June 17th, 2018

Learning Sustainable Cultural Safety in a Crowded, Warming World

By Alexander Lautensach and Sabina Lautensach

Lautensach article thumbLautensach JSE March 2018 Decolonization Issue PDF

Link to the Decolonizing and Sustainability Education TOC


Among all the pressing needs for educational innovations that we face today, arguably the most imperative is the need to elicit learners’ active collaboration towards a ‘Great Transition’ into a secure and sustainable future for humanity. Among the numerous challenges that this endeavour entails, the anticipated arrival of unprecedented numbers of climate refugees will severely challenge the capacities of host institutions to maintain human security – connecting to a second pressing need, namely to promote and maintain cultural safety for newcomers and hosts. We focus on the question how compatible those two educational projects might be. To what extent could a Transition curriculum include and inform a curriculum for cultural safety, and how could a curriculum devoted to the principles of decolonisation internalise the need for living within our means? Neither one can be successful without the other. In general the two educational projects are reconcilable and inform and reinforce each other. However, some specific objectives of the Transition curriculum, mainly in the affective domain, require careful attention to cultural differences and reasoned compromise.


This essay is based on earlier work by the authors that was presented at the International Conference on Education in Stockholm on 5 June 2017.


Key Words: Cultural safety, Human Security, Decolonization, Great Transition, Anthropocene, Curriculum



Since the ground breaking publications by Rachel Carson and the Club of Rome half a century ago the emergence of diverse environmental threats to a sustainable future for human civilisations has been well recognised, although their significance was slow to permeate into most people’s awareness. Acknowledging the realisation that threats to ecological integrity sooner or later ramify into threats to human security was held back by an array of counterproductive mental habits, cognitive dysfunctions and moral ineptitudes, all culturally reinforced and perpetuated (Rees, 2010; Lautensach, 2010).[i] Those impediments, along with sophisticated ideological campaigning by corporate interests (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), made it difficult for people to recognise the importance of emerging dysfunctions of environmental support structures and to interpret them as threats to the sustainable security of human populations.

With the 1994 report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP, 1994) and the much-cited Brundtland report (WCED, 1987) the linkage between ecological integrity and human security began to gain wider recognition.  By then the global environmental crisis had gained a magnitude that made it increasingly impossible for corporate-controlled media to ignore or deny (Beder, 2006; Oreskes & Conway, 2010). The new era of the Anthropocene has seen increasing demands on ecosystems, coupled with a decrease in the support capacity of those ecosystems due to their ongoing deterioration, continuously reducing the availability of resources per capita in many regions (WWF, 2016). Anthropogenic warming and its effects on regional climates are changing our physical and ecological environments in ways that we are just beginning to understand, although it is likely that agricultural productivity, biodiversity and public health will all be negatively affected. Human security will be further weakened through knock-on effects on socio-political structures, national and regional economies and healthcare systems. The increasing awareness of a world in environmental crisis has convinced many people that a systematic, organised strategy is necessary to ensure humanity’s ‘Great Transition’[ii] to a sustainable future of acceptable quality, and many governments are making constructive efforts (Potter, 1988; Rees, 2014; Raskin, 2016). Now, Denmark proceeds towards total independence from fossil fuels, France has a Ministry for Ecological Transition, and Norway built the world’s first ‘ecological’ prison.

Yet, because of the widespread and chronic failures of many governments to proactively address the worsening global environmental crisis in a timely fashion (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2014a), the remaining options have been reduced mainly to mitigation and adaptation. A transition to some kind of sustainable global situation is inevitable and can no longer be painless, but some strategic choices and opportunities remain to avoid the worst (Rees, 2014).[iii] Instead of a grand collapse we will probably face differentiated disintegration, which creates room for creative counterstrategies, based on an alternative successful praxis.

