Academics and Policy Press authors Hugh Atkinson and Ros Wade examine what needs to be done in light of climate change to kick start the process of building a more sustainable world.
They ask if the world’s leaders are capable of making the necessary brave decisions and call for more democracy, not less, as the solution.
But, Atkinson and Wade believe, at the heart of it all is the need for life-long learning and an education system that provides each of us with the ability to sustain ourselves and our planet – and quickly too….
The world is facing fundamental social and environmental challenges over the next 50 years. Climate change, global poverty and continuing war and conflict, all of which are set against a backdrop of highly consuming lifestyles, the rapacious tide of neo liberalism and a growing population that is predicted to reach 9 billion by the turn of the century. The resources of the planet are being eaten up at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Yet governments have been extremely slow in addressing these issues.
One of the obstacles to change has been a reluctance or an inability to integrate social and environmental concerns in to policy making and practice. The concept of sustainable development which came to global prominence after the UN Rio Summit of 1992 was devised as a new way of linking these concerns. Indeed it has provided a new vocabulary of political change. Sustainable development has been at the centre of mainstream policy making over the last 10 years, though its meaning and application have at times been contested.
Yet politicians, concerned about winning elections, appear reluctant to promote awareness raising of the major global and local challenges among the general public in any meaningful way. By the same token, the general public, or at least significant sections of it, seem unable to grasp the challenges that lie ahead for both people and planet. All this highlights some key questions about our current education systems and their ability to develop the knowledge, understanding and competencies that are needed for the world of the 21st century.
Despite the Agenda 21 commitments of the world’s governments at the 1992 Rio Summit to reorient education systems towards sustainable development, the evidence shows that the process is still very patchy and far from complete.
So what can we do to kick start the process of building a more sustainable world? We need to fundamentally rethink the way we do politics, education and learning. But how is this to be done?
How do we move to a new kind of politics in which political leaders are honest with voters about the need to use our cars less, to fly less and to forego the latest high tech gadget? Are the world’s leaders capable of making the necessary brave decisions? Such decisions involve spelling out clearly what has to be done if we are to tackle climate change and build a more sustainable world. But this will require significant sacrifices by consumers in the ‘developed’ world. How will they respond at the ballot box to such an agenda? Will our politicians resort to the default position of short term expediency?
“For the last 20 years neo liberalism has provided the dominant framework for education policy making”
There is no doubt that democratic systems face significant challenges in shaping a more sustainable world. But the solution to meeting these challenges is more democracy, not less. Political leaders must seek to secure the informed consent of citizens to fundamental shifts in their behaviour through a significantly more participatory model of democracy.
There are also significant challenges in education and learning. An overview of current education practice across a range of countries shows that although policy commitments to reorient education systems towards sustainable development have increased, practice lags rather far behind. There are clear reasons for this. For the last 20 years neo liberalism has provided the dominant framework for education policy making.
As a consequence marketisation and privatisation have frequently skewed education practice towards unsustainable development. The culture of individualised learning, competition and testing adds little to the future well-being of the world, rather what is needed is a culture of learning with an emphasis on a shared humanity and shared ecology. We need to learn the ability to sustain ourselves and our planet, and learn rather quickly too! Sustain- ability (personally locally and globally) should be at the heart of all learning and of all education systems.
Yet, without a sea change at international and national levels, education policy will fail to address the huge challenges that the world is facing in the 21st century. We need to embed a lifelong commitment to sustainability in all learning and at last there does seem to be some evidence of this, at least at the global level.
The 2013-14 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report which monitors progress on the education millennium development goals (MDGs) clearly states the importance of sustainable development and global citizenship in delivering quality education. An education curriculum devoid of these elements will not enable humanity to live sustainably, indeed such an education will only add to the problem of unsustainability.
There is no simple and easy answer here but these are all issues that need to be seriously addressed. Perhaps one way forward is to look at the challenges we face through a different lens. The terms of the debate need to be shifted so that shaping a more sustainable world is not seen purely in negative terms, but rather as a real opportunity to build a more fulfilling way of life, away from the treadmill of consumerism and the drum beat of neo liberalism!
Hugh Atkinson and Ros Wade are the co-editors of The challenge of sustainability: linking politics, education and learning which will be published by Policy Press on 3 December 2014
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