Change we can believe in and beliefs we can change – a personal journey

In the end transformative learning is about changing people: changing the way they think, act and the things they value in life. When I started to study Environmental Studies at Wageningen University (www.wur.nl)  back in the eighties of the last century, I thought differently though. I naively thought that technology would clean up the world, in combination with strict environmental laws and legislation. The rapid decline of our natural resources, the chronic and acute disasters happening across the globe demanded quick and swift action, and if necessary an ‘eco-totalitarian regime’ to make sure that the Earth could going with us human beings still around.

It took me about a year or two as a student to realize that, although important, if only to buy us more time, new technologies, laws, legislation, etc. are quick-fixes and end-of-pipe solutions that do not really address the root causes of un-sustainability, environmental decline and ecological disasters. This realization led to a gradual move from the natural sciences towards the social sciences. I started taking all courses taught there with the word ‘environmental’ in it: environmental sociology, environmental communication, environmental history, environmental psychology (which unfortunately became extinct in Wageningen), etc. and ended up doing an internship in environmental education (teaching environmental sciences in a Chicago suburb) and a thesis on ‘systems thinking and constructivist approaches of learning in the context of environmental education’. The questions that intrigued me then and still do today included: how do we reconnect people with their (non-virtual) environment? How can people become critical of their own lifestyles and the giant forces that shape their material values (900 billion $ is spent on advertising per annum globally)? How can people begin to see the intricate ways in which the way they life affects the lives of others elsewhere and, indeed the lives of other species? How can we bridge the gap between awareness (knowing that we need to change) and action (actually making changes in our everyday lives?

One thing that I did back then in Chicago during my internship at Oak Park & River Forest High School, was to help start a network of high school students and teachers who wanted to do more against environmental degradation and the loss of nature: caretakers of the environment international (www.caretakers4all.org). This network reached its 25th anniversary in the Summer of 2001 and has involved and inspired thousands of teachers and students around the globe. It not only gave me that ‘yes, we can feeling’ it also taught me the power of passion and connectivity. For me personally it provided a launching pad for my academic career. After I graduated in 1987 I was determined to get my PhD at a university with a strong reputation in Environmental Education at the time: The University of Michigan. I was lucky to get a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Ann Arbor.

At the University of Michigan I also experienced the power collectives and community engagement.  My advisor Bill Stapp always considered everybody an expert in something and counted on everyone’s ability to make a statement. Before you knew it you were the one speaking to a group, an audience, a seminar, etc. He hardly every took the center stage himself, always putting his students in the middle. I am still grateful for that because it gave me the opportunity to become comfortable when speaking in public or presenting something. He too had this ‘yes we can!’ attitude that was borderline naïve but at least it led to science with societal impact (as opposed to science merely for impact factors high ranking journals…). Perhaps the most ambitious plan he had was to start a global network of schools monitoring the quality of their watersheds. We spent an entire six ECTS graduate course designing this network, including on finding the funding to get it started. And we did: a few months layer the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) was launched on four continents and almost every student taking the course became engaged in a number of teacher workshops in places they had not imagined ever going to. This network still exists and is run by a USA-based NGO called Earth Force (www.earthforce.org)

But in the end I returned to the valley of the Wageningen Social Sciences in hopes to start my own strand of education and research in the spirit of Bill Stapp. I got a job as researcher within the Agricultural Education Group (now Education & Competence Studies) teaching environmental and sustainability education courses and doing research on a range of topics including: action research & community problem-solving, whole school approaches to sustainability, biodiversity education, multi-stakeholder social learning, and sustainability in higher education. Eventually this led to a Professorship in Social learning and Sustainable Development supported by UNESCO. I still try to fumble my way towards a more sustainable way of living, although the gap between theory and practice is still way too big, also in my personal life.

I figure if I can reach five students a year in a meaningful way that orients their careers towards sustainability (instead of towards becoming more effective vandals of the Earth, as David Orr suggests, which most careers unwillingly contribute to…) and if those students will go on to effect those around them in this direction as well then I have real impact however modest it may still be.

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