In education, the growing recognition that further ‘development’ depends essentially on ecological integrity, and that the two were to some extent interdependent, convinced many practitioners that a successful transition to a sustainable future of acceptable quality required new approaches. Those efforts entered the mainstream with UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), which helped to move education for sustainability into the awareness of many educators and into the front and centre of curriculum reform (United Nations, 2005). However, DESD also reinforced some conceptual interpretations of sustainability education that are proving less than helpful. One is a pronounced bias towards universal solutions of standardised ‘development’ in the face of a global diversity of cultures and traditions, inspired by a monolithic vision of beneficent modernity and dubious interpretations of sustainability. Another is its persistent reliance on the ideology of growth and blind techno-optimism (e.g. in its preoccupation with technical innovations to ‘eradicate poverty’) (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2014b). The influence of the DESD is exemplified by the new public school curriculum for the Canadian province of British Columbia. It addresses sustainability in only four places (a regrettably low coverage), all under the headings of design, technology and science (Province of BC, 2017).

The influence of techno-optimism has moved many educationists to prioritise scientific and technological approaches to sustainability (such as alternative energy, recycling, conservation, etc.) in the development of new curricula and innovative teaching strategies. They aim to promote sustainable lifestyles, to explain the reasons for their importance, and to advocate the urgency of the issues to accomplish the Great Transition. Other approaches for ‘Transition education’ address the need to include the social, cultural and moral dimensions of sustainability (Stone & Barlow, 2010; Lautensach, 2010; Orr, 2004; Parkin, 2010). Yet those approaches are largely characterised by a ‘one size fits all’ rationale that rarely recognises the implications of cultural diversity and postcolonial inequities of power.

In contrast, educational agenda towards decolonisation have from their inception focused squarely on the diversity of cultures, and on issues of injustice in the socio-cultural relationships and power structures that govern diverse postcolonial societies. To be effective towards strengthening “the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands,” (Waziyatawin & Yellow Bird, 2012: 3) educational approaches must take into account the situations and concerns of ethno-cultural minorities in today’s classrooms (Harrison et al, 2013). Those agenda include accommodating cultural diversity and addressing its problematic interactions with monolithic modernity, along with a fierce dedication to justice in its distributive, restorative and procedural interpretations (Strega & Brown, 2015). Additional urgency is imparted by the increased mobility of families and the increasing displacement of entire peoples by climate change and violent conflicts.

One aspect of today’s postcolonial societies that renders their decolonisation imperative is the widespread and persistent lack of cultural safety among colonised peoples. Originated among nursing educators in Aotearoa/New Zealand, cultural safety practices have contributed to the success of educational decolonising efforts in diverse settings (Ramsden, 2005; Harrison et al., 2013).[iv] Concern for the cultural safety of students and teachers arose from applications of the justice principle to postcolonial classrooms where indigenous minorities often ended up marginalised and disadvantaged. Their disproportionately low success rate, lower state of health and poor professional opportunities were identified as manifestations of longstanding institutional injustice rooted in racial prejudice and oppressive colonial traditions. Operatively speaking, they were not made to feel culturally safe. The cultural safety of learners depends on the effective teaching of a person or family from another culture by a teacher who has undertaken a process of reflection on his or her own cultural identity, recognizing the impact of the teacher’s culture on his or her own classroom practice (NCNZ, 2011: 7) and applying effective intercultural competencies. Culturally safe education is free of “any action that diminishes, demeans or disempowers the cultural identity and well being of an individual” or group (NAHO, 2006: 3). Cultural safety can transform power imbalances, neutralize institutional discrimination, and address the effects of colonization (Ramsden, 2005). For those reasons one might consider culturally safe education a necessary condition for any educational achievement by culturally marginalized students. The heightened multicultural pressures in present-day schools provide an added incentive. Beyond schooling, an education for cultural safety can make a substantial contribution towards the peaceful resolution of intercultural tensions in wider society by ‘preparing to be offended’ (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2015).

