Initial Publication Date: October 1, 2019

What Are We Advocating For with Sustainability?

Essay for InTeGrate workshop - Earth Education for Sustainable Societies

Robert Turner, University of Washington Bothell


I have two suggestions for our community and the upcoming workshop to move earth education for sustainable societies forward. The first is easily outlined and actionable, the second is more challenging.

Given the stated objective of inspiring national level change and action across a diversity of audiences, I suggest we start the process of drafting up an article titled something like World Scientists Warning: On the Need to Emphasize Earth System Science and Sustainability Education. This would be one of a series of similar articles coming out in response to a call for such from the Alliance of World Scientists.1 The 2017 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: a Second Notice2 has been followed by more specific articles highlighting our challenges and opportunities in the realms of wildland fire,3 wetland management,4 microbiology,5 climate crisis,6 and activism by scientists.7 We could draft an article in this vein on behalf of earth science educators and release a call for signatures.

There are many reasons why humanity continues to foul its own nest and sleep walk into an increasingly uncertain and dangerous future, but the nature and effect of K-16 education is certainly part of the problem. After all, the architects of the mess we are in, and the next generation of leaders who are programmed to perpetuate the economic and political systems that have failed us, are almost entirely recipients of a higher education degree.8 Interventions in the dominant models of higher education are clearly warranted.

As our sustainability challenges get more dire and urgent, higher education institutions have a moral responsibility to walk the talk of sustainability by:

  • incorporating sustainability principles and practices in their missions and operations;
  • divesting from organizations, industries, and funds that propagate harm;
  • enhancing earth and environmental science literacy in all of its students;
  • providing opportunities for students to critique our cultural norms and socio-economic systems and envision alternatives;
  • encouraging the development of more inclusive, problem-posing, and transformative pedagogies;
  • fostering more community based learning and research; and overall
  • preparing students to both tackle our challenges and thrive in a destabilized world.9, 10
These are all key elements of a robust sustainability education. Calling for our colleagues and administrators in higher education, as well as K-12 educators, to recognize the critical importance of embracing these recommendations could serve as the primary thrust of a World Scientists Warning article from our community.

My other suggestion is to have some frank and difficult conversations on just what we mean by sustainability in the context of an earth science education.

Earth and environmental academics have long been quite adept at identifying the myriad ways the human enterprise functions at odds with other species, ecosystems, and our own well-being. We are getting increasingly good at characterizing rates of change, planetary boundaries, thresholds, feedback loops, etc., that highlight constraints we must operate within to ensure some minimal stability in critical earth systems. We have a reasonably clear, shared understanding of the contours of our unsustainability and ever-improving models projecting likely future scenarios.

On the other hand, few of us have any formal education in sustainability. We may teach about it, but our understanding of sustainability is self-taught and idiosyncratic, drawing from a poorly defined literature, with no shared articulation of just what form of societal transformation we think is either required (as a minimum) or optimal. There is a fairly wide spectrum of political ideologies and recommendations for what must change that can fit under the umbrella of sustainability. When we use that loaded code word which of the following are we talking about?
  • Piecemeal mitigation and adaptation efforts meant to enhance resilience so a region, population, sector, what have you, can take a shock and bounce back to its pre-calamity trajectory of economic development?
  • The sustainable development paradigm featuring top down, incremental policy change, multilateralism, and modest wealth redistribution within the capitalist framework for the largely anthropocentric goals of improved equity and human health?
  • The green techno optimism championed by groups such as the Breakthrough Institute?11
  • Natural capitalism?12
  • Wholesale alteration of energy, food, and economic systems including the immediate abandonment of fossil fuels (decarbonization), retreat from the industrialized agriculture model, and promotion of de-growth13 leading to a steady state economic model?14
  • Reversing the flood of humanity to cities and embracing the decentralized, largely self-sufficient eco-localism model?15, 16, 17
  • Strict adherence to the Natural Step conditions?18
  • Cultural transformation emphasizing a worldwide shift toward egalitarianism, communalism, and ecocentrism?19
  • A more inclusive, pluralistic process of planning and decision-making that relies on much greater civic engagement at the community level?
Sustainability will always have many facets20 and always be contestable21, but if it is too nebulous its power as an organizing principle and rallying cry is diminished, perhaps to the point of absurdity. Can we identify some definition22, model23, 24 and/or manifesto25 of sustainability to support?

