Deconstructing a Happy Meal – making everyday life routine practices a source of transformative learning – indeed: food for thought!

“Today we’re going to study the food pyramid for healthy living!” the High School Social Science teacher Mark told his class. Mark was excited about launching a healthy food project that would enable kids to analyze their diets. He was well-prepared and had collected a number of teaching resources from government agencies, NGO’s and food-companies concerned with youth obesity and increasing health costs. One of his students called out: ”Food pyramids?” Boring! Why can’t we go to McDonalds?” This idea got the whole class excited, but frustrated Mark. After all, he had thought of something new that was hands-on and seemed very relevant. Later that evening Mark asked himself how he could motivate his students and engage them in an exciting learning process that would teach them something about health issues. He got an idea.

The next day Mark said to his class: “Today we’re going to McDonalds!” The whole class cheered. They couldn’t believe it.  Their teacher was actually going to take the whole class to the McDonalds near the mall across the street. “But…, there’s one condition. We will only buy one happy meal for the whole class”.  This got the students a little less excited, but they went anyway, just to get out of school. The class bought one cheeseburger happy meal and took it back to the classroom. Mark told the class that “unfortunately we are not going to eat the happy meal, we are going to carefully study it instead”.  He wrote down two questions on the blackboard:

What is in it?

Where did it come from?

They first dissected the meal: a plain bread bun, a slice of melted cheese, a grilled beef burger, salt, mustard, ketchup, pickles, French fries, diet cola, and, finally, a nice toy.

Then Mark divided the class in six groups of four students. One group got the bread bun, another group the salted French fries, another group the diet soda, another group got the burger, another group the accessories; ketchup, mustard and pickles and the last group got the plastic bagged happy meal toy.

“You have the remaining social science hours of the week to answer the two questions. Next week I want a short presentation with your findings from each of the groups. You can use the internet, the school library, the telephone in my office, and, if you need to ask questions across the street at the restaurant you can do so with my permission.”

All the groups went to work and the more they found out, the more interested they got. The group investigating the french fries found out that fast food chains need enormous volumes of potatoes and demand a certain type of potato that guarantees a consistent quality. As a result potato farmers around the world have reduced the number of potato varieties greatly. This has led to a loss of crop-biodiversity, making the remaining crops more vulnerable to pests and leading to an increase of pesticide use. A common response to this vulnerability is use genetically modified crops that are resistant to these pests. However the students also found out that McDonalds, pressured by concerned consumers, decided not to use Monsanto’s GM new leaf potato. The group’s investigation led to an interesting discussion about the pro’s and con’s of GM-foods. Most students were not aware that they were already consuming GM-foods. In fact the group studying the diet Cola found out that the sweeteners contained GM corn.  When presenting their finding students used a provocative quote from the internet to start a classroom-wide discussion:

Giant agribusiness, chemical and restaurant companies like Cargill, Monsanto and McDonalds dominate the world’s food chain, building a global dependence on unhealthy and genetically dangerous products. These companies are racing to secure patents on every plant and living organism and their intensive advertising seeks to persuade the world’s consumers to eat more and more sweets, snacks, burgers, and soft drinks.

Meanwhile the group investigating the happy meal toy learnt some things they didn’t expect to learn either. The discovered that the toys served cross-marketing purposes. Meaning that they bring parents and their children to the restaurant but they also promote things like Disney movies.  Most of the toys were made of plastic and not used by the children for a very long time. They went back to the McDonalds and studied how and for how long kids played with the toy and asked parents to estimate for how long the toy would remain in use. They estimated that the effective play time would be less than 10 minutes. Perhaps the most interesting finding they got by using the Internet. They found many sites – mostly activist  sites – that suggested that the happy meal toys were made in China. They came upon an article that stated that “.. a happy meal toy manufacturer, China-based City Toys Limited, employed children as young as 13 to assemble the “Happy Meal” toys.” These young teenagers were reportedly forced to work 16 hour days, seven days a week, and lived in crowded, on-site dormitories for a salary of less than 3 dollars a day. As a result of these revelations made in the Summer of 2000, McDonalds quickly responded by denying to have any knowledge about these conditions. The company distanced itself from City Toys Limited and moved its operations elsewhere. Since McDonalds was, at the time, not required to disclose information about its overseas contractors, it was difficult for the students to trace where they moved the operations and what the working conditions are at the new facilities. When this group presented their results to the class the were discussions about child-labour, children’s rights, ethics of moving jobs to countries with different standards and laws, but also about the consequences of McDonalds using a ‘cut-and-run’ strategy for the children in China working for City Toys, whose income might have been crucial for their families. The teacher also raised the issue of the reliability of the information of provided on the internet. Who put the information there? With what purpose? Is it based on fact?

