“Sustainability” in higher education: from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning


In times of systemic global dysfunction, post-truth, alternative facts, cultivated doubt and the erosion of meaning, I found it useful to turn back, once again, to George Orwell’s infamous “1984”.  Well over 10 years ago, in 2004, I co-authored a paper on the danger of ‘doublespeak’ and ‘Newspeak’ in relation to the integration of sustainability in higher education. Back then this was an emerging trend, nowadays, it sometimes signifies a transition in education but more often little more than rethoric and green gloss. For me this is a good reason to re-introduce this paper here with Orwell’s cautionary tale but also with some ideas about how to move forward responsibly. Below an excerpt from the paper which you can find here in its totality:  Jickling and Wals Orwell’s Cautionary Tale

Wals, A.E.J. & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, vol. 15, 121-131.  SustinHEOrwellsCautionaryTale

“Sustainability talk can, when used by advocates with radically different ideas about what should be sustained, mask central issues under the false pretense of a shared understanding, set of values and common vision of the future.

However, critical thought depends on transcendent elements in ordinary language, the words and ideas that reveal assumptions and worldviews, and the tools to mediate
differences between contesting value systems. And worse still, sustainability talk can
lead us in the direction of Orwell’s (1989) famously satirical notion of “doublethink”
whereby ordinary citizens can increasingly hold in their minds contradictory meanings
for the same term and accept them both (Orwell, 1989, p. 223).

The power of universal discourse in reducing meaning to a minimum is such that, as in “1984”, antagonistic concepts can be conjoined in a single phrase (“war is peace”, “peace is war”) or concept (i.e. “sustainable growth”) (Jickling, 2001). Big Brother’s “Newspeak” was designated not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was
indirectly assisted by cutting down the choice of words to a minimum (Orwell, 1989,
p. 313).

In Newspeak concepts capable of opposing, contradicting or transcending
the status quo were liquidated. As a result of this devaluation of language the people
in “1984” found themselves in a state of linguistic dysfunction which was exactly
what Big Brother wanted (Jickling, 2001).

Seen this way sustainability tends to blur the very distinctions required to evaluate an issue thoughtfully. When comparing the sustaining of ecological processes with the sustaining of consumerism we immediately see inconsistencies and incompatibilities of values, yet many people, conditioned to think that sustainability is inherently good, will promote both at the same time.”


Using a social learning configuration to increase Vietnamese smallholder farmers’ adaptive capacity to respond to climate change


Link to the T&F site for the article

My former PhD-student Le Thi Hong Phuong now has a fourth paper from her dissertation which she only defended a few months ago, accepted in Local Environment a T&F journal on justice and sustainability (one of the oldest journals in this area!). Here is the abstract:

Social learning is crucial for local smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve their adaptive capacity and to adapt to the current and projected impacts of climate change. While it is widely acknowledged that social learning is a necessary condition for adaptation, few studies have systematically investigated under which conditions particular forms of social learning are most successful in improving adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable groups. This study aims to design, implement and evaluate a social learning configuration in a coastal community in Vietnam. We make use of various methods during four workshop-based interventions with local smallholder farmers: interviews with key farmers and commune leaders, farmer-to-farmer learning, participatory observations and focus group discussions. The methods for evaluation of social learning configuration include in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and structured survey interviews. Our findings show that the social learning configuration used in this study leads to an increased problem ownership, an enhanced knowledge-base with regard to climate change impacts and production adaptation options, improved ability to see connections and interdependencies and finally, strengthened relationships and social cohesion. The results suggest that increased social learning in the community leads to increase in adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers and improves both their economic and environmental sustainability. We discuss the key lessons for designing learning configurations that can successfully enhance adaptive capacity and smallholder farmers’ agency and responsiveness to the challenges posed by climate change impacts.


