Plastic heroes, plant bottles and other sustainability myths – message-in-a-bottle revisited

Nice to be invited last night (November 24th, 2011) by the environmental science student club of Wageningen University to talk about “plastics”. (For a description of the symposium + a link to the slides used go to:http://www.kennisnetwerkmilieu.nl/#16.html

The talk gave me an opportunity to re-connect with my “message-in-a-bottle” inaugural address of two years ago where I started out referring back to the 1960-ties classic “The Graduate” (“One word Ben, just one word: PLASTICS – there’s a great future in plastics you know. Think about it!”). Indeed the world of today is unimaginable without plastics. In the words of the American ChemicalCouncil: “In today’s world, life without plastics is incomprehensible. Every day, plastics contribute to our health, safety and peace of mind (Source: American Chemistry Council 2010. www.americanchemistry.com/s_plastics/doc.asp?CID=1102&DID=4665)

Last night I added something to this by questioning some of the responses by companies,whose profits depend on the use of plastics, to more and more people expressing a deep concern about the rapid growth of plastics, including microscopic nano plastics, in the environment. A giant bottling company now introduces “plant bottles” with “up to 30% organic plant material” (what does that mean any way: up to 30%? 0.5%?), waste management companies now claim to have hyper-modern “clean” or “green” incinerators that generate energy out of garbage (which really is not garbage anymore but fuel, they are telling us… which, they suggest, is quite handy in times where we will be running out of oil and natural gas…).

On the Dutch news a couple of weeks ago it was stated that the clean Dutch incinerators were not running at full speed because the Dutch did not produce enough garbage anymore. Fortunately the waste management companies (which now refer to themselves as “energy companies” were able to sign a deal with the city of Napoli in Italy that would have garbage from the Napoli region travel by ship to The Netherlands where it would help feed the incinerators and provide Dutch citizens with energy… a ” win-win” situation… Why bother with separating waste or, worse even, reducing waste.

No wonder people are confused about sustainability matters: garbage = fuel, waste = good, plastic bottles are now plant bottles… It’s a bit like George Orwell’s 1984 with Big Brother (= Big Business) playing a language game (War = Peace) and confusing citizens with “double speak”. So part of my talk last night was about dealing with sustainability confusion, green washing and finding learning-based pathways towards critical thinking and a genuine transition towards sustainability that breaks with some of these inherently unsustainable systems and practices. Anyway – you may be interested in the original message-in-a-bottle talk and the groundswell international summary of it below.

Message in a bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability

“Message in a Bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability”
“Message in a bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability” is the title of the provocative inaugural lecture given by Professor Arjen E. J. Wals upon taking up the posts of Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development, and UNESCO Chair at Wageningen University on May 27, 2010. Professor Wals describes the fundamental shift in education required to save the planet.

The lecture’s focus on sustainability seems particularly relevant in mid-December, as Americans and much of the rest of the world engage in their most rampant consumption, and perhaps begin to reflect on what the next year will bring and what they can do to better themselves, their families and their communities. Professor Wals’ lecture carries a warning and shows us a way forward. It is also worth the read for Groundswell supporters because some of the learning concepts he discusses are implicit in our people-centered approach.

I encourage you to read the whole lecture, but recognize that many people may not have the time to do so during the holiday season, so below I have included a number of excerpts in an effort to give you a sense of the greater lecture.

Is there a way out? Can the tide be turned? When the market fails and there are no invisible hands reaching out, where or who do we turn to? When over 600 billion dollar is spent annually on advertising, and over 100 million trees are cut annually for junk mail pushing products in the USA alone? When more than two million PET bottles are ‘consumed’ every five minutes everyday in the United States alone? When the drive to consume appears infinitely greater than the drive to sustain? When individualism and materialism rapidly become the global norm? When it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a world without continuous economic growth?”

“As pointed out already, environmental educators and environmental psychologists have long known that raising awareness about the seriousness of the state of the Planet is no assurance for a change in behavior or a change in values. In fact it has been shown that just raising knowledge and awareness without providing energizing visions and concrete practices that show that there are more sustainable alternatives, will lead to feelings of apathy and powerlessness. The nature of the sustainability crisis – characterized among other things by high levels of complexity and uncertainty – suggests that people will need to develop capacities and qualities that will allow them to contribute to alternative behaviors, lifestyles and systems both individually and collectively….