The literature on cultural safety and decolonisation shows little awareness of the threats to human welfare that arise from the crisis of sustainability, despite its strong humanist ideals and despite the fact that those threats inequitably affect the world’s poorest. This essay will juxtapose education for cultural safety as a representative of decolonising pedagogies against the widespread mainstream of sustainability education that pursues a unified, ecologically inspired vision of a ‘Great Transition’ for all. As the preceding summaries show, both serve essential purposes; but the differences in priorities and approaches presented in the respective literature indicate the possibility of a deeper rift in aims and value priorities. The main question addressed in this essay is: To what extent does this perceived rift indicate fundamental incompatibilities between the two educational agenda? Given the overarching priority of sustainability education at this time, as well as the importance of cultural safety for educational success, reassurance is needed that the aims and methods of one curriculum do not conflict with the success of the other. We are developing a project to test this hypothesis using quantitative empirical data in our home region of northwestern British Columbia. In this paper we take a theoretical approach to compare and evaluate learning outcomes that are used in sustainability education and cultural safety education, respectively. Our objective is to assess the possible extent of conceptual and moral contradictions as well as the potential for mutual reinforcement.

We reviewed the literature and the authors’ personal practice to identify the major learning outcomes and pedagogical strategies of the two curricula. Curricula include learning outcomes in the cognitive and the affective domains; the latter includes attitudes, values, beliefs and motivations. The learning outcomes and strategies apply both to public schooling and to teacher education. Each outcome or strategy was assessed for its possible effects and dependence on the other curriculum.

Curriculum for Cultural Safety: A Brief Overview

Learning Outcomes

The following learning outcomes were compiled from a cursory literature review (Krathwohl, 1964; Noddings, 1995; Schonert-Reichl & Hymel, 2007; Gay, 2010; Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011a; Brewer & McCabe, 2014; Brown & Krasteva, 2014). They are organised into three stages according to Ramsden’s (2005) developmental model, and a section on strategies.

Cultural Awareness & Sensitivity:

Social-Emotional Learning focuses on happiness, “caring and supportive interpersonal relationships, empathy and care for others, making responsible decisions, and desisting from risky and health-compromising behaviours” (Schonert-Reichl & Hymel 2007: 21).

Demonstrate awareness of the importance of cultural safety; show interest in issues and policies relating to cultural safety; show respect for beliefs and values in others that disagree with one’s own; show concern for the welfare of others; become adept at identifying possible causes of inadvertent offence proactively; demonstrate commitment to social improvement.

Cultural Competencies:

Demonstrate skills for intercultural communication, leadership, conflict resolution, negotiating value differences, establishing a joint culture of tolerance and fairness;

Explicate and analyse the hidden curriculum for its messages (e.g. cultural parochialism, contradictions); safely discuss perceptions on discriminatory attitudes encountered in the community and in the curriculum; explore and discuss the potential of culturally responsive local self government; reconcile conflicting moral priorities in the pursuit of cultural safety (e.g. tolerance and justice); prioritise non-violence as a moral principle; explore and adopt non-violent alternatives to conflict resolution.

Achieving Cultural Safety: (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011a)

Explain alternative moral theories and principles, as well as moral and logical reasoning; compare and evaluate possible strategies to make education culturally safe and to educate for cultural safety in wider society; empower learners to tolerate inadvertent cultural offence, to appreciate the benefits of cultural pluralism & of limiting cultural relativism; help peers understand how they can adopt culturally safe practices and why they should.

Educational Strategies

In addition to the above learning outcomes, the following contextual and pedagogical strategies are recommended (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011a; Meyers, 1993; Meyer et al, 2014; Gay, 2010; Noddings, 1995):

Alleviate teachers’ uncertainties about their job security; strengthen teachers’ confidence with value education (especially through modeling); address controversial issues; allow cultural groups to define their own learning space in the classroom; infuse curriculum with minority languages from the community and their cultural traditions; implement affirmative action wherever the consensus calls for it; implement diverse collaborative styles; allow students to collaboratively construct learning goals; create a safe forum for personal stories; enable students to make authentic connections to learning and to each other; remove the air of illegitimacy about caring, including the deconstruction of cultural stereotypes about gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Mainstream Sustainability Education: Analysis of Compatibility