The other groups too, found interesting information and point of discussion related to a happy meal (varying from beef imports, hormones in meat, clear cutting of rainforest to the sweeteners used in Diet-coke). One group was interested in figuring out ‘how many miles a happy meal has travelled to get to the local McDonalds? They didn’t get a chance to figure it out but they guessed tens of thousand of miles. The whole excersise was transformative in that they view of fast food in general and of a happy meal had changed. Mark’s concern was that, even though the students learnt a lot about food-related sustainability issues (health, environment, equity, economics), gathering information, presenting information, critical thinking, debating, etc., the project may have resulted in a rather bleak picture of something they really enjoyed: eating a nice juicy cheeseburger at McDonalds. He wanted the students to think about viable alternatives. So he asked the students a third question:

Can you design a happy meal that makes everybody happy?

The same groups started thinking about alternative buns, cheese, beef, mustard, pickles, soda, and even an alternative toy. This took another week of investigations but in the end they designed a happy meal that was more organic, healthier, socially-responsible and used up less energy. They cooked the happy meal themselves in the school kitchen for all junior high students and did a taste survey which demonstrated that the meal was a least as tasty as a McDonalds happy meal.  There was one problem: the new happy meal was far more expensive that the McDonald’s version. This raised another issue in the classroom: are we willing and/or able to pay more for meals that are healthier, more equitable, have less environmental impact? Some argued that consumers should demand this kind of food so that big corporations will change their own policies and practices, making alternative foods more affordable as demand increases.

“When McDonalds, Pringles, and the other major potato buyers decided not to sell Monsanto’s GM New Leaf potato, for example, it was soon taken off the market. McDonalds and others doomed Monsanto’s potato because they wanted to satisfy consumer demands. We have that power.” “In the U.S., Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s announced that GMOs would be removed from their store brands. Gerber baby foods, as well as scores of health food products, have similarly changed their ingredients.”

“When a store or brand removes GM ingredients, it has a ripple effect through the industry. After a supermarket chain commits to eliminate GMO’s, they usually send out a letter to their suppliers who in turn contact their suppliers and so on. A store may have hundreds of food items, each with a list of ingredients. Hundreds or thousands of businesses can be affected, right back to the farm level.

Others pointed out that their parents make decisions about what to buy, since they are the ones going to the grocery store.

The deconstructing of a happy meal became a transformative learning experience for all those involved, including Mark, the teacher. The happy meal brought out issues, tensions, dissonance, north-south relationships, health issues, ethics, the role of corporations, consumerism, economics, crop-biodiversity, etc.  It made an ordinary activity (going to McDonalds), somewhat unordinary and raised many critical questions that demanded some serious reflection. It developed a range of competencies in the students: asking questions, finding reliable information using a variety of sources, analysing data, presenting information, critical thinking, etc., etc.

Mark’s point of it all was not that students would reject going to McDonalds but that they would become aware of range of food-related issues: ethical ones with respect to using GMO-food or not, or with respect to children making toys for children, or which also raises questions about animal-well in relation to industrial agriculture, ecological ones, for instance, with respect to the potential loss of agro-biodiversity, environmental ones, for instance, with respects to the use of batteries in toys, the use of plastics or the energy used in food miles travelled or in ‘producing meat’ , and then there are economic ones, as well, for instance, with respect of the economies of scale of mass-production and consumption but also with respect to the shortening of food-chains and going local, when factoring in so-called “hidden” environmental costs.

Obviously, students can still choose, having considered all aspects and given their own situation, socially and economically and so on, to go to McDonalds but in all likelihood, having done an activity like this will have transformed the way they look at (fast) food. How this episode of transformative learning will affect who they are, who they’d like to become and how they will behave in the future cannot be known or measured shortly after the activity or even months of years later. This will depend on future experiences and circumstances, but what we do know is that having a learning experience like this will make learners a bit more conscious of what they eat and how this may impact themselves and the world around them.


