March 28th, 2011

Sustainability Education Invites Learners to Anticipate and Shape the Future: Terril Shorb interviews Stephen Sterling

By Terril Shorb

Stephen Sterling is a professor at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.   He is responsible for supporting curriculum development and pedagogic change and a research program related to exploring the implications of sustainability for higher education and for the University in particular. His interests for many years have focused on how ecological and systemic thinking can inform a change of educational culture, appropriate to the times we live in. He is the author of, among many other works, Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change and Good Earthkeeping: Education, Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future.  At the time of interview he was at home in Devon with the University of Plymouth just to the west.  “We live between Dartmoor National Park and the sea.  We live on the edge of a small market town and in about 12 minutes (you can) walk into the shops, but if you look out the front window it’s all hills and meadows and sheep.  Out the back we can cycle up to Dartmoor in a few minutes.”]

Terril Shorb: Approximately a decade ago you wrote in your book, Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, that related to sustainability “Higher education has been one of the slowest sectors to take up the challenge.”  And then just last year, you began an article for Environmental Scientist with the words, “Education is a slow learner.”  Could you please speak to what you regard as the principle reasons for this slow change?

Stephen Sterling: Education is a slow learner and I just like that phrase.  It brings up the whole area of human learning really: yet the education community and educational theory seems much about developing others rather than ourselves. I think universities particularly fall into that trap as they see themselves as teaching organizations and research organizations and increasingly as businesses, but not as learning organizations.  I think it’s rather ironic that the idea of the learning organization came out of business and not from higher education.  So why is it a slow learner?  I think there all sorts of reasons and different levels you can advance to answer that.  One part of it is that education, as I see it, is a subsystem of society rather than the other way around. Yet so often it’s seen in functional terms, for example politicians will often see education as the answer to fixing identified social problems such as drugs and teenage pregnancy. What’s missing is pressure from society – parents and policy makers – on education to examine itself reflexively in terms of what constitutes worthwhile aims and purposes for education in current conditions. Yet the whole sustainability debate and all the issues that go around it is really asking that question. This leads us in turn to the whole paradigmatic argument. We are still largely in the grip of the more mechanistic, reductionist and objectivist ways of seeing knowledge and because education as a whole is not reflexive we tend to run with that as a sort of unexamined substrate in our thinking and practice.  That gives rise to a whole stack of structures which reinforce that.  At the same time education has been pushed to a more neo-liberalist model in recent years and these things all interact.  The challenges we face, notably climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the end of cheap energy really throw a gauntlet down to education and the education community.  Is what we are doing adequate to face the challenges?  Education largely comes out of the past and now we need to almost take a kind of a back-casting view and move towards what I could call an anticipative education.  What could happen, what might happen, and how can we equip our young people to not only cope with that future, but to shape it?

Terril Shorb: Can higher education figure out a way to make that shift and still keep the bottom line in mind?

Stephen Sterling: I don’t have any simple answers because they aren’t any, but I think if you see yourself and your colleagues as change agents, you have to play several strategies at the same time.  One is working to the expectations of senior management but trying to influence those expectations, assumptions, and values, if you like.  We’ve done that at (the University of) Plymouth with some success.  In terms of the bottom line, yes, that is important and we’ve got real problems with (un)employment here as you have in the States.  These are very real worries and you can’t just theorize these issues away.  But in a way, it’s hard to know exactly what pattern is emerging in society.  It seems to me we’re living in a time of opportunity as well as fright: at my own university there’s a great emphasis on enterprise, on the enterprising university.  Well, from a deep green point-of-view you could say that’s just a business model and we’re being pushed down the business path, but if you look at it more constructively there’s an opportunity to emphasize social enterprise and the kind of qualities graduates will need for a shifting economy where there will be higher energy prices and necessary localization and government increasing rhetoric about the carbon economy.  The more imaginative employers are looking for students who have the qualities of flexibility, resourcefulness, self reliance, and so on.  So, these are qualities that resonate with the kinds of qualities that may be associated with sustainability. One needs to weave together a number of different strategies, some of which may not be overt.

Terril Shorb: We are not going to change overnight and we have cultural overlays that we can and do  uncover, but I’m struck by how impersonal some sustainability focus is—about engineering, efficiencies, installing the right kind of roof tiles.  That is of course important, but what about those sustaining qualities of life other than paycheck?

