, that is outside the normal comfort zone of teaching a class, or talking to a group in a formal role. The bottom line is simple, the structural factors that maintain unsustainable behaviour will not change until there is a clear message from the ballot box.
Johnson, B. (2003). Ethical obligations in a tragedy of the commons. Environmental Values, 12, 271-287.
Kollmuss, A., & Agyeman, J. (2002). Mind the gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour? Environmental Education Research, 8 (3), 239-260.
UNESCO-UNEP (1978). The Tbilisi Declaration. Connect, III (1), 1-8.