“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.”


Reflexively Stumbling towards Sustainability – understanding social learning in regional governance networks


This afternoon of June 8th, one of my PhD students, co-supervised with Dr. PJ Beers of DRIFT in Rotterdam and Prof Peter Feindt of the Humbolt University in Berlin, successfully here beautiful dissertation in the Aula of Wageningen University. You can download the dissertation and the 4 published papers that are a part of the work via the Wageningen University Library shortly. You can also watch the defense still via WUR-TV Getting to the defense and the thesis

New book – Sustainability Science: Key issues



SustScienceSustainability Science Key Issues Edited by Ariane König (Université du Luxembourg, Luxembourg) and Jerome Ravetz (Oxford University, UK) is a comprehensive textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates from any disciplinary background studying the theory and practice of sustainability science. Each chapter takes a critical and reflective stance on a key issue of sustainability from contributors with diverse disciplinary perspectives such as economics, physics, agronomy and ecology. This is the ideal book for students and researchers engaged in problem and project based learning in sustainability science.

I co-authored Chapter 2 with Michael A Peters titled: Flowers of resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. Here’s a short intro to our joint effort. “When democracy can be hijacked, power corrupts and capitalism penetrates deeply into society, including into our schools, what prospects still exist for education for a more sustainable world? Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities. In this paper we seek comfort, inspiration and support from emerging forms of ecological democracy, civic science and transgressive education.  The latter invites conflict and disruption as mechanisms to break with stubborn, unsustainable routines, that encourage people to leave their comfort zone. The resulting discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true. Learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones amidst a plurality of ideas, can help us interrogate and rethink the way we frame – or are made to frame – our experiences, as well as our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions.”

Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. and Peters, M.A. (2017) Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm König, A. & Ravetz, J. (ed.). 2017.  Sustainability Science: Key Issues.  London: Earthscan/Routledge.

Here’s the link to the book: Sustainability Science: Key Issues

(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective

A new paper coming out of the EnRRich network LivingKnowledge & EnRRich seems ti get a lot of attention considering the number of paper downloads within the first 10 days the paper has appeared online. This is probably because many universities are struggling to find a good way to make education more relevant, responsive, responsible and reflexive in light of global sustainability challenges.


Here is the abstract and a link to Redesigning HE (open access, freely downloadable):

There is an urgent need to address the grand sustainability challenges of our time, and to explore new and more responsible ways of operating, researching, and innovating that enable society to respond to these challenges. The emergent Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) policy agenda can act as a catalyst towards the development of new and more responsible research and innovation efforts. Inevitably, higher education needs to be closely attuned to this need and agenda, by preparing students to engage in RRI efforts. This paper makes a first step towards guiding the embedding of RRI within higher education. It does so by bringing together academic knowledge with phronesis or practical knowledge about what should be done in an ethical, political, and practical sense. It draws on a literature review and on the reflective practices of partners in the European Commission funded project EnRRICH (Enhancing Responsible Research and Innovation through Curricula in Higher Education), as well as on interviews and case studies gathered as part of the project. The paper suggests elements, especially design principles and a competence framework, for (re)designing curricula and pedagogies to equip higher education students to be and to become responsible actors, researchers, and innovators in a complex world, and to address grand sustainability challenges. In addition, this paper proposes that contemporary higher education teaching and learning policies and strategies, especially those promoting neoliberal agendas and marketized practices, need to adopt a more responsible and responsive ethos to foster the renewal of higher education in times of systemic dysfunction.


Higher education Responsible research and innovation Grand sustainability challenges Curricula Competence 


Radical ruralities in practice: Negotiating buen vivir in a Colombian network of sustainability – new article!

The Journal of Rural Studies just released a new paper on the conceptualisation and realization of buen vivit in a Colombian sustainability network. Martha Chaves as a part of her PhD-work (see earlier blog posts on this) led a team of authors that also included Thomas Macintyre, Gerard Verschoor and myself.


This paper explores the emerging concept of buen vivir –  interpreted as integrative and collective wellbeing  – as it is being envisioned and practiced by a network of sustainability initiatives in Colombia. As an example of a transition narrative currently taking place in Latin America and beyond, buen vivir represents a turn towards a more biocentric, relational and collective means of understanding and being in the world. Yet despite the many discourses into buen vivir (many of which tout it as an alternative to neoliberal models of development), there is a general lack of research into its varied forms of application, especially in terms of lived experiences. Drawing on the new ruralities literature, this paper explores the extent to which buen vivir visions and practices represent radical new ruralities e so-called alternatives to development. Data were collected from individuals and ecological communities in predominantly rural areas who are members of the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas (CASA), a
network which promotes many of the principles of buen vivir. Through participatory methods, results demonstrate that CASA visions are based on constructing territorial relations through intercultural knowledge exchange and experimentation into alternative lifestyles. Despite the substantial challenges and contradictions of putting these visions into practice, we argue that lived experiences promote processes of self-reflection on what buen vivir really is or could be. We hold that the inclusive nature of buen vivir offers opportunities for diverse peoples to cohere around shared meanings of the ‘good life,’
while providing the freedom to live variations depending on social and ecological context.