In addition to much needed suitable forms of governance, legislation and regulation, we need to turn to alternative forms of education and learning that can help develop such the capacities and qualities individual, groups and communities need to meet the challenge of sustainability. There is a whole range of forms of learning emerging that all have promise in doing so:  transdisciplinary learning, transformative learning, anticipatory learning, collaborative learning and, indeed, social learning are just a few of those. These forms of learning show a high family resemblance in that they:

  • consider learning as more than merely knowledge-based,
  • maintain that the quality of interaction with others and of the environment in which learning takes place as crucial,
  • focus on existentially relevant or ‘real’ issues essential for engaging learners,
  • view learning as inevitably transdisciplinary and even ‘transperspectival’ in that it cannot be captured by a single discipline or by any single perspective,
  • regard indeterminacy a central feature of the learning process in that it is not and cannot be known exactly what will be learnt ahead of time and that learning goals are likely to shift as learning progresses,
  • consider such learning as cross-boundary in nature in that it cannot be confined to the dominant structures and spaces that have shaped education for centuries.

The above characteristics make clear that the search for sustainability cannot be limited to classrooms, the corporate boardroom, a local environmental education center, a regional government authority, etc. Instead, learning in the context of sustainability requires ‘hybridity’ and synergy between multiple actors in society and the blurring of formal, non-formal and informal education. Opportunities for this type of learning expand with an increased permeability between units, disciplines, generations, cultures, institutions, sectors and so on.

Currently we are witnessing an avalanche of interactive methods and new forms of knowledge co-creation involving a wide range of societal actors with different interests, perspectives and values but with similar challenges. Although these differences are viewed as problematic by some, they are seen as crucial by others.

Educational psychologists for long have argued and shown that learning requires some form of (internal) conflict or dissonance. Exposure to alternative ways of seeing, framing and interpreting, can be a powerful way of creating such dissonance. However, for some this may lead to too much dissonance and a defensive response which leads to tighter hold on his or her prior way of seeing things, while for others it might lead to a re-considering of ones views and the adoption or co-creation of a new one. Dissonance can, when introduced carefully, lead to, to borrow a key concept from Marten Scheffer, a tipping point in ones thinking. Such tipping points appear necessary in order to generate new thinking that can unfreeze minds and break with existing routines and systems….”

Find the complete pdf of the talk at:

www.groundswellinternational.org/sustainable-development/natural-resources-management/message-in-a-bottle-learning-our-way-out-of-unsustainability/

 

Deconstructing a Happy Meal – making everyday life routine practices a source of transformative learning – indeed: food for thought!

“Today we’re going to study the food pyramid for healthy living!” the High School Social Science teacher Mark told his class. Mark was excited about launching a healthy food project that would enable kids to analyze their diets. He was well-prepared and had collected a number of teaching resources from government agencies, NGO’s and food-companies concerned with youth obesity and increasing health costs. One of his students called out: ”Food pyramids?” Boring! Why can’t we go to McDonalds?” This idea got the whole class excited, but frustrated Mark. After all, he had thought of something new that was hands-on and seemed very relevant. Later that evening Mark asked himself how he could motivate his students and engage them in an exciting learning process that would teach them something about health issues. He got an idea.

The next day Mark said to his class: “Today we’re going to McDonalds!” The whole class cheered. They couldn’t believe it.  Their teacher was actually going to take the whole class to the McDonalds near the mall across the street. “But…, there’s one condition. We will only buy one happy meal for the whole class”.  This got the students a little less excited, but they went anyway, just to get out of school. The class bought one cheeseburger happy meal and took it back to the classroom. Mark told the class that “unfortunately we are not going to eat the happy meal, we are going to carefully study it instead”.  He wrote down two questions on the blackboard:

What is in it?

Where did it come from?

They first dissected the meal: a plain bread bun, a slice of melted cheese, a grilled beef burger, salt, mustard, ketchup, pickles, French fries, diet cola, and, finally, a nice toy.

Then Mark divided the class in six groups of four students. One group got the bread bun, another group the salted French fries, another group the diet soda, another group got the burger, another group the accessories; ketchup, mustard and pickles and the last group got the plastic bagged happy meal toy.