Deconstructing a Happy Meal is a composite example based on a number of stories and ideas from critical teachers engaged with transformative learning and problem-posing-based teaching. The Happy Meal represents many forms of fast food and just as easily could have been built around other meals. The activity is meant to be educational and not prescriptive in that it tells people what to think and how to behave. It should be recognized that McDonalds, like many multi-nationals, are aware of their ecological footprints and have a range of sustainability and environmental-oriented policies and guidelines. Whether these efforts are genuine driven by a deep concern about the well-being of people and planet or driven by purely economic interests is in the eyes of the beholder.

The Happy Meal case has been presented at several international meetings on Education for Sustainable Development. For references to this example and type of learning please go to:

Wals, A.E.J. (2010) Mirroring, Gestaltswitching and Transformative Social Learning: stepping stones for developing sustainability competence. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, (11(4), 380-390.

Sriskandarajah, N, Tidball, K, Wals, A.E.J., Blackmore, C. and  Bawden, R. (2010) Resilience in learning systems: case studies in university education. Environmental Education Research, 16(5/6), 559-573.


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

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: //

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


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 ( 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.



Time for ‘T-learning’ – transformative, transgressive learning in times of climate change


Still feeling very privileged and a bit lucky to be part of a very rich consortium of partners from 4 different continents – as one of 3 selected proposal out of more than 500 (!) original expressions of interest – to work on this ICSS-funded project on T-learning. The project just launched its website: with the case studies form the 10 different countries. Here is what we are talking about:

Radical changes in society are needed for responding to climate change, and for transforming to sustainability. It is increasingly clear that people everywhere will need to learn to transform to sustainability in ways that are socially just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable.

It is now already widely known that transformations to sustainability can occur if people learn to make changes at niche level. This can drive wider social changes and regime shift transformations, especially if such forms of learning become more collective.

Transformations to sustainability do not come about easily because of ‘lock-ins’ in the system. Transformative, transgressive types of learning are needed to help ‘unlock’ the lock-ins and to strengthen wider forms of collective social learning.

Yet, we know little about the type of transformative, transgressive learning (t-learning) that enables such change.

Here’s the initial ‘academic’ paper we wrote: transgressiveSocialLearning (only to have a look, not for sharing with others).

Full reference: Lotz-Sisitka H, Wals AEJ, Kronlid D, McGarry D. (2015) ‘Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability , 16, 73-80, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.018

Go visit the website! or here: Join T-learning form


Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

In a recent interview for  Environmental Education Professor and a dear colleague and critical friend of mine already for many years, Lucy Sauvé from Quebec, sees in the GEM 2016 report more evidence that there is no substantial change in the ‘language’ of the latest UN Report on education and sustainable development. She cherry picks some statements from the report to illustrate this. I agree, there are some or even many cherries to pick with a neo-liberal flavour. But I can also pick cherries with a different flavour – a flavour that was completely or mostly absent in the UN ESD world.


I have both worked with the UNESCO DESD and the Global Education Monitor Team which operates separate from the DESD – even though it is located on the same floor in the UNESCO headquarters as the ESD-team – indeed as a critical friend in the sense that I am sympathetic to any attempt that can re-orient education towards planet and people, but that I am also cautious of co-optation of such efforts by that same neo-liberal agenda. So when I read about People-Planet-Profit (as the GEM team used initially) then I must ask ‘who or what got the P for Profit in there?’ Why not just People and Planet? If you need to have something more explicitly related to economy in there then let us at least use the P of Prosperity. When I read that education for all is import for all, because it will lead to economic development which is prerequisite for ecological and environmental sustainability then this logic must be questioned: is education there to serve the economy first and foremost? Is all education by definition good or can it be highly problematic? Etc. When the ‘world of business’ jumps on the sustainable development, sustainability and ‘green’ bandwagon, then we must look critically at what the underlying motives are and what their efforts really entail. A car company promoting its hydride car using ‘sustainable excitement’ as its slogan, while at the same time manipulating its emission tests, needs to be questioned. Critical thinking is essential and asking disruptive questions is a part of that. When we read about sustainable development we must also ask ‘must we always develop?’ Or can sustainability represent an alternative TO development? When we read UN DESD documents or the GEM2016 report we must also ask are there any references to ethics? the non-human world? Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world? Etc.

