Pope Francis’ publicly expressed concerns about the decline of the Earth’s ecosystem and increasing inequity and a recent ruling by a Dutch court that the government is negligent in addressing climate change, are again two signs that public sentiment is shifting from denial and ‘laisez faire’ at best to serious concern and, hopefully, active engagement. During WEEC2015 well over 750 participants from over 75 countries gathered in Gothenburg, Sweden to discuss and strengthen education, learning and action for socio-ecological sustainability across the globe.
I was privileged to give a keynote during the opening session. In my talk – which can be found on YouTube here: KeyNote Arjen Wals at WEEC2015 – I referred to this increased public unrest about climate change, micro-plastics in oceans and bodies, etc. but also to the hijacking of identity and colonisation of the mind for business interests (don’t accept those cookies, or check that ‘I agree’ box too quickly), the increased yearning for meaning over consumption, and the need for educating and learning for a transition towards a healthier, more equitable, ecologically viable, morally defensible and peaceful world. We can no longer limit ourselves to the optimisation or even ‘greening’ of very resilient systems that are in and by themselves unsustainable. Adaptation to change is not enough, perhaps even a distraction, instead or, in addition to, disruption will be needed as well, not to mention to need for a discussion of ethics and the norms that underly our everyday actions. Here’s a linkt to the slides!WEEC2015 Slides Opening Talk
11 key themes were explored during the conference and beyond, and all represent potential tipping points in a transition towards sustainability. I have listed them below but please go the conference website (http://weec2015.org/).
- Taking Children seriously in addressing global challenges
We only have one planet, it’s simple, it’s the only we one we have, and we have got to look after it. But when we explore ’People and Planet and how they can develop together’, what people are we talking about? In this strand we focus on the young both as victims, heirs and catalyst and agents of change: not only the children growing up in affluence but also those growing up in poverty. How can we create spaces for them to become fully self-actualized members of society who can ably and meaningfully contribute to a transition towards a more sustainable world in which People and Planet develop together?
- Reclaiming sense of place in the digital age
Place-based approaches emphasizing the importance of place and place-based identity in determining our relations with the planet are on the rise across the globe. The focus on place and identity is timely as the complexity and uncertainty brought on by globalization and the rapid pace of technological and social change resulting in enormous cultural shifts which include a search for meaning and affiliation in locally defined identities. Although there are some who are worried about the ‘disconnect’ between people and place that results from a pre-occupation with and dependency on information and communication technologies, there are also those who see the use of ICTs as a way to reconnect people and places. There are numerous examples of citizens monitoring changes in the environment (e.g. changing bird migration patterns, changing quality of water, soil and air, changes in biodiversity) using GIS, cell phones, and specially designed monitoring apps. This strand explores the opportunities for reconnecting people and planet locally in a rapidly changing world.
- Environmental education and poverty reduction
As the millennium development goals are being replaced by sustainable development goals and there appears to be a shift from ‘education for all’ to ‘quality education for all‘, an important question is: what is the role of EE in reducing poverty? Already in 1975 (Belgrade Charter on EE) and 1977 (Tbilisi Declaration) EE was assigned a role in overcoming inequality and questioning unsustainable economic models to help alleviate poverty. But what has EE done concretely since? And why has reducing inequity and poverty been under-emphasized in the DESD? As poor people around the world are disproportionately affected by the impact of climate change, mining, resource depletion, loss of food and nutrition security, and so on, environmental and sustainability educators need to look for ways to engage multiple stakeholders (schools, communities, governments, private sector and civil society organizations) in strategies to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods. In this strand we look for researched practices from around the world that seek to do so.
- Learning in vital coalitions for green cities
Transition towns, eco-villages, urban agriculture, green schools with edible school gardens, are becoming more and more mainstream and widespread. These initiatives all require forms of joint learning with sometimes unlikely partners. Organizing such learning, also referred to as multi-stakeholder social learning, requires a new role for environmental and sustainability educators and policy-makers. A new task might be: brokering and supporting vital coalitions that are both energizing and generative in engaging citizens, including children and youth, meaningfully in greening urban areas in order to contribute to local food security, health and ecological stewardship. This thematic strand explores these emerging and expanding initiatives from a learning perspective: What kind of learning is taking place? Who is learning? How can such learning be supported? What is the impact of these coalitions on the learners themselves, the organisations they represent and the community they seek to improve?
