“Sustainability” in higher education: from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning


In times of systemic global dysfunction, post-truth, alternative facts, cultivated doubt and the erosion of meaning, I found it useful to turn back, once again, to George Orwell’s infamous “1984”.  Well over 10 years ago, in 2004, I co-authored a paper on the danger of ‘doublespeak’ and ‘Newspeak’ in relation to the integration of sustainability in higher education. Back then this was an emerging trend, nowadays, it sometimes signifies a transition in education but more often little more than rethoric and green gloss. For me this is a good reason to re-introduce this paper here with Orwell’s cautionary tale but also with some ideas about how to move forward responsibly. Below an excerpt from the paper which you can find here in its totality:  Jickling and Wals Orwell’s Cautionary Tale

Wals, A.E.J. & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, vol. 15, 121-131.  SustinHEOrwellsCautionaryTale

“Sustainability talk can, when used by advocates with radically different ideas about what should be sustained, mask central issues under the false pretense of a shared understanding, set of values and common vision of the future.

However, critical thought depends on transcendent elements in ordinary language, the words and ideas that reveal assumptions and worldviews, and the tools to mediate
differences between contesting value systems. And worse still, sustainability talk can
lead us in the direction of Orwell’s (1989) famously satirical notion of “doublethink”
whereby ordinary citizens can increasingly hold in their minds contradictory meanings
for the same term and accept them both (Orwell, 1989, p. 223).

The power of universal discourse in reducing meaning to a minimum is such that, as in “1984”, antagonistic concepts can be conjoined in a single phrase (“war is peace”, “peace is war”) or concept (i.e. “sustainable growth”) (Jickling, 2001). Big Brother’s “Newspeak” was designated not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was
indirectly assisted by cutting down the choice of words to a minimum (Orwell, 1989,
p. 313).

In Newspeak concepts capable of opposing, contradicting or transcending
the status quo were liquidated. As a result of this devaluation of language the people
in “1984” found themselves in a state of linguistic dysfunction which was exactly
what Big Brother wanted (Jickling, 2001).

Seen this way sustainability tends to blur the very distinctions required to evaluate an issue thoughtfully. When comparing the sustaining of ecological processes with the sustaining of consumerism we immediately see inconsistencies and incompatibilities of values, yet many people, conditioned to think that sustainability is inherently good, will promote both at the same time.”


Reflexively Stumbling towards Sustainability – understanding social learning in regional governance networks


This afternoon of June 8th, one of my PhD students, co-supervised with Dr. PJ Beers of DRIFT in Rotterdam and Prof Peter Feindt of the Humbolt University in Berlin, successfully here beautiful dissertation in the Aula of Wageningen University. You can download the dissertation and the 4 published papers that are a part of the work via the Wageningen University Library shortly. You can also watch the defense still via WUR-TV Getting to the defense and the thesis

Using a social learning configuration to increase Vietnamese smallholder farmers’ adaptive capacity to respond to climate change


Link to the T&F site for the article

My former PhD-student Le Thi Hong Phuong now has a fourth paper from her dissertation which she only defended a few months ago, accepted in Local Environment a T&F journal on justice and sustainability (one of the oldest journals in this area!). Here is the abstract:

Social learning is crucial for local smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve their adaptive capacity and to adapt to the current and projected impacts of climate change. While it is widely acknowledged that social learning is a necessary condition for adaptation, few studies have systematically investigated under which conditions particular forms of social learning are most successful in improving adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable groups. This study aims to design, implement and evaluate a social learning configuration in a coastal community in Vietnam. We make use of various methods during four workshop-based interventions with local smallholder farmers: interviews with key farmers and commune leaders, farmer-to-farmer learning, participatory observations and focus group discussions. The methods for evaluation of social learning configuration include in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and structured survey interviews. Our findings show that the social learning configuration used in this study leads to an increased problem ownership, an enhanced knowledge-base with regard to climate change impacts and production adaptation options, improved ability to see connections and interdependencies and finally, strengthened relationships and social cohesion. The results suggest that increased social learning in the community leads to increase in adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers and improves both their economic and environmental sustainability. We discuss the key lessons for designing learning configurations that can successfully enhance adaptive capacity and smallholder farmers’ agency and responsiveness to the challenges posed by climate change impacts.


Grassroots to Global Broader Impacts of Civic Ecology


Together with my former PhD-student, friend and colleague in the T-Learning project (www.transgressivelearning.org)  Martha Chaves I co-authored a chapter on the Nature of Transformative Learning for Social-Ecological Sustainability for this new book edited by Cornell University colleague Marianne Krasny. The vignette from the publisher’s webpage featuring the book states:

Addressing participatory, transdisciplinary approaches to local stewardship of the environment, Grassroots to Global features scholars and stewards exploring the broad impacts of civic engagement with the environment.

