Stand up, stand up and be counted: education for sustainability and the journey of getting from here to there

John Fien

Centre for Innovation and Research in Environmental Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the nature of sustainable development and education for sustainable living, especially in relation to the roles of those who work as environmental educators in botanic gardens. Thus my reflections focus on the challenges facing all of us who have a vision of a better, more just and ecologically sustainable world in which to live. Making such visions real is the challenge of 'how do we get from here to there'. How can we – as individuals, parents, teachers and communities – help effect the transition from present-day patter

Only very few now dispute the need for such a transition. The rise of general public awareness of, and concern about, environmental problems means that the environmental debate no longer needs to focus on justifying the need for change. The consciousness-raising task set by the environmental predicament has been generally successfully over the last thirty or so years, despite the 'ups and downs' caused by ecge direction – as reflected in many books and training courses on industry, business and the environment. Today, the debate is not over whether we need sustainable development, but over the different meanings of 'sustainable development', and the nature, rate or environmental education.

We are today in response to the 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development Report, called Our Common Future, which popularised the concept of sustainable development. The General Assembly of the United Nations established this Commission of academics, senior civil servants and politicians, more than half of whom come from developing countries, in 1983. The Commission which was chaired by the Prime Minister of Norway, Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, the only national political leader to have ever previously been a Minister for the Environment, had three objectives:

The World Commission took the concept of sustainable development as the focus of its report and urged governments, industries and families to adopt a pattern of development "which meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, p.8). However, this relatively simple concept has been subject to a great variety of interpretations. The term was first used in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy published by IUCN, WWF, and UNEP. Lee Talbot, then Director of IUCN, describes how the term evolved. He described the first draft of the strategy as a:

wildlife conservation textbook, for at the time many conservationists regarded development as the enemy to be opposed and many developers regarded conservationists as at best something to be ignored, or at worst as an obstacle to progress. With each draft the two sides were brought closer and involved in a process of education. The final draft represents a consensus [ sic] between practitioners of conservation and development.

(Yencken 1994, p.220).

Being the result of a consensus between parties who come from essentially quite distinctive paradigms or world views, sustainable development is not one of those terms that have a simple agreed meaning. Many conservationists argue that "ecological sustainability should be a goal in its own right, unshackled to development" (Yencken 1994, p.220). On the other hand, some argue that it is necessary to put economic sustainability ahead of ecological sustainability, because following environmental regulations and conservation principles is expensive and businesses need to be profitable to be able to afford them.

Thus we can see that interpretations of sustainability are value-laden, but the extreme points of view miss the essential point: that the concept of sustainable development requires change and compromise from everyone. Sustainable development is, in the words of David Yencken, the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, "an inspired way in which a bridge can be built between two conflicting paradigms, between the paradigm that has underlain past Western approaches to the environment and an emerging new environmental paradigm" (Yencken 1994, p.221).

It is possible, however, to find several hundred definitions of sustainable development in the literature. The important point to note, though, is that all definitions, whatever their source, serve particular social and economic interests and that they need to be critically assessed. However, while definitions of sustainability do vary, at the heart of sustainable development is the goal of reducing the impacts humans make on the earth – or as the Brundtland Commission defined it:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, p.43).

The Brundtland Commission made another important point about sustainable development. This is a point that has been made many times by countries from the South: environmental objectives are important in their cultures – far more important than they have been in the North – but the poverty and suffering of many of their peoples must also be addressed. According to the 1996 Human Development Report from the UN Development Program, poverty in the South is so widespread that the combined incomes of half the world's population is about the same as that of the 358 richest people in the world. Thus, many in the South say that environmental objectives which exclude development goals, and thereby limit their potential to raise their material standards to those of the North, are unacceptable.

What we need as environmental educators are some conceptual tools for analysing different propositions about sustainable development. Here are two ways to do that. This can be seen in the following four different versions of sustainable development:

The sustainable-living view of sustainable development recognises the need to link ecological sustainability with a genuine concern for social justice. A focus on sustainable living sees sustainable development as a process that influences the manner and rate of resource use by one group of people, so that their consumption habits do not jeopardize the environment and well-being of people in other parts of the world, or destroy the capacities of future generations – in any part of the world – to satisfy their reasonaboes this mean in terms of plants?

