March 28th, 2011

Review of The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World

By Laura Henry-Stone

The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World, edited by Arran Stibbe, is a crucial resource for sustainability educators. Published by Green Books in the UK and distributed in the US by Chelsea Green, a leader in sustainability literature, it brings together thinkers and practitioners from multiple fields, from ecocriticism to permaculture to complex systems theory. The editor and most of the contributors are based in the UK, where much cutting-edge work on sustainability education is being done. For instance, Stephen Sterling, a contributor to The Handbook and frequently cited in essays from fellow contributors, is a pioneer in the field of sustainability education. Early on, he differentiated the field from conventional environmental education (see Sterling’s 2001 Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change). Sustainability education is still being defined, building not only on the work of Sterling and his colleagues in the UK but also on that of other key thinkers from North America cited by authors in this book, people like Donella Meadows, Fritjof Capra, David Orr and C. A. Bowers. This book is a key contribution to the development of the field and is a book that every sustainability educator will want to have on his or her shelf.

Stibbe integrates the diverse contributions in this book by arranging them based on what he and Heather Luna describe in the introduction as skills for sustainability literacy. They summarize, “This book uses the term sustainability literacy to indicate the skills, attitudes, competencies, dispositions and values that are necessary for surviving and thriving in the declining conditions of the world in ways which slow down that decline as far as possible.” They describe at least eleven sets of these skills. Some are practical skills, such as “skills for working with nature to make the best possible use of ‘ecosystem services’” (Chapters 7-9) and “skills for reducing environmental footprints” (Chapters 18-20). These are the types of skills that are often most immediately associated with environmental sustainability, which basically amounts to using our natural resources in a sustainable manner. However, the book ranges far beyond these sorts of functional skills into terrain such as epistemology—the study of how we know what we know—and ethics—the investigation of our moral responsibilities. Literacy in these areas includes, “the ability to think of the world relationally, as consisting of interconnected systems, and as having animate qualities” (Chapters 10-12) and “the ability to reflect on what kind of society or world is desirable, on what is important and worth protecting, and what there is an ethical obligation to do” (Chapters 13-15). Each chapter within these sets addresses a particular skill. For example, Melinda Watson’s chapter on “Materials Awareness” deals with “the ability to expose the hidden impact of materials on sustainability.”

The collection of essays in Part I: Skills for a Changing World can be considered a toolkit to assist sustainability educators. Most chapters include theoretical background as well as specific recommendations for activities to guide learners in understanding the skill being discussed. The authors assume their audience to be educators who are somewhat versed in sustainability already who can use the ideas presented to stimulate their own approach to educating for sustainability. It is probably not the best book to give directly to most students, as the topics and activities can appear quite disparate to the newcomer to sustainability. The final four chapters of The Handbook merit an entirely separate Part II, which tackles the exceptionally sticky and yet vital topic of educational transformation around the concept of sustainability.

A couple of primary assumptions in Stibbe and Luna’s description of sustainability literacy underpin sustainability discourse more widely. One is that the “conditions of the world” are indeed declining. Another is that we humans have some responsibility for and control over that decline. If you don’t share those assumptions, this book is not for you. While there is some discussion about the importance of envisioning desirable futures (e.g. “Futures Thinking” by Sue Wayman), the emphasis here is on critiquing the inadequacy of “business as usual” approaches to human development. Beyond these basics, disagreement abounds over what the primary causes for the decline are, what the best approaches are for stemming the decline, and what exactly sustainability is.

As is common in much sustainability literature, Stibbe and Luna skirt around the challenge of offering a solid definition of the term. They instead rely on the various essays in the book to illuminate a common lens through which this particular community of sustainability educators views the world. The closest passage to an actual definition of sustainability is from Dick Morris and Stephen Martin’s essay, “Complexity, Systems Thinking and Practice.” They write, “Although the concept of sustainability relates to the whole biosphere, at its core it is concerned with sustainable human lifestyles.” In “Futures Thinking,” Wayman references the three classic spheres in another close-to-definition: sustainability literacy addresses “the economic, social and environmental power our actions exert through space and time, the historically, socially and culturally diverse ways in which we construct ourselves in relation to natural systems, and how we might learn to live in greater harmony with these systems.” There’s no question that sustainability is a slippery concept, but that does not mean that it isn’t a useful way to frame our ongoing quest to figure out and implement ways for human cultures to take care of their shared planetary home.

Fig. 1. The three spheres of sustainability. (

In my own work in sustainability education, I too have struggled to create a guiding definition of sustainability and often fall back on the now classic Venn diagram of the three overlapping spheres of sustainability cited in Glenn Strachan’s chapter on “Systems Thinking” (Fig. 1). But the heart of the overlapping circles, the “sweet spot” of sustainability—what is in that elusive space, exactly? This question torments academics like me whose entire training has been in the rational, logical, empirical Western tradition. The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy suggests that this particular epistemology is in fact part of the problem, that sustainability cannot be understood solely in these terms. As Barry Bignelle explains in “Beauty as a Way of Knowing,” “the same intelligence that gave rise to an ecological crisis of unprecedented magnitude will prove spectacularly impotent in grappling with the crisis it has created, and that to avert the crisis, it must learn to know itself, a different thing from knowing about itself,” echoing the quote attributed to Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Bignelle’s essay also hints at the contribution that Eastern philosophies and other epistemologies can make to the sustainability conversation.

Clearly, as indicated from the titles of some of the chapters referenced above, understanding our place in complex systems is one of the key skills for sustainability literacy. One of the most relevant properties of complex systems, described in Stephan Harding’s essay on “Gaia Awareness,” is the concept of emergent properties. An intellectual guru leading the integration of complexity theory with sustainability education, Fritjof Capra is cited over and over again in multiple chapters of the book. Capra’s work, particularly his description of emergent properties in his 2002 book, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, very much influenced the definition of sustainability that I finally settled on to guide my own work. I came to see sustainability as an emergent property of complex adaptive systems with integrated social and ecological components. An emergent property, like life itself, is incredibly difficult to define in concrete terms. So the question for me then became, rather than trying to define sustainability, how do we design social-ecological systems in such a way as to promote the emergence of sustainability? This is a very different approach from reductionist problem-solving. Indeed, some of the critiques of reductionism raised in the chapters on complexity and systems thinking will cause some readers to accuse The Handbook of being anti-science. It doesn’t have to be seen this way. No one here is saying that there is not a place for reductionism and rationality in sustainability work. Sustainability is an inclusive, integrative framework, and we need all hands on deck.

For educators, the question becomes: how do we educate in a way that fosters the emergence of sustainability in the systems of which learners are a part? Much sustainability education concerns pedagogy, the question of how we teach what we teach. It is the role of the educator to consider not only content but also pedagogy. For example, one of the skill sets described by Stibbe and Luna in the introduction is “the ability to effectively and persuasively express a vision for the future, including skills such as oral presentation, writing, and use of new media, all in ways that are culturally appropriate and sensitive to different perspectives.” Classic communication skills such as writing and oral presentation are present here, but they are embedded within a context that considers the purpose of these skills more broadly. Why do we want to develop solid writing skills in our students? If we are concerned about fostering sustainable human lifestyles, such skills should contribute to this larger task. Professional educators already know that the best way to develop academic skills is to attach them to tasks that are meaningful to learners. Sustainability pedagogy simply places skills like these within the context of ecological, social and economic sustainability.

Pedagogy also concerns the so-called “hidden curriculum” embedded within the processes and structures of educational institutions. Educational research suggests that students are far more sensitive to learning from the hidden curriculum of their institutions than we would like to think. They are quick to pick up on institutional hypocrisies; rather than avoiding the subject, we should discuss these contradictions. This dynamic lies behind the motivation for initiatives such as the campus sustainability movement in higher education in North America. Sustainability educators often criticize formal educational institutions of doing no more than preparing their students to be successful economic producers and consumers rather than questioning whether these socioeconomic systems are themselves unsustainable. Many mainstream educators who deny this accusation are not considering what students are learning from the hidden curriculum of their institutions. For instance, if the endowment of an educational institution is invested in unsustainable industries, can we expect our students to question such practices? In asking our students to consider the meaning of a sustainable lifestyle, we must also investigate the “lifestyles” of our own institutions.

Jeffrey Newman touches on this question in “Values Reflection and the Earth Charter,” explaining the double bind in which educators often find themselves when they discuss values. If they directly incorporate values into their teaching, they can be accused of indoctrinating their students. “But if all mention of values is expunged from education, then this leaves little choice but for learners to draw their values from the unsustainable society around them, or from the values latent in the ‘hidden curriculum’ of their educational institution.” In addition, if teachers do not give students the skills to critique social and economic systems, then we may leave them prey to advertisers who use the power of psychological suggestion to convince them that the key to happiness lies in material wealth. Stibbe discusses “the ability to expose advertising discourse” in “Advertising Awareness.” In a later section of the book, Morgan Phillips in “Emotional Well-Being” and Paul Maiteny in “Finding Meaning Without Consuming” return to this theme by exploring the contributions made by psychological research to the contestation of materialistic values in the pursuit of sustainable human lifestyles.

The four essays in Part II: Educational Transformation for Sustainability Literacy build on these questions about the nature and purpose of formal education itself. As a member of the faculty of an institution of higher education in the US, I was especially drawn to Anne Phillips’ essay on “Institutional Transformation.” She articulates well the paradox that many of us in this profession live. “The educational system, of course, is at the heart of our current unsustainable society, being both its product and its creator…It is axiomatic that effective action is unlikely to come from people whose training has been within, and whose loyalty is to, the unsustainable paradigm the current educational system reflects.” She goes on to suggest that education institutions will need to begin playing a different role in their local communities, such as by nurturing innovative individuals.

The Handbook is a challenging book. It is challenging in that it presents a diverse and extensive array of material that requires careful consideration to digest. It also challenges many of the assumptions upon which our knowledge systems and the institutions that propagate them are based. Because of these challenges, it must have been equally challenging to write and edit these essays into a coherent whole. As contributors Morris and Martin suggest, when we attempt to communicate about complex systems, “…it may be quicker and more powerful to use some sort of diagram. Words have to flow in a sequential manner to make sense, and one of the features of most systems is that the interactions between entities are often looped or recursive…In such a situation, a diagram can literally be ‘worth a thousand words.’” Indeed, the chapters do not unfold in a linear order; they spiral around the ambiguous yet fundamental concepts of sustainability. As with all sustainability work, the rigor is in the integration of these elements rather than in the depth of any single one. This handbook comes closer than any single book I have yet read to integrating these key components in one volume about sustainability education.

Of course, Stibbe’s volume is not a perfect or consensus representation of what sustainability literacy or education is all about. Each chapter is rather short, leaving room for criticism from experts in those particular fields. My own background includes training in cultural anthropology, and I was disappointed to see such minimal treatment of contributions that indigenous cultures can make to sustainability discourse. Kim Polistina’s chapter on “Cultural Literacy” barely scratches the surface. She emphasizes the need for Western educators and learners to be culturally competent. I would have liked to see her or other contributors reflect in greater depth on how other cultures and ways of knowing the world relate to sustainability literacy. At the same time, the entire book is about cultural change and many chapters have themes with Eastern philosophy woven into them, such as John Danvers’ “Being-in-the-World.” The authors leave it to their readers to make deeper connections to their own fields.

The publishers also missed an opportunity to teach through modeling the practice of “New Media Literacy” (John Blewitt). There is a website associated with The Handbook ( For some purposes, the website is a great resource. All the chapters are available as individual PDFs, which offers a paperless alternative for those who have concluded that electronic devices are more environmentally sustainable than paper and have adapted to reading on electronic displays. The website also presents additional chapters not available in the paperback book and has interview clips from the contributors. It’s fantastic to be able to watch interviews with pioneers like Stephen Sterling, and these are excellent resources for bringing into the classroom. However, the website falls far short of the type of innovation that is spreading through cyberspace and that many young learners have mastered far more quickly than their supposed teachers. This is an area in which youth may have quite a bit more to teach the “experts.” For instance, how could this website become more interactive and take advantage of social networking media more effectively? And surely this could have been an opportunity to use a creative visualization of the complexity of this book by arranging the chapters into a spiraling diagram rather than simply listing them in the order they appear in the book. A more minor concern is that the online table of contents does not include chapter numbers, making it somewhat difficult to coordinate with the book’s 32 numbered chapters.

Despite these minor critiques, this is a book I will return to again and again. I have already used it to foster discussion in a faculty colloquium series about incorporating sustainability concepts into courses; I am grateful for the invigorating conversation with colleagues that helped me formulate my review of the book. Kim Polistina devotes an entire section of her chapter to personal skills for coping with being a change agent. She writes,

“Whilst a cultural shift towards sustainability is being sought globally, learners in Western countries do not live in the kind of society that supports the types of widespread changes, diversity of cultural systems or challenges to the status quo that are required for this shift to occur. Learners need to ‘survive’ being change agents for this cultural shift as they will encounter a variety of mental, physical, psychological and emotional battles with those seeking to sustain the status quo…Learners’ self-confidence and self-esteem can be built through involvement in support networks of people working towards common goals, both within local communities and globally in the wider sustainability and global citizenship movement. Being part of a group with shared values can provide learners with valuable social support for their work as cultural change agents and a healthy release for the stresses that they will experience.”

We are all learning about sustainability literacy and developing our skills. As such, this message is just as relevant to those of us who think of ourselves primarily as educators as it is for traditional learners. Reading this book has certainly given me the reassuring sense that I am part of a global network of people whose educational values I share.

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