The learning outcomes are organised here under six major educational aims, hallmarks of a transition curriculum that we have worked with for some years (Lautensach, 2010). They are listed below, along with conducive learning outcomes and strategies, followed by evaluative comments how each aim reconciles with cultural safety. The six aims apply also to teacher education, with a special emphasis on epistemological skills, philosophical foundations, comprehensive content knowledge, well-rounded ethics and active participation in professional communities of practice focusing on sustainability education (Lloyd et al, 2011; Santone et al, 2014; Cloud, 2014).

For the sake of brevity, only a small selection from a much larger body of curriculum content is given, adequate for the analysis at hand. (Cloud, 2014; Parkin, 2010; Welzer, 2016; Potter, 1988; Orr, 2004; Lloyd et al, 2011; Oakes & Lipton, 2007; Jones et al, 2010; Senge, 2014; McKibben, 2010; Lautensach, 2010; Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011b; Lautensach 2013; Sipos et al., 2008).

Adopt a concept of progress that is informed by sustainability
Demonstrate ecological literacy in its diverse transdisciplinary, cognitive and affective aspects (Nichols, 2010; Simmons, 2014); critically analyse manifestations of the growth paradigm; apply ecological principles and the theory of adaptive systems to the dynamics and sustainable well-being of human populations in social-ecological systems and a reductive economy; ask “what is growing, where, for whom, and at what cost?” (Parkin, 2010: 73); distinguish the ideals of acceptable survival from the mere survival of the greatest number; explore and adopt sustainable and equitable alternatives in health care; explain historical case studies of sustainability challenges; nurture respect for nature, for precaution and for small enterprise; adopt the principles of sufficiency within limits of growth, of justice and restraint, and of holistic economic cost assessment; starting from earth systems science, consider the Gaia model to enrich one’s personal environmental ethic.

These outcomes are not in direct conflict with cultural safety. Yet, potential points of conflicts exist between culturally contingent views about progress and survival, utility of nature and non-humans, and the limits of humanism.

Replace anthropocentrism with an ecocentrist environmental ethic.

Distinguish between statements of value and of fact; distinguish ontologically subjective concepts (e.g. the right to a clean environment) from ontologically objective ones (e.g. the limits of carrying capacity); adopt a perspective of holistic valuing of nature and of regarding humans as an integral part of nature (as is evident in many indigenous belief systems); describe the function of ecological communities inside and outside of the human body; demonstrate resistance against the dominant custom of commodifying nature (and almost everything else) and exploiting it purely for human ends; learn how to convince others to adopt sustainable values; reconcile one’s aspirations towards personal freedom with the constraints of social justice, ecological limits and the rights of non-humans; describe the natural environment using metaphors of personhood and moral standing, connecting with indigenous mythologies; demonstrate empathy, fairness and friendship for non-human animals, other life forms, ecosystems and landscapes.

As with the preceding aim, a potential for disagreement arises from conflicting worldviews and assumptions about the position of humans in nature. Particular sources of controversy are presented by religious claims to hegemony – but then such ambitions often threaten cultural safety as well (Kivel, 2013).

Acquire the cognitive and affective skills required to collaboratively meet the challenges.

Apply footprint analysis to development issues and their implications; practice ethical reasoning and metaethical analysis; develop your own learning skills and attitudes; become more perceptive of and adaptive to environmental and social change; contribute to sustainable waste management for your family and community (the ‘six Rs of sustainability’: reduce, reuse/repurpose, recycle, refuse, rethink, rot) and explicate their importance; develop informed skepsis towards unsubstantiated propositions, dogmatism and demagoguery, including appeals to ‘common sense’, ‘rationality’, ‘realism’ and ‘human nature’; broaden your scientific understanding of nature; complement expertise in sustainable lifestyles with well-reasoned explanations why they are important and to what extent they might help; develop reflective analysis, especially one’s own habits of mind and points of view; recognise and revise those unquestioned assumptions and habits of thinking that lead well-intentioned people into ecologically catastrophic decisions; acquire learning skills at the individual as well as social levels and extend them to teaching others.