Firstly, it means that the energy crisis is not a crisis of oil, coal, gas or uranium. The real energy crisis is a firewood crisis. It is a crisis of trees and deforestation. Secondly, it means that the food crisis is not a crisis of sheep, goats, or cows. It is a crisis of rice and wheat and potatoes and peas and beans and tomatoes. It is a crisis of growing strawberries in West Africa for air-freighting to Paris, London and Berlin. It is a crisis brought about by growing sugar in Fiji for export instead of taro; of growing bananas in Honduras instead of beans; of growing tea on Sri Lankan plantations instead of rice; of clearfelling trees in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Brazil to make newsprint; and of growing coffee instead of basic subsistence food crops in Brazil so that some people like most of us can sit at sidewalk cafes drinking cappuccinos. During the height of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, Ethiopia was a net exporter of agricultural products. Ethiopia was actually exporting farm products while millions in Eritrea and Tigray were starving. And you cannot blame the weather for that!

The food crisis is not a crisis of agriculture. It is a crisis of political priorities. It is a crisis brought on by a global development machine that puts profits before human needs and produces what is profitable rather than what is needed. The global environmental crisis is a crisis of people – not of resources or nature. It is a crisis of the blind leading the blind on the treadmill of econore wealth, and more of what we in our more optimistic moments call 'progress'! The t health – and which, in turn, inhibits development and causes governments to want to crank up the treadmill even faster – which only rebounds on the environment and, instead of cranking up economic growth, only serves to make the descending spiral go even faster.

When IUCN, UNEP and WWF were planning the second World Conservation Strategy which was published under the title of Caring for the Earth, they coined the term 'sustainable living', and proposed thaehensive set of criteria for sustainable development and also provide a central focus for environmental education. In summary form, these eight values fall into two groups – those related to our responsibility to care for nature (or ecological sustainability) and those related to our responsibility to care for each other (social justice). Four values may be identified in each group:

(Adapted from IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1990 p.22; Fien 1993)

A centrally important set of questions and issues arise when the implications for environmental education of the world-ethic of sustainability and the concept of sustainable living are considered. The Introduction to Our Common Future contains the following challenge to teachers written by the Commission Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland: "first and foremost our message is directed towards people, whose well-being is the ultimate goal of all environment and development policies. In particular, the Commission is addressing the young. The world's teachers will have a crucial role to play in bringing this message to them" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p.xiv). Mrs Brundtland further outlined the nature of the transition required for sustainability, and the role envisaged for environmental education by the Commission, when she wrote:

The transition to sustainable development touches on core issues of our societies. It concerns basic values and moral codes for human behaviour, attitudes and consideration for fellow human beings and for nature itself. In order to reverse the present negative trends, there is an urgent need for commitment and action at all levels of society. Today, there is an increased awareness that solidarity and responsibilities must be extended to encompass the interests of future generations . . .

Teachers play a very important role in the transition between generations, in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Consciousness-raising is vital for change. Teachers can convey to children a sense of respect and responsibility for nature and for the global environment . . .

But respect for the environment alone will not be enough to save our common future. A sense of solidarity with the world's underprivileged will be equally important. There is no way we can win the battle to save the global environment unless we deal squarely with the issue of world poverty. We must teach the next generation that necessity of caring for the poor and the dispossessed, not only because it is morally right, but because it is in our common interest to do so.

(Brundtland 1991, pp.4-5a.)

I would like now to explore three implications of education for sustainability, with reference to our work as educators in botanic gardens:

A social ecology foundation for environmental education

Ecology has been described as the foundation discipline of environmental education; Hungerford, Peyton and Wilke (1990) write of the "ecological foundations of environmental education". However, an example of two approaches to teaching about biodiversity illustrate the limitations of such foundations.

Biodiversity is one of the central concepts of environmental education. It is also one of the values in the world-ethic of sustainability. Traditionally, this is what is usually taught about biodiversity in environmental education:

During the next 20 to 30 years, the world may lose many thousands or even hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals – primarily because of environmental changes due to human activities. The list of lost, endangered and threatened species include and 11% of the world's 9000 bird species are at risk of extinction. In the tropics, the destruction of forests threatens thousands of species which live nowhere else.

Australia, for example, has lost 75% of its rainforests and 40% of its total forest cover since European settlement 208 years ago. Nearly 70% of all native vegetation has been removed or significantly modified, and the rate of clearance is accelerating, with as much land cleared during the last 50 years as in the previous 150. Native vegetation is still being cleared at the rate of over 600,000 hectares per year, which is almost half the rate of clearing in Brazilian rainforests in 1990-91.