It is easiest, of course, if we don't even try to reach some sort of agreement over such contestable terrain. Negotiating terms that hinge on a person's values, group identity, and perceptions of risk is fraught at best26, 27 and we certainly don't want to turn our education into indoctrination.28 Meanwhile, there is pluralistic benefit to leaving the interpretation and application of sustainability open, allowing every community/region/culture to find their own way. But that assumes we have the luxury of time to experiment with the world and our culture in a slow, clumsy and uncoordinated fashion. The scientific literature of the past few decades argues that we do not have that time. Because I feel this urgency keenly, I have created an online bibliography of literature relevant to our future sustainability in hopes that it will help people find some clarity on our challenges and what to do about them.29 There are far too many articles one can read via this bibliography that project rather grim outcomes... too many for us to be complacent and regard sustainability as simply an optional and unfocused sidebar in our curricula.

Clearly, both of my suggestions require a lot more collective thinking, which I gather is the point of the workshop.

References Cited
1) The Alliance of World Scientists (2019).
2) Ripple, W, Wolf, C, Galetti, M, Newsome, T, Alamgir, M, Crist, E, Mahmoud, M, Laurance, W (2017). World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Bioscience, 67(12).
3) Coogan, S, Robinne, F, Jain, P and Flannigan, M (2019). Scientists' Warning on Wildfire — A Canadian Perspective. Canadian Journal of Forest Resources, 49.
4) Finlayson, C, Davies, G, Moomaw, W, Chmura, G, Natali, S, Perry, J, Roulet, N and Sutton-Grier, A (2018). The Second Warning to Humanity – Providing a Context for Wetland Management and Policy. Wetlands, 39(1).
5) Cavicchioli, R et al. (2019). Scientists' Warning to Humanity: Microorganisms and Climate Change. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 17: 569-586.
6) Ripple, W, Wolf, C and Newson, T (2019). World Scientists' Warning of a Climate Emergency. Bioscience Magazine, (in press).
7) Gardner, C and Wordley, C (2019). Scientists Must Act on our Own Warnings to Humanity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3.
8) Orr, D (1991). What is Education For? The Learning Revolution, IC#27.
9) Corcoran, P and Wals, A (2004). The Problematics of Sustainability in Higher Education: An Introduction, in Corcoran, P and Wals, A (eds.), Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability: Problematics, Promise and Practice. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands.
10) Maniates, M (2013). Teaching for Turbulence, in Assadourian, E and Prugh, T (eds), State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? The Worldwatch Institute.
11) The Breakthrough Institute (2019).
12) Lovins, A, Lovins LH and Hawken, P (2007). A Road Map for Natural Capitalism. Harvard Business Review.
13) DeMaria, F, Schneider, F, Sekulova, F amd Martinez-Alier, J (2013). What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement. Environmental Values, 22.
14) Daly, H (2008). A Steady-State Economy. Sustainable Development Commission, UK.
15) Shuman, M (2017). The Promise of a Million Utopias. The Next System Project.
16) Curtis, F (2002). Eco-localism and Sustainability. Ecological Economics, 46(1): 83-102.
17) Bradford, J (2019). The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification. Post Carbon Institute.
18) The Natural Step.Org (2016). The Four System Conditions of a Sustainable Society.
19) Washington, H, Taylor, B, Kopnina, H, Cryer, P and Piccolo, J (2017). Ecocentrism is the Key Pathway to Sustainability. Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, Stanford University.
20) Wals A and Jickling, B (2002). "Sustainability" in Higher Education: From Doublethink and Newspeak to Critical Thinking and Meaningful Learning. Jour. Of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3(3).
21) Dresner, S (2002). Principles of Sustainability. Earthscan, London.
22) Turner, R (2017). Evaluate Definitions of Sustainability and Sustainable Development, in Turner, R, Sinton, C, Davi, N and Plake, T, Water, Agriculture and Sustainability Teaching Module, InTeGrate.
23) Turner, R (2011). Graphical Models of Sustainability and Sustainable Development. University of Washington Bothell.
24) Raworth, K (2012). A Safe and Just Space for Humanity. Oxfam Discussion Papers, Oxfam International.;jsessionid=BB6E919DDD19C529CA32BA5DF409E7CD?sequence=13
25) Turner, R (2019). Sustainability Manifestos, in Bibliography of Literature Relevant to Our Future Sustainability. University of Washington Bothell.
26) Thompson, M (2000). Understanding Environmental Values: A Cultural Theory Approach. Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
27) Kahan, D (2013). What are Fearless Hierarchical Individualists Afraid Of? Lots of Stuff! The Cultural Cognition Project.
28) Jickling, B (2005). Education and Advocacy: A Troubling Relationship, in E. A. Johnson & M. Mappin (eds), Environmental Education and Advocacy: Changing Perspectives of Ecology and Education, (pp. 91-113). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
29) Turner, R (2019). Bibliography of Literature Relevant to Our Future Sustainability. University of Washington Bothell.

Downloadable version of this essay

What Are We Advocating For with Sustainability? (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 24kB Sep29 19)