Today’s post is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies.  His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability.  This post follows up a recent one and responds to the NAEE Manifesto. As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.

I read with keen interest, NAEE’s recent report, ‘NAEE’s 2022 Young People’s Learning and the Environment Manifesto.’  In simple terms, it highlights reasoning and efforts to create a whole integrated educational curriculum that revolves around the environment rather than as an add-on topic to existing curricula.  While never said, the report implies the difficulty of making such a transition within academia.  I know from personal attempts at my own institution the problems of attempting to change academic thinking entrenched in centuries of traditional educational subject ontology and epistemological approaches.  I also recall the groundbreaking work of Stephen Sterling in attempting curricula reform for sustainability in the UK.  While universities like Plymouth in England and Arizona (Tempe, USA) have excellent groundbreaking sustainability programs, they still fall far short of the fully central and integrated sustainability curricula for whole institutions as proposed within this report.      

I loved the ideas and rationale given in the 12-page report for its manifesto, yet, I also feel that it still falls into the same trap, of trying “to green the running machine while using it.”  The presupposition being that overall, the destructive machine is fine and all its needs is effective tweaking to make it work sustainably.  The elephant in the room is the paradigm driving how humanity lives.  The materialistic consumer paradigm with its focus on standard of living and economic viability is central to all environmental issues, but when we talk about possible futures, how often are those futures just green technological versions of the one we currently live.  We are on the cusp of 8 billion humans on the planet, and we all know that all live cannot possibly continue developing standards of living worldwide and to thrive while we continue addicted to materialistic consumerism as we currently do.  For example, our students are amazed at the ecological footprint exercise, yet how many actually make radical changes because of what they discover about their lifestyles. Yet, when ‘social transition’ is still seen as tweaking the machine (small steps) rather than giant leaps, we do everyone a disservice by failing to talk about the elephant in the room as our priority.  

The oft used quote from Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” is what I believe holds us back from finding the solutions we truly need.  The manifesto would encourage critical and creative thinking, but laments that possible futures are restricted because of technological and economic constraints, which even with social science perspectives included (almost as an afterthought) do not look at the ponderous beast we ignore.  The manifesto clearly recognizes the problems within institutional curricula as impediments to sustainable living, and identifies how ‘existential threats are downplayed,’ but doesn’t even approach the problems of human needs for connectivity with not only itself but all of life on the planet.  The spiritual connection (not institutional religiosity) is ignored as the material scientific paradigm dominates our thinking.  Perhaps our priority for ‘future thinking’ ought to center around different worldviews and paradigms from which the reasoning for sustainable choices would organically emerge.  As long as we remain focused on technological and economic answers, we remain blind to the elephant in the room that will grow to squash us all.          


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