A rate of extinction of this magnitude is alarming and poses a global problem which has kindled world-wide interest in "biological diversity" or "biodiversity". Biodiversity implies more than simply the number of species that inhabit our planet. The ecological interactions among these diverse species and their physical environment make up the ecosystems upon which the human species depends for survival . . .

Biodiversity provides vital services such as renewing the earth's atmosphere, absorbing pollution and maintaining soil fertility. It provides ethical and spiritual inspiration for many societies. Biodiversity also provides the basic biological complement for the expression of coral reefs, forests and wetland ecosystems which help in fixing carbon from the atmosphere, an important and fundamental means of controlling greenhouse warming.

(Hillig 1997; Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories 1996)

There are fundamentally important concepts here, and much good work is being done in our botanic gardens to help visitors understand them. However, when guided by the concepts of sustainable living and social ecology, we need to expand what we tell people about biodiversity. For example, how important is it for us to ask our garden visitors to think about issues such as:

Visitors to botanic gardens need to address questions of this nature as well as strictly ecological ones. While biodiversity is basically an ecological topic, biodiversity problems and issues are connected to every fabric of our global society. Poverty, ill-health and environmental decline cannot be stopped merely by education about ecology.

Hillig, the former Director of the UNESCO Regional Office for Science and Technology in South East Asia (ROSTSEA), summarized the role of environmental educators in teaching about biodiversity when he stated:

Developed countries are relatively poorer in biodiversity because they have gained their current quality of life at the expense of their biodiversity and in most cases at the expense of the biodiversity of developing countries. Should those countries which have not yet reduced their biological resources stop development based on the direct exploitation of biodiversity store houses because it impairs their longer term economic development? How should the cost of preserving biodiversity for the globe be shared between the rich and the poor countries? Environmental education must address questions of this nature, as well as the biological components themselves.

While biodiversity is basically an ecological topic, biodiversity problems and issues are connected to every fabric of our global society . . .

Not everyone in the world can afford to value the environment and needs of future generations may vary highly. It will be difficult to develop positive attitudes and conserving behaviour towards the natural environment among many poverty-stricken citizens of developing nations. Without food for survival, there can be little thought given towards conservation of the environment for future generations . . .

The motivation provided by poverty, starvation and ill-health cannot be changed merely by education about environmental quality.

(Hillig 1997)

This means that development education, and the associated concepts of human rights, peace and democracy, must become a key element of environmental education – and an example of this expanded view of biodiversity education could be a workshop, or even a performance of the new WWF rock-musical called Arabica. This traces the 1000-year history of the coffee bean from its accidental discovery by an Ethiopian goatherd, through its growth in economic importance after being taken to South America, to today where the growers are in bitter enslavement to international cartels and bankers. It shows how a plant, which is so much a taken-for-granted part of our daily lives, affects the economy, society and ecology of many countries in the South (Thornber 1996).

The resultant focus on themes of development and human rights means that we need to see environmental education in a broader context, which even affects our definition of environment and environmental education.

Towards a definition of education for sustainable living

This redirection of the ecological foundations of environmental education towards social ecology provides the basis for a second way of exploring the implications of education for sustainable living for environmental education. This involves a broadening of the concept of environment and environmental education and their direct links with issues of development, human rights and peace – and, therefore, aligns environmental education as an integral partner with development education, human rights education and peace education in education for sustainable living. The Worlon Union (IUCN) has described this new direction for environmental education as "education for sustainable living". They defined this as a process which:

. . . develops human capacity and creativity to participate in determining the future, encourages technical progress as well as fostering the cultural conditions favouring social and economic change to improve the quality of life and more equitable economic growth while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems to maintain life indefinitely

(IUCN Commission on Education and Communication 1993, p.6).

This is not an unproblematical definition. Questions may be asked about the meaning of 'technical progress' and ways in which 'carrying capacity' may be defined af individuals andhe ambiguity of mproblematical conceptions of environmental education (Hart & Robottom 1993).

The British Environment, Development, Education and Training Group's report, Good Earth-Keeping: Education, Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future, also avoids these problems of ambiguity and individualism when it offers the following as a definition and set of objectives of 'education for sustainability':

We believe that education for sustainability is a process which is relevant to all people, and that, like sustainable development itself, it is a process rather than a fixed goal. It may precede – and it will always accompany – the building of relationships between individuals, groups and their environment. All people, we believe, are capable of being educators and learners in the pursuit of sustainability.

