“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.”


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

Unreasonable doubt, viral nonsense and the Post-truth Trump era – avoiding hopelessness and creating sustainability by default



On December 17th, one year ago, the warmest December 17th on record on The Netherlands, I gave my a second inaugural address at Wageningen University titled: Beyond unreasonable doubt –  education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the anthropocene  (link to the text) the address took place exactly 6 months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the USA. At that time nobody really thought he had any chance but that was then. Now that we have entered a new phase of potential depression, hopelessness, psychic numbing, withdrawal, giving up, loss of energy, it seems like the challenge of moving towards a more sustainable world has become greater than ever before which is why I am re-posting the video that Wageningen University made back then about the role of education in creating more critical, mindful, empathic and responsible citizens willing and able to turn the tide and making living lightly and equitably on the Earth the default rather than the exception.

Here is the link to the 2,5 minute video that may be more accessible than the booklet (I hope it spreads as rapidly as some of the non-sense that spreads with lightening speed these days):

Breathing sustainability