Environmental Education in Asia – Special Issue in the Japanese Journal of EE


This special issue edited by Shinichi Furihata and Sachi Ninomiya-Lim from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and Tokai University respectively,  is the result of a 2-year collaborative project involving environmental education (EE) societies/ associations from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, North America, and Australia. In the editorial introduction the following is stated:

“The aim of the project was to create a platform to share ideas, practices, and theories of EE in the Asian region, with English as the common language. The discussion was organized around five core themes: 1) Development, current situation, and challenges of EE in formal education; 2) Development, current situation, and challenges of EE in non-formal education; 3) Research trends in EE; 4) Insights for EE in Asia from outside of Asia; 5) Review, comparison, and synthesis of findings to go beyond a presentation of EE in various countries and instead highlight the recurring transversal issues. We hope this special issue will contribute to furthering dialogue among EE scholars and practitioners in Asia, and to building bridges between EE in Asia and other regions.

The Japanese Journal of Environmental Education (JJEE), published by the JSOEE/JSFEE since 1991, has provided EE researchers and practitioners with an important space to share their ideas, thoughts, methods, and evaluative analyses, and to participate in theoretical discussions, etc., similar to many EE journals published in other countries and regions. However, since most of JJEE articles are written in Japanese (with summaries in English), its readership is essentially limited to Japanese language users, most of whom reside in Japan. Thus, although the JJEE has become a critical platform for communication among Japanese EE researchers and practitioners, there is a need to expand these discussions to a wider, global network, so that Japanese EE professionals may participate in international and transnational debates on issues of wider relevance in EE. Similarly, EE research in different journals published in Asian countries, including Korea and Taiwan, is mostly written in the local language and is therefore largely inaccessible to people who do not read these languages. The aim of this special issue, therefore, was to create a space where such discussions may be shared and connected. In addition, we decided to invite several prominent international researchers to provide their insights, ideas, and suggestions on developing EE in Asia, increasing Asian participation in the global EE arena, and promoting collaboration on EE with different countries and regions around the world.”

I was asked to write a reflective response paper together with Peter Blaze Corcoran and Joseph Weakland in which we look ahead to the future of EE in the region and beyond. Our paper titles “Preparing for the Ecocene: Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education” is based on the introduction to the recent book we edited for Wageningen Academic Publishers (see elsewhere in this blog). All papers are available as open-access and can be found here: Link to the entire Special Issue  You can find our closing paper in which we introduce the notion of the imaginary Ecocene here: Preparing for the Ecocene: Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education

Sustainability by Default: Co-creating Care and Relationality Through Early Childhood Education


The above illustration comes from the new Harvard MOOC on Early Childhood Development and Sustainability

This new paper will be part of a special issue on early childhood education and sustainable development. I wrote the piece  based on a keynote address presented at the 68th OMEP World Assembly and International Conference held in Seoul in July 2016. In the paper I argue that children are more in tune with sustainability than most adults and that both adults and children can benefit from intergenerational dialogue and expanded learning opportunities in so-called ecologies of learning. First the idea of growing up in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch that is shaped by one single species, home sapiens, is introduced. What does growing up in the Anthropocene mean for today’s children? A short critique is provided of the neoliberal forces that increasingly influence what happens in education and care settings and that essentially make unsustainability the default in our society. Drawing on Martin Buber’s ideas of relational ways of being in the world; Nell Nodding’s notions of care; and George Siemen’s ideas about learning ecologies, some suggestions are offered for co-creating early childhood education and care with people and the planet in mind.

The paper ends with the following: “What seems critical is that children encounter a multiplicity of different worlds by crossing boundaries, both individually and together, and having bodily experiences that strengthen their relationality with the human, the non-human and the material. It is through these encounters that agency, care and empathy can develop. All three of these qualities are foundational for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect.

Citation: Wals, A.E.J. (2017) Sustainability by default: Co-creating Care and Relationality Through Early Childhood Education, International Journal of Early Childhood Education doi:10.1007/s13158-017-0193-5

Note that this is an open access publication that can be downloaded for free here: Sustainability by default