We argue here that eduction for sustainability is a process which:

(Sterling, EDET Group 1992, p.2)

The place of nature-study in environmental education

The expanded conception of environmental education in education for sustainable living poses many questions and challenges for those of us who work out of doors and see nature study and experiences in nature as central to our work. I would like to focus on this point for a minute.

Nature-based work has given us many wonderful experiential teaching methods and has lead to many innovations in environmental education teaching methods and materials, e.g. environmental interpretation, nature trails, sensory walks, Earth Education, Project Learning Tree, Project Wild, and so on. It has also lead to the humanising of environmental education and helped us to provide learning experiences, especially in the outdoors, which give students self-confidence and esteem, and a sense of oneness with nature.

However, our new understanding of the scope of education for sustainable living alerts us to several dangers, if this is the only approach to environmental education that we provide. Firstly, it ignores the questions, issues and problems facing the student and her community. That is why I have been so pleased to learn about the community outreach programmes of the National Botanic Institute in South Africa, and the community-based conservation recycling and composting projects in so many other gardens. Focusing student attention on nature without also providing a focus on wider social and economic contexts can direct students to look inwards, rather than outwards to the links between the nature, the individual and society. Secondly, we must be careful that nature experiences do not become escapism. It is often argued that close contact with nature can help students to develop a strong personal bonding with the earth and, therefore, increase their desire to act for it. However, it is difficult to see how this romantic view of nature will automatically lead to this result without a degree of political conscientising as well.

The focus on personal development and nature experiences are characteristics of New Age thinking. However, this philosophy tends to over-emphasize the importance of personal transformation at the expense of seeing personal and broader social transformation as interdependent. It also tends to ignore the fact that the journey to sustainability requires both of these for sustained social change. Mary Mellor (1992) warns that the focus on the individual in this approach to environmentalism may prove to be less helpful than its advocates intend:

The problem in New Age thinking is the relationship between personal transformation and wider communal change . . . While I would not want to argue about the development of a spiritual dimension to our lives and a displacement of the emphasis on materialism, . . . it risks diverting us into an inappropriate self-obsession. While this may help us individually to develop a wider spiritual awareness and 'bring together' parts of ourselves that have become divided in modern society, it will not necessarily lead to any wider social transformation. That must be done by transforming the materialism of our culture, not running away from it. In many ways New Ageism can be seen as just another manifestation of the 'me' generation: a movement for the powerful, not the powerless.

(Mellor 1992, pp.46-47)

The Danish health and environmental educator Bjarne Jensen (1992) notes that both the environmental and the New Age aspects of nature-based education run the risk of romantic escapism – the first into romanticism with nature; the second into romance with oneself – neither of which can solve environmental problems. Jensen goes on to say thae paradox of increasing anxiety and the currently increasing action paralysis" of the modern world.


In this paper, I have sought to make a case for a broadening of the agenda of environmental education. I have explored the trends that have given rise to a redefinition of environmental education for sustainable living and its integration with development education, peace education and human rights education. I have explored some of the implications of this for classroom content (through the example of traditional and newer approaches to the topic of biodiversity) and asked us to think beyond nature study as our focus in education in botanic gardens.

Those of us who accepts the challenge to "Stand up and be Counted" on issues of sustainability and education for sustainable living may not find it that easy, however. We may need to convince our managers why we need to be involved in education outside the gardens and why we need to take the gardens to the community (rather than the other way around) – in order to show how conservation goals cannot be achieved without attention to values of appropriate development, human rights and democracy as well. Wf sustainable living operate in our gardens. Are they community demonstration models not only of ecological sustainability and conservation principles, bducts on sale in the shops model the principles of appropriate development? And do management and personnel practices model the principles of social susta and outcomes for all employees? It may be that the first task of education for sustainable living for educators in botanic gardens, is the education of is for people like me who work in universities and colleges.

Giroux (1988) argues that this may be done by educators living and working as 'transformative intellectuals'. Central to the task of beore political means consciou and to further educate and experiences that encourage our groups to enquire into ways in which they can become part of the transition to sustainability – and not just become knowledgeable about biodiversity, as important as that is as a starting point.

Working as a transformative intellectual requires that we "Stand up, Stand up and be Counted".


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