Here’s the DOI: //dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.02.007

For a sneak preview you can also have a look here: Chavesetal2017RadicalRuralities

Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability

Just before the end of the year a fascinating paper appeared in the journal Sustainability authored by a multi-author team led by Martha Chaves who just completed het PhD in Wageningen last month.

Chaves, M., Macintyre, T, Verschoor, G & Wals, AEJ (2017)Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability. Sustainability 2017, 9, 21; doi:10.3390/su9010021  Link to the paper.

Abstract: In line with the increasing calls for more transformative and transgressive learning in the context of sustainability studies, this article explores how encounters between different ontologies can lead to socio-ecological sustainability. With the dominant one-world universe increasingly being questioned by those who advocate the existence of many worlds—a so-called pluriverse—there lays the possibility of not only imagining other human–nature realities, but also engaging with them in practice. Moving towards an understanding of what happens when a multiplicity of worlds encounter one another, however, entails a sensitivity to the negotiations between often competing ontologies—or ontological politics. Based on an ethnographic methodology and narrative methods, data were collected from two consecutive intercultural gatherings called El Llamado de la Montaña (The Call of the Mountain), which take place for five days every year in different parts of Colombia. By actively participating in these gatherings of multiplicity, which address complex socio-ecological challenges such as food sovereignty and defence of territory, results show how encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially transgressive learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate un-sustainability. Although we argue that a fundamental part of the wicked sustainability puzzle lies in supporting more relational ontologies, we note that such learning environments also lead to conflicts through inflexibility and (ab)use of power which must be addressed if sustained socio-ecological learning is to take place. Keywords: ontological politics; transformative learning; transgressive learning; sustainability; Colombia; narrative methods.

Here’s the cover of Martha Chaves’ PhD-thesis which can be downloaded from the Wageningen University Library system.


Answering the “Call of the Mountain”: Co-creating Sustainability through Networks of Change in Colombia

It is one thing to talk about wanting to live in harmonious relations with people, nature and Planet or Mother Earth, but quite another to put this into practice.

Today, Tuesday November 22nd, the day the FARC and the Colombian government are signing a new peace treaty, one of PhD students, Martha Chaves, successfully defended her dissertation. Martha’s thesis represents a systematic attempt to investigate individuals, communities, networks and gatherings of networks that seek to develop a more relational and caring way of living and of being in the world. In her native Colombia she studied what is it like to attempt to bring the principles of buen vivir such as; reconnecting to ancestral wisdom, questioning values of competition and individuality, and forming new relations to place and territory, into practice. Below you see a happy group of people who all played a role in the ceremony.


Her research unveils the tensions between the dominant ontology or (ways of being) of modernity, and other marginalized more relational and cosmological ones such as those of Indigenous Andean communities. Her thesis also re-affirms the importance of plurality in creating the ‘dissonance’ that invites continuous learning that is sometimes at the edges of people’s comfort zones. More so, she shows how intercultural encounters between different ontological positions can lead to more a confronting and overcoming of our unsustainable habits. As such the thesis can help inform socio-ecological niches and movements across the globe that seek to provide a counter narrative to economic globalization, modernity and the neo-liberal agenda.


After the defence – from left to right: Prof. Danny Wildemeersch, Prof. Rutgerd Boelens, myself, Dr. Martha Chaves, Dr. Gerard Verschoor, Deputy Rector Prof. Francine Govers, Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Prof. Noelle Aarts.

Furthermore, her results show or at least suggest that encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially ‘transgressive’ learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate unsustainablity. This finding connects well with here future work within the ISSC-funded project on T-learning (www.transgressivelearning.org) that I blogged about in the post below this one.

Afterwards there was a WASS seminar Symposium “Disruptive Networks of Change: Can ‘Transgressive’ learning alter the status quo?” where some critical follow-up questions were asked such as: What types of learning are needed to disrupt ingrained unsustainable behaviour? And how can learning-based change be upscaled? With invited speakers from the fields of environmental education and social learning, and building on the ISSC funded T-learning project which addresses issues of transformative/transgressive learning, we will set out to explore these questions, and possible paths towards more sustainable futures. Martha Chaves first presented here work briefly (presentation-for-defense-22-nov-2016), followed by responding presentations by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa (issc-tkn-seminar-wageningenn) and by Prof. Danny Wildemeersch (paper-presentation-maynooth) of the University of Leuven in Belgium.