“You have the remaining social science hours of the week to answer the two questions. Next week I want a short presentation with your findings from each of the groups. You can use the internet, the school library, the telephone in my office, and, if you need to ask questions across the street at the restaurant you can do so with my permission.”

All the groups went to work and the more they found out, the more interested they got. The group investigating the french fries found out that fast food chains need enormous volumes of potatoes and demand a certain type of potato that guarantees a consistent quality. As a result potato farmers around the world have reduced the number of potato varieties greatly. This has led to a loss of crop-biodiversity, making the remaining crops more vulnerable to pests and leading to an increase of pesticide use. A common response to this vulnerability is use genetically modified crops that are resistant to these pests. However the students also found out that McDonalds, pressured by concerned consumers, decided not to use Monsanto’s GM new leaf potato. The group’s investigation led to an interesting discussion about the pro’s and con’s of GM-foods. Most students were not aware that they were already consuming GM-foods. In fact the group studying the diet Cola found out that the sweeteners contained GM corn.  When presenting their finding students used a provocative quote from the internet to start a classroom-wide discussion:

Giant agribusiness, chemical and restaurant companies like Cargill, Monsanto and McDonalds dominate the world’s food chain, building a global dependence on unhealthy and genetically dangerous products. These companies are racing to secure patents on every plant and living organism and their intensive advertising seeks to persuade the world’s consumers to eat more and more sweets, snacks, burgers, and soft drinks.

Meanwhile the group investigating the happy meal toy learnt some things they didn’t expect to learn either. The discovered that the toys served cross-marketing purposes. Meaning that they bring parents and their children to the restaurant but they also promote things like Disney movies.  Most of the toys were made of plastic and not used by the children for a very long time. They went back to the McDonalds and studied how and for how long kids played with the toy and asked parents to estimate for how long the toy would remain in use. They estimated that the effective play time would be less than 10 minutes. Perhaps the most interesting finding they got by using the Internet. They found many sites – mostly activist  sites – that suggested that the happy meal toys were made in China. They came upon an article that stated that “.. a happy meal toy manufacturer, China-based City Toys Limited, employed children as young as 13 to assemble the “Happy Meal” toys.” These young teenagers were reportedly forced to work 16 hour days, seven days a week, and lived in crowded, on-site dormitories for a salary of less than 3 dollars a day. As a result of these revelations made in the Summer of 2000, McDonalds quickly responded by denying to have any knowledge about these conditions. The company distanced itself from City Toys Limited and moved its operations elsewhere. Since McDonalds was, at the time, not required to disclose information about its overseas contractors, it was difficult for the students to trace where they moved the operations and what the working conditions are at the new facilities. When this group presented their results to the class the were discussions about child-labour, children’s rights, ethics of moving jobs to countries with different standards and laws, but also about the consequences of McDonalds using a ‘cut-and-run’ strategy for the children in China working for City Toys, whose income might have been crucial for their families. The teacher also raised the issue of the reliability of the information of provided on the internet. Who put the information there? With what purpose? Is it based on fact?

The other groups too, found interesting information and point of discussion related to a happy meal (varying from beef imports, hormones in meat, clear cutting of rainforest to the sweeteners used in Diet-coke). One group was interested in figuring out ‘how many miles a happy meal has travelled to get to the local McDonalds? They didn’t get a chance to figure it out but they guessed tens of thousand of miles. The whole excersise was transformative in that they view of fast food in general and of a happy meal had changed. Mark’s concern was that, even though the students learnt a lot about food-related sustainability issues (health, environment, equity, economics), gathering information, presenting information, critical thinking, debating, etc., the project may have resulted in a rather bleak picture of something they really enjoyed: eating a nice juicy cheeseburger at McDonalds. He wanted the students to think about viable alternatives. So he asked the students a third question:

Can you design a happy meal that makes everybody happy?

The same groups started thinking about alternative buns, cheese, beef, mustard, pickles, soda, and even an alternative toy. This took another week of investigations but in the end they designed a happy meal that was more organic, healthier, socially-responsible and used up less energy. They cooked the happy meal themselves in the school kitchen for all junior high students and did a taste survey which demonstrated that the meal was a least as tasty as a McDonalds happy meal.  There was one problem: the new happy meal was far more expensive that the McDonald’s version. This raised another issue in the classroom: are we willing and/or able to pay more for meals that are healthier, more equitable, have less environmental impact? Some argued that consumers should demand this kind of food so that big corporations will change their own policies and practices, making alternative foods more affordable as demand increases.