Of course it is always easier to critique then to transform. Being near or within UNESCO circles I feel can have more impact in changing the dominant discourse than staying outside of it by raising the above questions from within in dialogue. Sure the UN is an enormous bureaucracy that doesn’t change overnight, but change does happen. Working with the GEM Team for about 5 months has given me some insights in how such a comprehensive report is written: framing of the key issues, commissioning papers to mostly external experts, carefully selecting, re-organising and editing texts, distilling key messages as GEM reports are message-oriented, creating a coherent grand document, several rounds of ‘fact-checking’ and copy-editing. The initial framing and the choice of experts who are to write about the key issues has a huge influence on the tone and direction of the narrative. When I came in, half a year before the report had to be finalized, the framing had been done and could not be changed much really (the thematic section, that I was involved in, is framed around 6 Ps: Planet, Prosperity, People, Places, Participation and Partnerships, whereas the second part of the report, the monitoring part, is framed around SDG 4 (Education) and 17 (Partnerships). Where I could still have some influence was the tone and direction of the narrative, tweaking it towards a more critical perspective on the role of education and the current economy – with regards to gender, equity, indigenousness and participation the people from the GEM team working on those sections already had a rather critical perspective.

I should point out that initially I was surprised that the framing and selecting of experts was done without any consultation of the UNESCO ESD section. I asked the GEM Team why there was no or little interaction between the two sections. The response was that the Team wanted to write a more evidence-based report not using an potentially rosy ESD lens but using a sober education lens to get a more accurate picture of the role of education in creating more sustainable futures for all. I also checked with the ESD section if this annoyed them but they were not. In fact they welcomed such an ‘independent’ attempt and hope it would lead to new insights and bring in new and more people into the conversation.

Now back to the initial question of this post: Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

If you are looking for confirmation of replication and affirmation of this agenda you will find it – as Lucy did, however, if you look for a shift in the common discourse, you will also find it. Below I have done some cherry-picking of my own by selecting some key messages that I think represent a counter narrative and a potential shift away from business as usual. Here are my cherries from the GEM2016 report, and believe me, some of them are quite radical and signify a departure form standard UN rhetoric:

  • Current models of economic growth cause environmental destruction
  • For education to be transformative in support of the new sustainable development agenda, ‘education as usual’ will not suffice.
  • Education cannot fight inequality on its own. Labour markets and governments must not excessively penalize lower income individuals. Cross sectoral cooperation can reduce barriers to gender equality.
  • A whole-school approach is needed to build green skills and awareness. Campaigns, companies, as well as community and religious leaders must advocate for sustainability practices. Non-formal education and research and development should also help solve global environmental challenges.
  • Expand education on global citizenship, peace, inclusion and resilience to conflict. Emphasize participatory teaching and learning especially in civic education. Invest in qualified teachers for refugees and displaced people, and teach children in their mother language. Incorporate education into the peacebuilding agenda.
  • Distribute public resources equitably in urban areas, involving the community in education planning.
  • Mobilize domestic resources, stop corporate tax evasion and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies to generate government revenue for fundamental needs such as education and health.
  • Include education in all discussions on urban development. Improve and fund urban planning programmes and curricula to include cross-sector engagement and develop locally-relevant solutions.
  • Promote the value of indigenous livelihoods, traditional knowledge and community-managed or -owned land through actions such as land conservation and locally relevant research.
  • Engage community elders in curricular development and school governance, produce appropriate learning materials and prepare teachers to teach in mother languages.
  • Incentivize universities to produce graduates and researchers who address large-scale systemic challenges through creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Promote cooperation across all sectors to reduce policy-related obstacles to full economic participation by women or minority groups, as well as discrimination and prejudice that also act as barriers.
  • Support multistakeholder governance for the sustainable management of natural resources and of public and semi-public rural, urban and peri-urban spaces.

