In November 2014, the International Panel of Climate Change Scientists, the world body for assessing science related to climate change, published their latest report. It concluded that human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. At the moment, if we carry on pumping carbon into the atmosphere, as we have being doing, the earth is on course for a more than four degree temperature rise. However governments have said that we need to limit temperature rise to two degrees in order to prevent catastrophic climate change events.
Although it is easy to feel overwhelmed, the work of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and many others has shown that we have the means to limit climate change. The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change, which needs to be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.
This is where education for sustainability comes in, teaching the next generations about renewable energy, energy efficiency, land use and what a zero carbon future might look like.
Julie Bromilow, education officer at CAT, said: “It is easy to be overwhelmed with the challenge of education about sustainability issues without frightening students, so it is really important to be clear about the facts and make sure that you put people on the path to finding solutions.”
The challenges In recent years, sustainability has taken more of a toe-hold in the formal education sector, though this is continually under threat. It is now included in some core subjects like science and geography, and as a cross-curricular theme. Inspectors look for it not only in teaching, but also in grounds and campus management, and through work with the wider community.
Yet there is still a sense that there is more on paper than in practice, and what action there is can be misguided. Even teachers and tutors with a passion for it find keeping up with the fast-paced changes difficult. Imagine juggling this with all the other pressures coming thick and fast from White Hall. It’s rarely the fault of the teachers that sustainability is often delivered inaccurately or superficially.
There is often much enthusiasm for all things green among teachers, tutors and learners. Yet mixed media messages and inadequate guidance can leave education for sustainability in a muddle. Students learn that importing food from overseas can lead to excessive emissions but that importing Fair Trade produce is good. Eager eco committees have targets to recycle even more.
The Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) movement is often in a similar tangle. There has been so much agonising over terminology that the Welsh Government tacked Global Citizenship on to the end of ESD fearing that environmental concerns would otherwise be prioritised over humanitarian ones. Maybe learners will not be able to cope with the trauma of discovering the terrible impacts of climate change. Perhaps it is this which has prompted a recent move away from the issues, and towards developing ESD (GC) as a learner centred initiative, focusing more on the development of skills and values than on the acquisition of knowledge.
Whilst educators at CAT embrace the recent enthusiasm for developing skills, values and critical thinking, is important to allow learners time to reflect, question and debate. Yet to concentrate on skills and values alone would be foolish. Without accurate information, there is no substance on which to make those well informed decisions towards which critical thinking leads. Effective sustainability education therefore, needs also to be grounded in science, whilst recognising that science itself is an evolving process.
The CAT approach CAT is a solutions-based organisation, and staff attitudes are an example of the effect of this. Despite being well informed about the gravity of environmental degradation, pro-active involvement with the solutions leads to a buzz of positivity. In 2009 The Cambridge Primary Review drew similar conclusions. They said: “Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt that they had the power to act. Thus the children who were most confident that climate change might not overwhelm them were those whose schools had decided to replace unfocused fear with factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability.”
Learners too need to engage with positive solutions. Work like Zero Carbon Britain has been crucial to informing their education programmes. The work of the organisation as a whole, running Msc courses, short courses for adults, the visitor centre and information service, bring us a wide range of specialist issues and advancements into educational development. As an organisation CAT believes that the technology and resources for a sustainable future exist, and that it is only the lack of political will and distribution of these resources that prevents achieving it. This influences their teaching, allowing us to unpick the challenges and move towards solutions.
In action Recycling is omnipresent in much sustainability education but is it really a solution? When the subject is raised at CAT, learners are given some products – a recycled paper notebook and a newspaper, a fleece hat and a plastic drinks bottle, and a challenge to work out what happens in the recycling factories that process one item into the other. They soon conclude that recycling is an energy intensive process, far behind reducing and reusing in the order of environmental priorities. By analysing what the problems are we can work out how to solve them.
One of CAT’s sustainability activities uses picture cards showing different stages of the production chain such as factories, woodlands or oil rigs to investigate familiar products such as chocolate eggs or mobile phones. It helps them appreciate the wider impact and complexity of everyday products and activities. The aim is not to produce guilt but to concentrate on ‘detective skills’ – sequencing, interconnectivity, and cause and effect. Learners realise how these skills can be used to compare activities and products, and to discover those with lower impacts rather than just being horrified by the high impact ones. They also need the opportunity to develop their own ideas for reducing the impact of what they’ve been investigating. This gives them a sense of empowerment and optimism when it comes to addressing serious issues.
It is vital in sustainability education to give space for learners to develop their own visions for a sustainable future whilst reminding participants about the issues underpinning the need for change – climate change, peak oil, global inequity and the financial cost of fossil fuels. Role playing is a great way of allowing people to develop their opinions. For example, at CAT different activities ask students to represent government departments. Their task is to develop a zero carbon scenario for their sector – transport, agriculture for example – and to present their proposals in whatever media they wish. Each presentation is questioned and challenged by their peers, and the ensuing debate is always passionate. They raise important issues such as tension between legislation and incentives, carbon taxing, the combination of hi-tech and low‑tech solutions, localisation and urbanisation, and the pressures on available land resources.
Educating for the future Allowing learners to develop their own scenarios before explaining the position of CAT, is mutually beneficial. It lets educators know what knowledge gaps need to be filled – for example, they often only refer to solar, wind and hydro, and assume that nuclear will regrettably be necessary. It is important to look for ways to expand the knowledge of technology quite significantly, particularly when it comes to bio kerosene, tidal stream, and anaerobic digestion.
Learners also develop ownership of and care for the plans they have worked hard to create, and are more likely to remember the experience than if they are simply given lots of information from the beginning. They have developed analytical, geographical, numerical, critical thinking and debating skills. And finally they are keen to find out what CAT concluded when going about the same Zero Carbon Britain research process.
Educating for the future needs to be solutions based and forward looking. It is important to be honest about the extent and gravity of the problems, and help learners analyse how these problems have come about. It also necessary to allow time to reflect and debate the issues, and to express how they feel. Making sure learners develop and discuss their own solutions, which educators can advise on and expand with their own sustainability knowledge. In this way students are equipped with the necessary skills, values and knowledge to shape their roles in preparing for life in a sustainable world.
In the words of one London based sixth‑former: “Even if it is all worthless, too late, it is still worth doing what we can – having a purpose makes life exhilarating.”