These skills do not conflict with those required for cultural safety. In fact, they are likely to reinforce them – except perhaps when the learner’s newly developed skepsis and critical thinking turns towards religious dogma and unquestioned cultural traditions.

Acquire a vision for and awareness of the future that includes change and sustainable solutions.

Visualise utopias that transcend the ‘present-plus’ pretences of ‘futuropathic’ agents; experience self efficacy in activist ‘communities of practice’ committed to Transition goals; cultivate informed courage over defeatism; recognise and appreciate quality over quantity in human endeavours; become aware of anthropogenic environmental change and ecological overshoot and how they affect the prospects and human security of communities; support projects that are planned within ecological limits and critique constructively those that are not; evaluate innovations by asking “and then what?” and “who benefits?”.

It seems inconceivable how any culture would envision the future entirely as a continuation of the present. On the other hand, many cultures harbour similar ideals about a more just, humane and secure future, and their moral codes are informed by those aspirations. In the context of visioning utopias, the potential for mutual reinforcement between the two curricula seems to outweigh any potential for conflict.

Adopt a non-parochialist view of environmental values and academic inquiry.

Reconcile moral pluralism with the primacy of sustainability, i.e. the imperatives of universal behaviour change towards sustainable norms; adopt values of global humanism, tempered with ecological holism; show your affiliation to your home place, tempered with appreciation of the rest of the world; adopt an ethic of cultural pluralism and social justice, tempered with respect for universal human rights; support local ‘slow’ movements over conventional modern ‘development’; adopt a global vision of causes, effects and interdependence and pay attention to local implications; share local resources equitably and sustainably.

Depending on how strongly a person adheres to the specific norms and principles dictated by their culture, there is potential for conflict with the openness and conceptual flexibility advocated in this aim. Every culture contains by definition an element of parochialism, which manifests in the discussions about headscarves and other cultural symbols in the public sphere. However, as both cultural safety and social sustainability depend on the parties’ abilities to overcome rigid mindsets and finding common ground, there is also a potential for synergy. A particular culture may also be expected to give up more than its fair share of values for the sake of universal ideals such as human rights and dignity.  A functional code of cultural pluralism may only demand that “we need fully to understand and appreciate the viewpoint of a particular standard before we judge it as inadequate” (Gbadegesin, 2009: 32).

Become liberated from exploitative dependencies.

Analyse the reasons for the failure of mainstream education to bring about substantial Transition reforms to date (obstacles include scientific illiteracy, inequity of opportunities, misleading messages about ontology and the social construction of knowledge); explicate the hidden curriculum and its messages (dispositions, guiding myths, skills & knowledge); critique status quo attitudes, norms, beliefs and ideals, especially when they are dictated by the hegemonic ‘Everything, Always” culture of consumption and growth; demonstrate a will to participate in acts of resistance to that hegemon; accept the discomfort that arises from discordant actions and dissent.

As with the preceding aim, the possibility of agreement or conflict with cultural safety principles depends on the amount of flexibility on all sides. Counterhegemonic attitudes and actions are generally frowned upon in traditionalist cultures.

Further Findings

To be effective, a transition curriculum (and indeed most other curricula) must strike a balance along several continua (Jones et al., 2010). On the continuum of learning outcomes it must balance between the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains, also known as ‘heads, hearts and hands’ (Sipos et al, 2008; Singleton, 2015). On the geographical continuum, the challenge is to include and be informed by, global as well as local, place-based considerations. On the social continuum, it must address various levels of agency from the individual through family, community, regional, national and global dimensions. On the cultural continuum it must be as inclusive as possible, accommodating diverse cultural views, narratives, metaphors and beliefs inasmuch as they fit with the sustainability principle of ‘living within our means’. This balanced, inclusive approach (e.g. in Sipos et al [2008]) renders Transition curricula largely compatible with cultural safety.