“When McDonalds, Pringles, and the other major potato buyers decided not to sell Monsanto’s GM New Leaf potato, for example, it was soon taken off the market. McDonalds and others doomed Monsanto’s potato because they wanted to satisfy consumer demands. We have that power.” “In the U.S., Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s announced that GMOs would be removed from their store brands. Gerber baby foods, as well as scores of health food products, have similarly changed their ingredients.”

“When a store or brand removes GM ingredients, it has a ripple effect through the industry. After a supermarket chain commits to eliminate GMO’s, they usually send out a letter to their suppliers who in turn contact their suppliers and so on. A store may have hundreds of food items, each with a list of ingredients. Hundreds or thousands of businesses can be affected, right back to the farm level.

Others pointed out that their parents make decisions about what to buy, since they are the ones going to the grocery store.

The deconstructing of a happy meal became a transformative learning experience for all those involved, including Mark, the teacher. The happy meal brought out issues, tensions, dissonance, north-south relationships, health issues, ethics, the role of corporations, consumerism, economics, crop-biodiversity, etc.  It made an ordinary activity (going to McDonalds), somewhat unordinary and raised many critical questions that demanded some serious reflection. It developed a range of competencies in the students: asking questions, finding reliable information using a variety of sources, analysing data, presenting information, critical thinking, etc., etc.

Mark’s point of it all was not that students would reject going to McDonalds but that they would become aware of range of food-related issues: ethical ones with respect to using GMO-food or not, or with respect to children making toys for children, ecological ones, for instance, with respect to the potential loss of agro-biodiversity, environmental ones, for instance, with respects to the use of batteries in toys, the use of plastics or the energy used in food milese travelled or in producing meat, economic ones with respect of the economies of scale of mass-production and consumption but also with respect to the shortening of food-chains and going local, when factoring ” hidden” environmental costs. Obviously, they can still choose, having considered all aspects and given their own situation, socially and economically and so on, to go to McDonalds but in all likelihood, having done an activity like this will have transformed the way they look at (fast) food. How this transformed view will affect who they are, who they’d like to become and how they will behave now or in the future, is up to them.

Post-script:

Deconstructing a Happy Meal is a composite example based on a number of stories and ideas from critical teachers engaged with transformative learning and problem-posing-based teaching. The Happy Meal represents many forms of fast food and just as easily could have been built around other meals. The activity is meant to be educational and not prescriptive in that it tells people what to think and how to behave. It should be recognized that McDonalds, like many multi-nationals, are aware of their ecological footprints and have a range of sustainability and environmental-oriented policies and guidelines. Whether these efforts are genuine driven by a deep concern about the well-being of people and planet or driven by purely economic interests is in the eyes of the beholder.

The Happy Meal case has been presented at several international meetings on Education for Sustainable Development. For references to this example and type of learning please go to:

Wals, A.E.J. (2010) Mirroring, Gestaltswitching and Transformative Social Learning: stepping stones for developing sustainability competence. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, (11(4), 380-390.

Sriskandarajah, N, Tidball, K, Wals, A.E.J., Blackmore, C. and  Bawden, R. (2010) Resilience in learning systems: case studies in university education. Environmental Education Research, 16(5/6), 559-573.

“We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom” (E.O. Wilson)* – A new book “Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change” is currently in the making…

 

….to help create the wisdom we – all 7 billion of us – will need to transition towards a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect.

We live in turbulent times. Changes occur at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when we try to address key inter-related challenges of our time such as runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, homogenization of culture, and so on. They are all examples of the poignant sustainability impact of our increasingly consumption-oriented lifestyles marinated in a globalizing economy. We are facing problems and challenges for which there are no ready-made solutions that can be confidently prescribed and universally distributed. Some scholars argue we are already living in “post-normal times”: times loaded with uncertainty, contested (scientific) knowledge and high levels of complexity. In such times conventional routines and systems no longer seem to work, not in business, governance, resource management, science, communication, education nor in any other domain or field. A rethinking of these routines and systems and a creative co-creation of alternative ones appears essential in moving towards a more sustainable world.