- (Re) emerging concepts for environmental stewardship and sustainability
Since the birth of environmental education in the sixties of the last century emphasis has been placed on systems thinking and a more holistic approach to problem solving or situation improvement. Over the years many learning activities and curricula have been developed by environmental educators but still the challenge of enabling people to see connections, relationships and interdependencies, is as big as back then but the urgency to so is greater than ever. In meeting this challenge there are calls for re-discovering and utilizing indigenous ways of knowing but at the same time there are new concepts such as bio-mimicry, cradle to cradle and life cycle analysis that show promise in strengthening integral thinking and design. In this strands the educational potential of old, new and blended ways of ‘thinking the earth whole’ is explored.
- Mind the gap! Moving from awareness to action
Early EE was informed by insights from behaviourist social psychology suggesting that an increase in environmental awareness would lead to more responsible environmental behaviour. This assumed linearity between increasing knowledge-growing-awareness and changing-behaviour has shown to be weak. Attitude-behaviour models have since then been revised to include a number of additional factors and feedback loops. Just providing information, raising awareness and changing attitudes apparently is not enough to change people’s behaviour. But still policy-makers and donors want ‘evidence’ that education leads to a change in behaviour and improved environmental quality. In this thematic strand we re-visit the ‘gap’ by exploring new behavioural models and new forms of ‘evidence’ taking a critical look at projects and approaches that successfully influence and/or change behaviour.
- Assessing environmental and sustainability education in times of accountability
In this thematic strand the focus is on assessment of learners in school settings (K-12 and vocational education). In many countries there is a call for climbing the rankings and excelling in math, science and languages (cfr. the Pisa rankings). This often leads to a focus on the testing of ‘universal’ knowledge. At the same time schools – in their own context – need to pay attention to sustainability, health, citizenship, arts and humanities while preparing learners for a rapidly changing world and workplace. These claims seem to be competing with one another. How can environmental and sustainability education navigate this force field? Are there alternative ways of assessing learners that provide more space for meaningful learning around real/authentic issues?
- Beyond the green economy: educating and learning for green jobs in a green society
Driven perhaps by mostly economic interests and technological innovations, companies and governments are beginning to re-orient themselves to what is commonly referred to as the ‘green economy’ and its related ‘green skills’ and ‘green jobs’. The demand for a workforce that is capable to work in such an economy is on the rise and (vocational) schools are responding by re-orienting their curricula. From an environmental and sustainability perspective it is important to critically follow this trend in order to make sure that the P for People and the P for Planet receive at least as much attention as the P for Profit or Prosperity. In this thematic strand we invite participants to discuss the role of environmental and sustainability education at the interface between school and community and the world of work.
- New perspectives on research in environmental and sustainability education
The increased attention to ‘engagement’ in environmental learning has resulted in a greater focus on the agency of citizens, young and old, and their active participation in all phases of learning and inquiry. Positioning citizens in such roles is consistent with calls for treating all people as responsible agents capable of participating in changing and improving their circumstances. Doing so is considered crucial as the complexity and seemingly overwhelming nature of sustainability issues can easily lead to negativity and action paralysis. This is why some environmental education researchers emphasize not only the intellectual engagement of people in socio-ecological issues, but also their emotional engagement. For environmental education research to contribute to citizen engagement in socio-ecological-environmental issues, forms of civically engaged scholarship with appropriate research methodologies and methods are needed urgently. In this thematic strand participants are encouraged to share, reflect on and discuss emergent perspectives on research in environmental and sustainability education.
- Educational policy development for environment & sustainability
Communities, schools and universities are affected by a number of educational policies that are not always consistent with one another and offer varying opportunities for addressing environment and sustainability in a meaningful way. This strand investigates existing and new policies and innovations that offer the most promise for enabling educational change for a more sustainable future, including in relation to educational institutions’ approaches to curriculum, research, facilities operations, governance, and broader engagement with community and place.
- Education and learning for climate change adaptation and resilience
Communities, both urban and rural, are experiencing the impacts of climate change in sometimes subtle (e.g. the shifting of seasons, change of bird migration patterns) and not so subtle (e.g. flooding, droughts) ways. How can education and learning help communities adapt to these impacts and become more resilient in their response? How do communities strengthen their capacities for social resilience, reduced vulnerability and an integral risk management? Or should the focus be on ’adaptation’ and ’resilience’ reflecting the inevitability of climate change while de-emphasising climate change mitigation or prevention?