Beyond the boundary of sustainable limits, there is no compatibility with cultures that deny the inevitability of a Transition and the imperative to minimise associated harm, as with the ‘culture of denial’ (Derby, 2010). Other tests of compatibility focus on how a culture defines ecological intelligence (Bowers, 2009). This includes how it deals with the taboos around overpopulation and a woman’s control over her fertility, with the exploitation of non-humans and ecosystems solely as means to human ends, how it constructs the extent of individual autonomy, and possibly how it addresses the question of meat consumption on an overpopulated planet. If a compromise is feasible, the foremost requirements are always a forum for open discussion (such as sharing circles), an open mind, and a commitment to a secure future. Maintaining a forum for open discussion with and among students, encouraging an open mind, and a shared commitment to a secure future can gradually bring opponents closer.

Within the boundaries of compatibility the need for collaboration and mutual reinforcement between the two curricula and their respective advocates becomes ever more pressing. This is not the same planet that humanity and its cultures evolved on, and our traditional socio-psychological coping mechanisms are frequently being strained (McKibben, 2010). Our social environments include increasingly large numbers of people of which many communicate, and are exposed to, diverse cultural messages. Moreover, rising sea level will flood costal lowlands, many of them densely populated, and regional climate change will render other areas unfit to sustain their growing populations. Consequently, unprecedented numbers of displaced people will need to find shelter in host communities with vastly different cultural traditions.

In the absence of appropriate countermeasures, the increasing cultural and socio-political heterogeneity of the classroom has the potential to degenerate into scenarios of inequity where newcomers are automatically disadvantaged and discriminated against because they are perceived as alien. Especially in an atmosphere of crisis and scarcity, newcomers with unfamiliar ethnic characteristics and unfamiliar cultural, religious or linguistic traditions run the risk of being perceived either as a threat or as a target group to be assimilated (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011a). The resulting situation resembles the postcolonial scenario where the host contingent assumes the role of settlers and the newcomers are pressed into the role of disempowered indigenous minorities (Harrison et al, 2013). The latest political trends in European countries and elsewhere indicate strong popular sentiments of xenophobia and nationalism, eliciting equally strong opposition. The development of effective curricula for cultural safety and decolonisation might tip the balance toward future electorates choosing policies of reconciliation over those of segregation. The latter would not only open the door to numerous violent conflicts, they would jeopardise all aspirations for a humane Great Transition.

Cultural safety and decolonisation are ultimately required to sustain peaceful societies and thus constitute essential components for any comprehensive curricular effort towards a Great Transition. Yet, they are not often enough included explicitly in sustainability curricula. Instead, the abovementioned rift separates advocates of social justice from advocates of sustainability. Part of the reason for the rift originates in disciplinary biases: Ecologists and other natural scientists tend to focus on scientific means such as sustainable resource management, secure food production, economically feasible health care, and strengthening the resilience of social-economic communities. At worst, some sustainability curricula are reduced to modernist interpretations of ‘sustainable development’, as in UNESCO’s DESD program (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2014b). Others prioritise de-growth, the imperative of sustaining the global civilizational level under a regime of drastically reduced resource use (Welzer, 2016: 220). Others yet emphasise the need for ecocentric ideals and holistic environmental ethics (Beavington et al, 2017). Few pay attention to the cultural roots of affective factors as behaviour determinants on the individual and collective levels (Rees, 2010), and on the diversity of cultural norms that inform those determinants. None of those variants reflects much of an inclination to incorporate goals of cultural safety or even pluralism, to recognize that more than one way exists for distinct cultural groups to arrive at a pluralistic, globally effective and just sustainability model. Equally unhelpful is the frequent implicit portrayal of sustainability as an ideal or hobby project for affluent white people.