Focus

Was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a major ecological and economic disaster? Or are the ecosystems rapidly self-healing and is the economy getting back on its feet again? How bad is the tsunami-induced nuclear disaster in Japan? For whom? Will increases in palm oil production and biofuel accelerate the loss of rainforests and biodiversity? Can organic food production feed the world? Can genetically modified crops feed the world (safely)? Is there such a thing as a climate neutral building? Paper or plastic? How sustainable is solar energy when the resources needed to make photovoltaic panels are finite? These are just a few questions for which there are no simple answers or single truths. This book attributes a key role to learning in responding to sustainability challenges in post-normal times. It explores the implications of living in times of accelerating change for learning and how new forms of learning can help people in re-orienting society towards sustainability. How do citizens handle “sustainability confusion” about who is right or who is wrong, who to believe and who not to believe, about how bad or good things are and what to do or what not to do in a particular place or situation? And, more importantly perhaps, how do we deal with contradictions and the rhetoric oftentimes used to advance a particular interest or perspective? A key premise here is that living in times of uncertainty, complexity, contestation, but also in times of technologically mediated hyper-connectivity and information overload, inevitably has consequences for learning in formal, non-formal and informal settings. But what are these consequences? And what kinds of competences and qualities need to be developed in learners to handle them? How can they be developed?

Secondly, this book will explore the possibilities and dilemmas of designing, strengthening and facilitating “learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability.” Contributors will introduce and discuss (re)emerging forms of learning that not only assist in breaking down unsustainable behaviors, forms of governance, production and consumption, but also can help create more sustainable lifestyles. Examples of such learning are learning by doing, social learning, transformative learning, cross-boundary learning, service learning, learning from nature (biomimickry), etc.

Finally, the book also explores questions like: What role do uncertainty and complexity-related emotions such as stress, anxiety and fear play in this context? What kind of capacities, qualities and competencies do we need to strengthen in people to be able to live well within the carrying capacity of the earth?

“Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change” is located at the interface of science and society. It explores niches and edges navigated by reflective practitioners and grounded scholars who share a concern for the well-being of the planet. The editors encourage the formation of so-called “hybrid author teams” – people energetically working together from obvious or not so obvious complementary perspectives. We are interested in chapters that invite a response on the part of the reader. Authors are encouraged to use powerful narratives, stories, metaphors, contradictions and questions that do not tell readers what to think and what to do, but rather provide a mirror that helps them rethink, re-frame and, indeed, transform their own practices in both professional and personal contexts.

Submissions have been sought from a range of (inter)disciplinary fields including: conservation biology, eco-justice, education, ethics, innovation, communication, science-technology-society studies, development studies, chaos and complexity studies, systems thinking, natural resource management and governance, social marketing and business studies. A range of divergent perspectives on living and learning in times of change is sought. These differing perspectives have different disciplinary orientations (such as philosophy, ethics, learning psychology, conservation biology, ecology, cybernetics, risk communication, and environmental science), a sector background (for instance corporate social responsibility, governance and policy-making, transport and mobility, energy production, and bio-based economies) or represent a particular vantage point (for example, technologically-meditated learning and social networking, social and environmental justice, disaster management, citizen science and food-security).

Currently over 40 potential chapters have been identified based on just under 100 submitted abstracts from all over the world.

Publisher

The book will be the third in Wageningen Academic Publishers’ Education and Sustainable Development Series. The first successful volumes were: Social learning: Towards a sustainable world (2007) edited by Arjen Wals and Young people, education, and sustainable development: Exploring principles, perspectives, and praxis (2009) edited by Peter Blaze Corcoran and Philip Osano. All chapters will be peer reviewed. The book will be published in April 2012 and will be presented at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June 2012. The publication of the book is supported by Agentschap.NL. Agentschap.NL is responsible for the implementation of the Dutch Learning for Sustainable Development Policy.

Editors

Arjen Wals, Wageningen University, The Netherlands &  Peter Blaze Corcoran, Florida Gulf Coast University,USA

Editorial assistants

Rebekah L. Tauritz,Wageningen University, The Netherlands;  Joseph Paul Weakland,Florida Gulf Coast University,USA; Brandon P. Hollingshead,Florida Gulf Coast University,USA

* opening quote comes from: Wilson, E.O.  (1998).  Consilience: the unity of knowledge.  New York: Vintage Books