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/

 
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