The side of the social justice advocates in education is equally culpable for this rift between the two educational camps. The fixation of social justice curricula on distributive justice, on eradicating poverty in postcolonial societies, on moral relativism, on the racialization of ecological problems, and on the educational achievement of cultural minorities, has led to widespread inattention to the ramifications of ecological overshoot, overpopulation and safe global boundaries for resource use (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2010; Lautensach, 2015). The upshot is that despite the sizeable potential for compatibility that emerged from our analysis, and despite the pressing need to combine the two educations agenda, not enough effort towards that goal is evident.

Sustainability is a multifaceted concept that extends over the environmental, social, cultural and economic dimensions of the human condition. In this aspect it resembles human security, which is supported across all ethnic groups by the four pillars of environmental, socio-political, health-related and economic security (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2013). Sustainability, being contingent on the absence of threats, can thus be conceived as sustainable human security – which in turn is eminently dependent on successful regimes for decolonisation and cultural safety. The unifying principles of human security bear some important educational implications that educators and curriculum designers would do well to act on. Raworth (2012) showed that environmental boundaries and social justice requirements can be successfully synthesised into a holistic model of a safe operating space for humanity, even though her model does not incorporate cultural diversity.


Official curricula are now providing educators with a modicum of support with regard to sustainability imperatives and social justice agenda connected with decolonisation. That support falls short where the two curricula are not effectively connected, which happens all too often. This paper provides educators with a compendium of learning outcomes and teaching strategies for both curricula, as well as reassurance that they do not necessarily contradict but can and should reinforce each other in the classroom.

Our findings suggest that education in cultural safety and education for sustainability are largely compatible in their requisite skills, attitudes and conceptual content. Both struggle against the obstacles of cultural hegemony and unexamined harmful messages in hidden curricula. Both face political backlash, sometimes from the same powerful groups with hidden agenda. The main areas of conflict between sustainability curricula and cultural safety curricula, according to our analysis, is not framed by factual priorities or disagreements over cognitive outcomes but by differences in values and ideals, which are of course culturally defined and reproduced.

The primacy of cultural and affective factors as determinants of human behavior is now widely accepted, even though this does not always manifest in official curricula. Evidence for this primacy includes the failure of curricula that overemphasise cognitive outcomes (i.e. many traditional school curricula) to effect substantial behavior changes towards sustainability (Saylan & Blumstein, 2011); nor has the massive progress in scientific modeling and understanding of environmental problems had much impact on the continuing increase of global ecological overshoot (Rees, 2014).  On the other hand, in some cases changes to dominant cultural and moral priorities have made some impressive behavior change possible (Welzer, 2016). Comparisons of historical cases of societies that succeeded to cope with sustainability challenges, with societies that collapsed as a result of failing to do so, indicate that the primary difference between the two lies in their cultural norms and their flexibility to adapt them to new contingencies (Diamond, 2005).

In that context the particular areas of conflict between the two curricula gain in significance. Choosing between the irreconcilable norms of two cultures is difficult because it requires reasoned objections to cultural relativism, objections that clearly place one culture’s values above those of another. As difficult as such an endeavor may seem, it is supported by successful historic precedents where cannibalism, human sacrifice and legal slavery were abolished after intensive discussions invoking humanist ideals. Other objections that are still being contested include the culturally sanctioned ritual mutilation of babies and children, as well as societal attitudes towards sexual identity. All those objections resulted in, or aim at, the abandonment of specific cultural values where they could be shown to conflict with human dignity or the values informing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We suggest that those precedents might indicate a way how the two curricula might be reconciled, namely by asking the question which violates the human rights of present and future generations to the least extent.

