Education for Sustainable Development in the ”Capitalocene” – Call for abstracts


There is still some time to submit your manuscript idea or abstract for this special issue Educational Philosophy and Theory (EPAT) that I am co-editing with my Swedish colleagues from the University of Gothenburg – Helena Pedersen, Beniamin Knutsson, Dawn Sanders and Sally Windsor. The deadline for – just the abstract – is May first. Go to the Routledge website for the details and see the description below!

Special Issue

ESD in the ”Capitalocene”: Caught up in an impasse between Critique and Transformation

Has Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) reached an impasse? Offering an application of Baudrillard’s thoughts to educational research, Paul Moran and Alex Kendall wrote in 2009 that education researchers are engaged in an act of forgery; a manufacture of presuppositions about what education is. Moran and Kendall argue that our research approaches, produce nothing but illusions of education, not because our approaches and methodologies are somehow flawed, rather that these illusions are what education is. Education, they claim, does not exist beyond its simulation.

Perhaps more provocatively, this implies that all critique of educational practice, from the revolutionary critical theory of Marx and the Frankfurt School via Foucauldian power analyses, as well as more recent ”new materialist” and post-qualitative approaches and beyond –are also part of the simulation of education process. These movements constitute an “improvement agenda” of education, and over and over again, more interventions are produced and critiques are repeated to foster improvements, pursued as if they were possible (Moran & Kendall 2009, p. 329).

We would like to take this Baudrillardian analysis of education as a springboard for thinking around ESD and capitalism. ESD is paradoxically positioned right at the nexus of looming ecological crises (”the Anthropocene” [Crutzen & Stoermer 2000]; the ”Capitalocene” [Malm & Hornborg 2014]) while at the same time the ESD field has been severely criticised for its presumed normativity (Jickling 1994). Quite regardless of the validity of this critique, embedded in the core idea of ESD is, arguably, a grandiose ”improvement agenda” – not only of education, but of the planetary condition as such. There is an asssumption that if we can find the appropriate way of ”doing” ESD, a sustainable world is within reach.

However, if there is nothing that may be called education “that exists independently of the methodologies, comments, curricula designs, testing regimes, forms of discrimination”, as Moran and Kendall (2009, p. 333) put it, what place is there – if any – for ESD under current conditions of predatory capitalism, exploitation of natural “resources”, transgression of planetary boundaries, and the destructive fantasy of infinite growth? Does ESD generate nothing but reproduction, much like capitalism itself (e.g. Hellberg & Knutsson 2018)? Is ESD an affect-organizing “comfort-machine” in the classroom (Pedersen 2019), sustaining the present order of things? Perhaps Bruno Latour (2004) captures the point most aptly: ”Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?” (p. 225) Latour suggests, that the critic “is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” (p. 246). Such arenas, Giroux observes, need “an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical, particularly in terms of how private issues are connected to larger social conditions and collective force” (Giroux 2004, p.62).

Stratford (2017) has recently called for education researchers to identify and respond to the challenging philosophical issues evoked by the current ecological crises. Our initiative is a response to Stratfords’s call; however, our starting point differs from how educational philosophy can “improve education in the Anthropocene” (p. 3) and is rather concerned with the “impossibility” of this claim.

We suggest that the idea of ESD as producing illusions of education rather than a sustainable world, does not necessarily lead to an impasse, but can, in Moran and Kendall’s (2009) words, be a very useful place to begin. We are looking for theory-, philosophy-, and empirically-driven papers that address the  ”impossible” position of ESD in ”the Capitalocene” at an urgent juncture in history.

Contributions may address, for instance, the following areas of inquiry;

  • Has ESD reached an impasse, and if so; how can it be understood?
  • Are there ”functions” of ESD beyond the improvement agenda, and beyond the cycle of Critique and Transformation?
  • Is ESD a form of simulation and, if so, what purposes might such simulation serve?
  • How can ESD effectively interfere with capitalism, its forces and threats to life-supporting Earth systems?
  • In what arenas of intervention and action can ESD assemble its participants?
  • How can we reimagine education in extinction and post-extinction narratives?

Submission Guidelines

Please send your abstract of 250-500 words, along with references and a brief bio, to both Helena Pedersen and Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg.

Final article manuscripts will be approx. 6000 words.

  • Abstract due: May 1, 2019
  • Notification of acceptance: May 20, 2019
  • Manuscript submission deadline: November 1, 2019

Guest Editors:

  • Helena Pedersen, University of Gothenburg
  • Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg
  • Dawn Sanders, University of Gothenburg
  • Sally Windsor, University of Gothenburg
  • Arjen Wals, University of Wageningen

Link to the publisher’s website is here!



Living Spiral Framework – Seeds of Sustainable Transitions


Over the past three years I have been fortunate to be a part of an ISSC supported Transformative Knowledge Network (TKN) called the T-Learning Network (see: T-Learning Network Website). The network has yielded several highly cited academic papers but, fortunately, also more practical ideas, concepts and tools. Three young and talented people in the network -Thomas Macintyre, Martha Chaves and Dylan McGary – co-created a lovely guide in both Spanish and English introducing one of the networks most exciting ideas: the Living Spiral Framework. This guide is targeted at researchers and practitioners interested in sharing their research into transformative and transgressive learning in the field of sustainability, climate change, and social and environmental justice.

In the introduction the guide states:

“We can understand transformative learning as transformations in beliefs, values and practices in a way that helps us live a more socially and ecologically responsible way. Delving deeper into the intricacies of transformation, we arrive at the emerging field of ‘transgressive learning,” a critical and action-oriented form of learning which challenges normalised systems which have become oppressive and detrimental to life.