Stephen Sterling: (Yes, there is the idea of the) closed loop economy based on William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle (concept), but that’s only part of it.   What about the social aspect and ethics and equity and so on?  In a way, we need to be careful that we keep the richness which is associated with sustainability and a part of the problem is that the term has been appropriated left, right, and center.  That’s kind of good in a way because it’s out there and everybody’s heard of it, but it can mean anything to anybody.  The best example of a more holistic manifestation of this is probably the transition movement.  It was actually conceived just down the road here in Devon. What’s good about it is it is very bottom-up and very systemic in that it makes all the links and it talks about resilience and community as key values throughout everything whether it’s health or economy or spirituality or food or transport or energy and looking at the links between these.  It fires people up partly because it connects with an intuitive sense that these things are related, and partly because it offers a chance to make positive pathways.

Terril Shorb: Here in the United States we seem to maintain a rather aggressive approach to economy—it can only be bigger, better, faster.  And yet there are so many people out of work so people are looking for ways to downsize, but we don’t yet have much support in place to help people do that.  Are we making shifts in a more holistic direction?

Stephen Sterling: In higher education I’m just aware of examples of courses which go beyond a narrow or technical approach to more integrative approach which I see as a part of an emerging zeitgeist, if you like. We need an integrative worldview because these issues do link up and the fact that you get news stories virtually every night which show the links between ecology and health and livelihoods and so on is arguably forcing a broadening of horizons.  I suppose there are two directions: one is characterised by people whose perception is extended by the conditions we currently face and the other direction is the opposite; a retreat into a false certainty to try to find some reassurance that things are okay.  Fundamentalism is an aspect of that.  We have a parting of the ways on that.  I do think that there is increasing evidence of impressive new and often interdisciplinary courses and programs coming through however.

Terril Shorb: Another example of these divergent perspectives, as you say, is healthcare. The legislation passed last year is a welcome social net for some while opponents see it as a threat and are pledged to kill it.  I haven’t seen much focus yet from the sustainability sector making bridges between a more sustainable society and its health.  Do you see such evidence?

Stephen Sterling: I’ll start with the work at Plymouth which has been a five year program to try and put sustainability into the heart of the university’s work.    It was an ambitious undertaking (2005-10).  We had fixed ideas about which faculties and schools we were going to work with first and health wasn’t one of them but they came to us and health is now one of the first schools and faculties to take this work on board.  In the nursing curriculum they’ve woven in sustainability perspectives and they are trying to change national guidelines.   And one of my colleagues from the school of health is involved in the transition movement.  There has been a (national) school food trust pushing healthy foods and (yet) the new government has cut that as part of the financial stringencies, which seems short-sighted to me.

Terril Shorb: Much of the focus on sustainability has to do with the future.  But what do we bring from our past that can contribute to a more sustainable world?

Stephen Sterling: Part of my work has been on our thinking legacy and our thinking habits.  I’ve been influenced by people like (Gregory) Bateson in this.  The point I make quite often is we have a left hand side and a right hand side with regard to our perceptions, which correspond to the left and right brain.  If you take the left hand side, the reductionist and analytic and positivist ways of thinking and perceiving, we can’t simply jettison that and leap to the other (right hand) side where systemic and holistic and more open-ended approaches to thinking are more in evidence – even if we wanted to because the left hand side is our dominant intellectual legacy. However, it’s a matter of us mastering those habits rather than them mastering us.  So we can use them when they are appropriate and not use them when they are inappropriate as we tend to do at the moment. So in this way we make them our conscious tools rather than our unconscious habits and by doing so transcend the trap that we’re in with our reductionist, western, intellectual legacy and become more fully human.  And achieve more efficacy and adequacy for the kinds of systemic uses we are faced with and also (achieve) more humility— which is also part of the necessary equipment to make a more sustainable world.

Terril Shorb: Okay, finally, is there something you would like to offer related to students in sustainability higher education.

Stephen Sterling: I think we live in an incredibly challenging but incredibly interesting time.  The best way to look at this is we’re lucky to be here right now.  If you look at it in a negative way it looks too daunting and all black.  It’s just the way you ‘get out of bed’ in the sense that we can choose to embrace the ‘hopeless’ route or the ‘possibility’ route.  We all have a huge opportunity to assure the future: it may not look very much like what we’ve been used to in the past but there’s such an up swell of good ideas and thinking and linking of people and you have an energy around these new ideas to do with community and ecology and design and closed loops and reinventing human relationships.  There are possibilities out there and I think young people should be heartened by that and grab them!

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