In both curricula the educator needs to take a carefully considered approach, respectful of divergences in views, pointing out common goals and their desirability. Making every attempt at reconciliation is imperative; a hypothetical culture that refuses to make any attempts to become more sustainable is unlikely to find cultural safety when cohabiting with others. In today’s crowded world where cohabitation can hardly be avoided such a culture would find it increasingly difficult, if not futile, to withdraw and isolate itself to prevent further intercultural conflict, or to live forever beyond its means. Likewise, a society that neglects the universal need for cultural safety in today’s multicultural globalised context cannot achieve sustainability in its socio-political sense. This mutual interdependence amplifies the imperative to reconcile. This paper shows that such a synthesis is possible; the actual development of a workable unified curriculum will be the aim of future projects.

In practice, teaching cultural safety, civics and sustainability would be pointless at hierarchical educational institutions where exclusion, inequity, competition and wastefulness are part of the group culture. The learning outcomes that the reconciliation process ultimately identifies as universally acceptable must be an unquestioned part of the lived cultural praxis at the institution, and they must be modeled by the staff (Giroux, 1985) and ideally by the community as well (Sipos et al, 2008: 70). Otherwise, the hidden curriculum will continue to work against the teacher’s efforts.

Notwithstanding the synergy of the two curricula, each communicates the need for sacrifices. The particular kind of modernization that the Transformation requires includes the fiercely contested reduction of privileges, including our own in affluent, developed societies (Welzer, 2016: 131); even in the world’s poor countries the (mostly male) privilege of unlimited reproduction is not sustainable. Those sacrifices impose limitations on human rights that were universalized only recently in human history (Lautensach, 2015). Likewise, cultural safety sometimes requires the mutually negotiated renouncing of incompatible views – moral territory that nobody gives up easily. However, in both cases the payoff in security and justice makes it entirely worthwhile. Making this clear to students from the beginning should ease the educator’s task.


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[i] The literature, especially William Rees in his writings, explicates those three groups of obstacles and establishes their validity despite the pejorative ring of their labels. Counterproductive mental habits include wishful thinking, self-deception, groundless optimism, and weakness of will (Aristotles’ akrasia). Cognitive dysfunctions refer to the inability to think holistically (Easter Islander syndrome), to extrapolate to larger or global dimensions or to the long term, and the inability to think critically. Moral ineptitudes include attitudes that dispose towards the above patterns, selfishness, tribalism, ethnocentrism, chauvinism, as well as the denial of moral responsibility and the lack of moral scruples. All those impediments manifest to varying extents in individuals and in entire cultures or societies.

[ii] The term ‘Great Transition’ was coined by Paul Raskin and co-workers (2002; 2016) in their comparative analysis of possible future scenarios for global humanity. The term denotes a complex system of innovative policies and initiatives that facilitate a transition from the present unsustainable situation of increasing population, consumption, pollution and environmental deterioration to a world in which those trends are halted and, where necessary, reversed. Independently of whether it is primarily implemented at the bioregional or global levels or both, what renders that transition ‘Great’ is the minimum of human suffering and the maximum of welfare that accompany it.

[iii] In the physical world, growth always stops. The fact that most of the ideologies that currently dominate ‘modern’ thinking have come to ignore this does not exempt humanity from eventually facing the consequences of transition scenarios that are in part forced upon us by nature. In Raskin’s (2002; 2016) model those transitions variously manifest as sudden collapse or slow decline, accompanied by evenly distributed misery and chaos around the world or fortified, affluent safe zones dominating and exploiting the impoverished rest of humanity. What those scenarios have in common is that they are far from painless for most of humanity and that they are inevitable unless a ‘Great Transition’ is accomplished in a timely fashion. While they can be combined in numerous ways, their totality encompasses all possibilities (i.e. their joint probability approaches 1).

[iv] The standards and benchmarks established by Irihapeti Ramsden (2005) in her pioneering work on cultural safety are still recognized in health care and other fields in many countries. As elaborated in the text, her developmental model of education in cultural safety consists of the stages of cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity and cultural competence and culminates in cultural safety. In the USA, the concept of ‘culturally responsive education’ encompasses similar goals and pedagogical approaches.

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