We believe questioning our unsustainable beliefs, worldviews and practices as well as offering alternatives, is needed for such deeper learning to occur and transgress. To achieve this we need voices and narratives from actors within and outside of academia: from social learning facilitators, to indigenous shamen; from the city-based sustainability practitioners to the rural farmer, to have different perspectives on understanding transformation towards sustainability.

This guide provides a step-by-step guide for discovering how and to what extent, personal and collective learning journeys result in transformations towards sustainability, including the challenges and tensions experienced along the way. Moreover, it will allow you to follow the process cautiously to find your own indicators of transformation, unexpected results and opportunities, as well as other experiences along the way.” (Macintyre, Chaves, McGary, 2018 – p. 8).

Below you see the core of the framework which can be found here in its entirety Living Spiral Framework. If you want to more you can go or email one of the authors: Thomas Macintyre <>

SpiralYou can also read our latest academic paper related to this work in the Journal of Action Research in its recent special issue on action research and climate change here: T-labs and climate change narratives: Co-researcher qualities in transgressive action–research

Climate change, education and sustainable development – Podcast on FreshEd


What’s the connection between education and climate change? I was interviewed about this question by Will Rehm of FreshEd – a popular podcast on the future of education –  at the 2018 Global Education Meeting, a high-level UNESCO forum held in Brussels. The Forum reviewed the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. In our conversation, I raised the issue of the ‘hidden curriculum of unsustainability that is born out of schools focusing on preparing learners for the globalizing economy as workers and consumers’. I tried to move beyond providing a critique – which is relatively easy – to also sketch some hopeful practices and possibilities of whole school approaches towards sustainable development. In the interview I call for more freedom and dissonance in education systems to engage with every day and emergent challenges in relation to sustainability in general and climate change more specifically. You can find the interview here!

Citation: Wals, Arjen, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 144, podcast audio, January 14, 2019.

“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.”

Grassroots to Global Broader Impacts of Civic Ecology


Together with my former PhD-student, friend and colleague in the T-Learning project (  Martha Chaves I co-authored a chapter on the Nature of Transformative Learning for Social-Ecological Sustainability for this new book edited by Cornell University colleague Marianne Krasny. The vignette from the publisher’s webpage featuring the book states:

Addressing participatory, transdisciplinary approaches to local stewardship of the environment, Grassroots to Global features scholars and stewards exploring the broad impacts of civic engagement with the environment.

Chapters focus on questions that include: How might faith-based institutions in Chicago expand the work of church-community gardens? How do volunteer “nature cleaners” in Tehran attempt to change Iranian social norms? How does an international community in Baltimore engage local people in nature restoration while fostering social equity? How does a child in an impoverished coal mining region become a local and national leader in abandoned mine restoration? And can a loose coalition that transforms blighted areas in Indian cities into pocket parks become a social movement? From the findings of the authors’ diverse case studies, editor Marianne Krasny provides a way to help readers understand the greater implications of civic ecology practices through the lens of multiple disciplines.

Aniruddha Abhyankar, Martha Chaves, Louise Chawla, Dennis Chestnut, Nancy Chikaraishi, Zahra Golshani, Lance Gunderson, Keith E. Hedges, Robert E. Hughes, Rebecca Jordan, Karim-Aly Kassam, Laurel Kearns, Marianne E. Krasny, Veronica Kyle, David Maddox, Mila Kellen Marshall, Elizabeth Whiting Pierce, Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, Michael Sarbanes, Philip Silva, Traci Sooter, Erika S. Svendsen, Keith G. Tidball, Arjen E. J. Wals, Rebecca Salminen Witt, Jill Wrigley

Here’s a link to Grassroots to Local

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

Critical case-studies of non-formal and community learning for sustainable development

Together with UNESCO’s Alexander Leicht and Yoko Mochizuki I co-edited a special issue in the journal International Review of Education on Non-formal and Community Learning for Sustainable Development. Here you find a link to our introductory article.


I am pasting the final two paragraphs of the editorial introduction below:

“If there is any overall conclusion or pattern which might be drawn from all the contributions to this special issue, it is that boundary crossing is becoming a critical element of learning for, within and from sustainable development. This connects well with Vare and Scott’s (2007) notion of ESD 2, but also with the future directions for environmental and sustainability education highlighted in a recent edited volume on this topic by Peter Corcoran et al. (2017). By moving between perspectives, navigating force fields, handling diversity and stepping in and out of one’s comfort zone, new possibilities emerge for rethinking how we work, live, connect and organise our lives. This also implies working on topics and themes in more integrated ways, covering the nexus of, say, water, energy, food, health, equity and climate, rather than trying to zoom in on “just” one of those aspects. Similarly, the SDGs can only be meaningfully addressed when viewed in their relationship with each other. Boundary crossing between forms of learning will be necessary as well, blending formal, non-formal and informal forms of learning on the one hand, and, for instance, experiential, social, place-based and ICT-supported learning on the other. The result might be a learning ecology or an ecology of learning, a concept used by George Siemens (2005) which requires the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, complexity and self-organisation theories.”

“As the target year for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 SDGs is approaching, new forms of governance, education, learning and capacity-building will need to be supported which will enable blended forms of learning in vital partnerships between societal actors seeking to live more lightly and equitably on Earth, using their own context (historically, culturally, economically, socially and ecologically) as a starting point. This also means investing in capacity building for boundary-crossing, brokering relationships and building trust and social cohesion, as these processes and properties seem critical for social learning and transformation within communities. The cases featured in this special issue are only a few of many that exist around the world, but most are not researched, documented and shared very well, and herein lies another challenge: making learning towards sustainability in communities more visible and explicit, and finding better mechanisms for sharing them, not just through special issues in a peer-reviewed journal, but also in ways which can more directly inform, or rather, engage, policy and practice.”