But there’s more – the GEM2016 has a somewhat different take on Sustainable Development than previous UN reports recognizing that there are different perspectives, including ones that critique the notion of continuous development (the quote below comes form page 4 of the report):

‘The different perspectives of sustainable development include viewing it as a model to improve current systems (endorsed by those focusing on viable economic growth), a call for major reforms (supported by those who advocate for a green economy and technological innovation) and an imperative for a larger transformation in power structures and embedded values of society (supported by transition movements). Some ecologists, such as deep ecologists, believe present-day human development focuses too much on people and ignores the plant, animal and spiritual parts of this world (Leonard and Barry, 2009). They believe humans must learn to be less self-interested and place the needs of other species alongside their own. Transformation advocates say societies should go back to ways of living that are locally sustainable – consuming and wasting less, limiting needs to locally available resources, treating nature with respect, and abandoning polluting technology that has become an integral part of modern society. Culture advocates believe sustainable living can happen only if communities truly embrace it as part of daily culture (Hawkes, 2001) so that it affects decisions about what to eat, how to commute to work and how to spend leisure time.

The South American buen vivir movement rejects development as materialistic and selfish, implying that living sustainably means finding alternatives to development (Gudynas, 2011). The buen vivir belief system comes directly from traditional values of indigenous people, and posits that collective needs are more important than those of the individual. In Ecuador, this concept is called sumak kawsay, the Quechua term for fullness of life in a community. It involves learning to live within boundaries, finding ways to reduce use or to do more with less, and exploring non-material values. Ecuador and the Plurinational State of Bolivia have incorporated buen vivir into their constitutions.

Most definitions of sustainable development challenge the status quo, believing human development lacks meaning without a healthy planet. This view requires people, communities and nations to reconsider basic values of daily living and change the way they think. Understanding one’s own values, the values of one’s community and society, and those of others around the world is a central part of educating for a sustainable future. This means education systems need to continuously evolve and change in order to identify what practices work best within a given context and how they need to change over time. Indeed, for many of its advocates in education, sustainable development is best understood as a journey, rather than a destination.’

So in short – yes it is easy to critique this report as an extension of hegemonic globalizing thinking and  as another attempt to hijack any efforts to change the dominant discourse, but I think that is too easy and not very generative. Rather I would look for the elements that represent a potential shift and a transition towards alternatives and help amplify them by highlighting and sharing them. Some of the texts above would have been unthinkable in mainstream UN-speak only 10 years ago. The glass is half full, not half empty this time.

Arjen Wals, September 14th, 2016


Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice – now available!


Australian colleagues Ralphe Horne, John Fien, Beau Beza and Anitra Nelson edited a fascinating book on ‘sustainability citizenship’ to which I was priviledged to contribute a chapter together with Frans Lenglet. Urban sustainability citizenship situates citizens as social change agents with an ethical and self-interested stake in living sustainably with the rest of Earth. Such citizens not only engage in sustainable household practices but respect the importance of awareness raising, discussion and debates on sustainability policies for the common good and maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities seeks to explain how sustainability citizenship can manifest in urban built environments as both responsibilities and rights. Contributors elaborate on the concept of urban sustainability citizenship as a participatory work-in-progress with the aim of setting its practice firmly on the agenda. This collection will prompt practitioners and researchers to rethink contemporary mobilisations of urban citizens challenged by various environmental crises, such as climate change, in various socio-economic settings.

This book is a valuable resource for students, academics and professionals working in various disciplines and across a range of interdisciplinary fields, such as: urban environment and planning, citizenship as practice, environmental sociology, contemporary politics and governance, environmental philosophy, media and communications, and human geography.

The chapter Frans Lenglet and I wrote is titled: “Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning” and emphasizes the role of learning and cultivating diversity and generative conflict in co-determining what it means to be sustainable within the everyday realities people find themselves. It is argued that in order to brake with stubborn unstustainabel routines – that are heavily promoted and strenghtened in a market, growth and consumption-oriented society, citizens will also need to develop disruptive capacity and engage in transgressive learning (see my earlier post about transgressive learning and the work within the ICSS project on T-learning led by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes Univerity in South Africa). If you want to have a look at our chapter you can find it here: SustainabilityCitizenshipWalsLenglet2016 (for personal use). The full reference is:

Wals, A.E.J. & F. Lenglet (2016). Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning. In: R. Horne, J. Fien, B.B. Beza & A. Nelson (Eds.) Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan, p. 52-66.

If you want to get a hold of the entire book visit: