May 9th, 2010

Sustainability Education and Transformational Change

By Rick Medrick

One of the critical issues in today’s world is that of sustainability.  Whether it is identified as the ecological health of our planet, the functionality of our institutions and governments, or the viability of our personal life styles, this is the predominant theme facing humans as we move into the 21st Century.  How we make viable choices, what values guide these choices, and how we can live in harmony with nature and with one another will determine our future survival as a species.

Old approaches and solutions do not sufficiently address current needs and future contingencies.  We must develop new awareness, hone new personal and technical skills, and learn to function on a systems-wide basis to develop new options.  It is essential to have in place an informed populace and the mechanisms to make immediate decisions and guide short term actions as well as plan for long term solutions.

As globalization progresses, political and social systems will intersect, requiring a cultural awakening and commitment to collaboration among all the peoples of the planet.   New visions, new protocols, and new paradigms are needed to cope with this new reality.  Leadership and the ability to work together with peoples and groups of all backgrounds and persuasions are priorities for this transformation.  This involves our relationship to the natural world as well.  Systems theory suggests that all human networks are intertwined and all natural systems interconnected with these.

This requires creating learning environments that allow people to practice interacting and collaborating in a sustainable manner.  This is a challenge and charge for public school systems and institutions of higher education that purport to be shifting the emphasis from rote learning to producing citizens who exercise initiative and creativity in designing future programs and community interventions.  It will require an appreciation of diverse styles and approaches to evolve our collective intelligence and begin to develop common goals and intentions.

Our intention in creating such learning environments is to challenge the assumptions we all make about how a given process or activity is supposed to work.  Human behavior is much less predictable than we have been encouraged to believe.  Creativity emerges from conditions where the outcome is not preordained or limited.  New options evolve when old strategies are released and new versions introduced.  The entails a “letting go” and willingness to listen to the ideas and responses of others without judgment and to engage in dialogue that allows for all possibilities to emerge and receive fair consideration.  Such an “evolutionary” approach allows multiple approaches and perspectives to be considered.

What helps this process is a knowledge and understanding of different leadership models and how they can be exercised.  Transformational leadership is the willingness to reach out, step forth, and seize the opportunity to influence others and impact the future, whether one’s family, locally, or on a larger scale.  When one becomes sufficiently challenged or discomforted with how events are proceeding, there is a choice point where one can step back or lead forth.  Each of us faces this opportunity at different points in our lives.  If we choose to step forward, as many of us do, we set forth on a process that is irrevocable.  There is no turning back when the need for change compels our actions.

There are many processes and perspectives to guide this journey.  Some come from religious origins, others from the modeling of significant figures in our personal experience or the public domain.  All represent the potential within each of us to think and take action.  The precise approach and format is usually dictated by the circumstances, as in the practices of Situational Leadership (Hersey, 1997), where the strategy is determined by the involvement and maturity of the participants.  Other approaches are defined by the nature of the audience and the developed skills of the leader or initiator of action, as in Kouzes and Posner’s (2002) The Leadership Challenge. In each instance, it is the quality of the relationships among the leaders and followers that is critical for a successful effort.  When one identifies with the goals, and commits to an outcome, changeable as it may be, there is strength in numbers.

Finally, there is the notion, put forth decades ago by Robert Greenleaf in The Servant Leader (1977), that the leader is he or she who seeks to serve or support others in realizing their potential and maximizing their contributions to the common good.  This premise has a long history in western civilization and appears to be the omega point to which most contemporary approaches return.  It is a process that seeks to enlighten and empower others with a sense of their own capacities and potential.  It is a quality of being present that allows others to feel complete and successful in their endeavors and inspires them to reach out and empower others in turn.

Many stages may be involved in this development.  Some would refer to it as the evolution of a higher self, or identification with a higher state of being, even a level of spiritual attunement.  These are uncomfortable terms in this day of results-oriented strategies and measurable outcomes.  While it is important to count our accomplishments and technological innovations in the move to a more complex and interconnected world, it is nonetheless important to retain and define our humanity in a way that values all the components—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—of our existence.  Our connection with the earth, our appreciation for the mystery of that which we don’t fully comprehend, and our capacity to relate to other humans all define what it means to be fully human.

This is a process that is both ancient (in terms of human history) and indigenous in its origins (in relationship to earlier cultures).  We have a chance, just briefly now, to create a human society devoted to equality, sustainability, and a transformative view of human potential.  This can be accomplished through bringing people together in a variety of settings to explore who we are as a species and how we can more ably explore the conditions of our survival and well being as individuals and communities of others.

This involves creating an atmosphere or context of safety and curiosity, a place in which to explore and examine our assumptions and interactions, to see how our common sense of purpose and knowledge can create a synchronicity, a place of shared understanding and appreciation of our individual insights and talents.  This is one of the primary purposes of our PhD program in Sustainability Education in bringing together individuals of diverse backgrounds and visions to find a common purpose.  It may just be possible to create an esprit de corps, a way of being in the world, and the structures or projects through which to manifest and celebrate this.  Such transformation, however it may be stimulated or catalyzed, is one potential path to a sustainable future.

Greenleaf, Robert (1977). Servant leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hersey, Paul (1997). The situational leader. NJ: Center for Leadership Studies.

Kouzes, James & Posner, Barry (2002). The leadership challenge. Third Edition.

San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, Peter (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning

organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.

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