Chapters focus on questions that include: How might faith-based institutions in Chicago expand the work of church-community gardens? How do volunteer “nature cleaners” in Tehran attempt to change Iranian social norms? How does an international community in Baltimore engage local people in nature restoration while fostering social equity? How does a child in an impoverished coal mining region become a local and national leader in abandoned mine restoration? And can a loose coalition that transforms blighted areas in Indian cities into pocket parks become a social movement? From the findings of the authors’ diverse case studies, editor Marianne Krasny provides a way to help readers understand the greater implications of civic ecology practices through the lens of multiple disciplines.

Aniruddha Abhyankar, Martha Chaves, Louise Chawla, Dennis Chestnut, Nancy Chikaraishi, Zahra Golshani, Lance Gunderson, Keith E. Hedges, Robert E. Hughes, Rebecca Jordan, Karim-Aly Kassam, Laurel Kearns, Marianne E. Krasny, Veronica Kyle, David Maddox, Mila Kellen Marshall, Elizabeth Whiting Pierce, Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, Michael Sarbanes, Philip Silva, Traci Sooter, Erika S. Svendsen, Keith G. Tidball, Arjen E. J. Wals, Rebecca Salminen Witt, Jill Wrigley

Here’s a link to Grassroots to Local

Research as mining, as learning and as activism…

Recently NAAEE started a very nice resource for researchers and practitioners (somewhat of a false binary in light of two of the research strands presented here) called EELearn. Tamarack Media produces some of the video-resources for the online courses that are freely available. One of them is about research. I was asked to reflect briefly on different modes of research that are around. I referred to three that Justin Dillon and I wrote about in a paper that you can find here (DillonWals2006) on the dangers of blurring methods, methodologies and ideologies. Here’s the 2,5 min video where I introduce the three strands of research. I should state there are many more from arts-based to post-qualitative ones but the distinguishing features still apply.

Here’s the link toNAAEE’s EELearn site: https://naaee.org/eepro/learning/eelearn EELearn


As sea levels rise… research of Wageningen PhD Mahmuda Mutahara featured in Science Magazine


It is not often that the research of one of our PhD students is featured in Science Magazine but in the last issue it was! Mahmuda Mutahara who recently finished her dissertation titled “Turning the Tide? The role of Participation and Learning in Strengthening Tidal River Management in the Bangladesh Delta” was interviewed by Warren Cornwall who wrote an excellent piece about the challenges of tidal river management in times unrest, poor governance and, indeed, climate change.

“To understand why some citizens turn against TRM projects, Mahmuda Mutahara, a Bangladeshi who recently earned her Ph.D., has spent much of the past 5 years traversing the region’s pothole-riddled roads, often on the back of a motorcycle. Questioning residents, government officials, and others, she found government agencies disconnected from locals, spawning distrust and anger that have derailed controlled flooding attempts, sometimes spectacularly.”

It was a honour to be Mahmuda’s promotor/chair along with co-promotors Jeroen Warner (Wageningen UR), Flip Wester (ICIMOD, Nepal) and Shah Alam Khan from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Dhaka

You can find the article with wonderful illustrations and photos here: article featuring Mahmuda’s Tidal River Management study

Towards transformative social learning on the path to 1.5 degrees – new paper on learning in times of runaway climate change


This paper provides insights into learning orientations and approaches that encourage change and transformation on the path to achieving the 1.5 degree C target. This literature review of the climate change and education/learning interface positions relevant literature in a heuristic tool, and reveals different learning approaches to addressing climate change. We highlight that although traditional lines of departure for achieving climate targets are usually technocratic in nature, especially if a zero emissions pathway is aimed for, there is an increasing realisation that climate issues are complex, deeply intertwined with unsustainable development and cultural change, and require collective engagement. Through considering the 1.5 degree C target as a metaphor for the fundamental changes needed in society, we argue that a wide range of learning orientations, including more inclusive and transformative social learning approaches, are needed to address the colossal challenges facing society. The review paper is published in: Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2017, 31:80–87 and is part of a Special Issue on Sustainability governance and transformation, edited by Bronwyn Hayward and Linda Sygna

Find the pdf here or download a personal copy here: TLearningClimateChangeCoSuSpaper2018

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the paper is the distinction made between four types of learning:



Find the pdf here or download a personal copy here: TLearningClimateChangeCoSuSpaper2018