“Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change” presented to Gro Brundtland at Rio +20

Just in time for Rio +20 we were able to finish a wonderful book project that involved many authors from four continents. The book, learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change, was presented at Rio +20 to former Norwegian Prime Minister and Chair of the infamous Brundtland Commission which made a first attempt to define “Sustainable Development” in the 1987 report “Our Common Future”.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland receives the first copy at Rio +20. Brundtland Chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) that wrote “Our Common Future”, a report that introduced the term “sustainable development” well before the first Earth Summit was held in 1992.

On the publisher’s website the book is introduced as follows: We live in turbulent times, our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key inter-related challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on-going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Living in such times has implications for education and learning.  This book explores the possibilities of designing and facilitating learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability. In 31 chapters contributors from across the world discuss (re)emerging forms of learning that not only assist in breaking down unsustainable routines, forms of governance, production and consumption, but also can help create ones that are more sustainable. The book has been divided into three parts: re-orienting science and society, re-connecting people and planet and re-imagining education and learning. This is essential reading for educators, educational designers, change agents, researchers, students, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike, concerned about the well-being of the planet and convinced of our ability to do better. (click on the book’s cover if you wish to go to the publishers web-page about the book)

Here are some nice words from some good people about the book:

We are living in times of incertitude, complexity, and contestation, but also of connectivity, responsibility, and new opportunities. This book analyses the consequences of these times for learning in formal, non-formal, and informal education. It explores the possibilities offered by the concept of sustainability as a central category of a holistic paradigm which harmonizes human beings with Earth. To change people and to change the world are interdependent processes—this book contributes to both. (Moacir Gadotti, Director of Paulo Freire Institute, São Paulo, Brazil).

Moacir Gadotti of the Paulo Freire Institute receives a copy of the book at Rio +20 during the Earth Charter event

I hope you share my excitement about the innovations for sustainability that this book catalogues and analyses. While the ecological news is grim, the human news is not. Even in a time of accelerating change, people are showing their enormous capacities to learn, adapt, restore and protect. (From the Foreword by Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth: how and why millions of Americans are creating a time-rich, ecologically-light, small-scale high-satisfaction economy).

Instead of educational thinking and practice that tacitly assumes that the future is some kind of linear extension of the past, we need anticipative education, recognising the new conditions and discontinuities which face present generations, let alone future ones… This implies a ‘culture of critical commitment’ in educational thinking and practice – engaged enough to make a real difference to social-ecological resilience and sustainability but reflexively critical enough to learn constantly from experience and to keep options open in working for a sustainability transformation. (From the Afterword by Stephen Sterling, Professor of Sustainability Education, Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth University, United Kingdom).

In the coming months this blog will be used to share some main ideas expressed by the authors that are a part of this volume. 

The table of contents can be found here (click on the hypertext)learn4

The book can be ordered at a discount when going to ‘books’ in the menu bar on top of this page.

Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability

Some people have asked me for a copy of a ‘think piece’ I wrote a few years ago as input for a World Congress on Environmental Education held in South Africa a few years ago. The paper – Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability – was published in the Southern Africa Journal of Environmental Education which is an important resources in the field of EE and one of the oldest journals in this field. Unfortunately the journal’s electronic distribution is somewhat limited still. Therefore I am making it available here as a pdf.

One key message – which is important just a few weeks for the Rio +20 meeting – is that Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development have a high familiy resemblance when taking the 1975 Belgrade charter on EE and the 1977 UNESCO-UNEP conference on EE held in Tiblisi as foundational to the field of EE.

The other key message is that the nature of sustainability challenges seems to be such that a routine problem-solving approach falls short. Transitions towards a more sustainable world require more than attempts to reduce the world around us into manageable and solvable problems but instead require a more systemic and reflexive way of thinking and acting with the realisation that our world is one of continuous change and ever-present uncertainty. This alternative kind of thinking suggests that we cannot think about sustainability in terms of problems that are out there to be solved or in terms of ‘inconvenient truths’ that need to be addressed, but we need to think in terms of challenges to be taken on in the full realisation that as soon as we appear to have met the challenge, things will have changed and the horizon will have shifted once again.

The paper therefore calls for reflexivity (Reflexively fumbling towards sustainability) and offers social learning as a form of learning that is particularly suitable for promoting reflexivity in diverse groups of learners.

The pdf is linked to the full citation of the paper below:


The full citation for the paper is:

Wals, A.E.J. (2007). Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. 24 (1), 35-45.

‘Science as community — Sustainability-oriented trans-disciplinary research’

Recently I contributed to the 5th Living Knowledge Conference which was held in Bonn, Germany last May with a talk on “Science as community: Sustainability- oriented trans-disciplinary research”. The entire talk has now been uploaded on youtube as have been several of the other talks held at this energizing event. The talk can be found here. Since the slides I used are not always (clearly) visible you can find the slides I used here: WalsBonnLivingKnowledge.

The conference covered the following teams: 

A. Setting shared research agendas by CSOs and Research Institutes 

B. The role of Higher Education in creating knowledge with communities
C. Communities and students learning together
D. Evaluation and quality improvement: New lessons learned on measuring   the value of community engagement and  collaborative research
E. Developing  partnership working for research – civil society engagement
F. Policies to support collaborative research relationships

My talk related mostly to theme B which is described on the conference website as follows: Research and education are going to play a central role during the transformation process towards a knowledge society, as the realisation of the necessity for restructuring the world economy has been triggered mainly by scientific knowledge. Society should therefore decide on actions that are not a direct response to recently experienced events, but motivated by foresight and precaution. For this purpose, the debate between science, politics and society should be far more structured, more obligatory, and livelier, to ensure a constructive discourse about the best ways to achieve sustainability.

Key questions:

  • How can problem-based approaches and transdisciplinarity be encouraged?
  • How can a relation of mutual trust between researchers and CSOs be developed?
  • How can career opportunities for young researchers engaging with communities be improved?
  • How can universities and research institutions give researchers and students more opportunities to reflect about the societal consequences of their work?