United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Educating for a Sustainable Future
A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action
November 1997. Original: English. Also available in French and Spanish.
Other language versions are foreseen.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF UNESCO
I. WHAT IS ‘SUSTAINABILITY’?
II. PUBLIC AWARENESS AND UNDERSTANDING: THE FUEL FOR CHANGE
III. REORIENTING EDUCATION TO SUPPORT SUSTAINABILITY
IV. SHIFTING TO SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLES: CHANGING CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION PATTERNS
V. ETHICS, CULTURE AND EQUITY: SUSTAINABILITY AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE
VI. MOBILIZING FOR ACTION
BOX 1: WORK PROGRAMME OF THE CSD – EDUCATION, PUBLIC AWARENESS AND TRAINING
BOX 2: EARTH SUMMIT + 5
PREFACE BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF UNESCO
Moving towards the goal of sustainability requires fundamental changes in human attitudes and behaviour. Progress in this direction is thus critically dependent on education and public awareness. The concept of sustainable development – as this document suggests – is not a simple one, and there is no road map to prescribe how we should proceed. Yet time is short, and we are called upon to act without delay. We must move ahead now, in a spirit of exploration and experimentation and with the broadest possible range of partners, so as to contribute through education to correcting trends that place in jeopardy our common future.
The International Conference on Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability, organized by UNESCO and the Government of Greece, is designed to highlight the role of education and public awareness for sustainability, to consider the important contribution of environmental education in this context, and to mobilize action to this end. The Conference follows on from major meetings relevant to education for sustainable development held in Tbilisi in 1977, Jomtien in 1990, Toronto in 1992 and Istanbul in 1993 as well the series of United Nations conferences beginning in 1992 with Rio (environment and development) and followed in 1994 by Cairo (population), in 1995 by Copenhagen (social development) and Beijing (women), and in 1996 by Istanbul (human settlements). It is also being held at the end of a year that, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Tbilisi Conference and the fifth anniversary of the Rio Conference, has seen the organization of numerous national and regional events (many with the backing of UNESCO), providing a wealth of information on the situation in countries around the world.
Twenty years after Tbilisi and five years after Rio and ECO-ED, who would deny that too little has been achieved? As I stated at the special session of the General Assembly held in June 1997 to review progress five years after UNCED: “the key to sustainable, self-reliant development is education – education that reaches out to all members of society through new modalities and new technologies in order to provide genuine lifelong learning opportunities for all. We must be ready, in all countries, to reshape education so as to promote attitudes and behaviour conducive to a culture of sustainability”. In keeping with its mandate and its designation as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, UNESCO has a special responsibility with regard to education and public awareness for sustainability. In 1994 it launched an international initiative Educating for a Sustainable Future – known as the EPD Project – to serve as a stimulus for transdisciplinary reflection and action. EPD is the main mechanism through which UNESCO responds to the recommendations of all the United Nations conferences concerning education, information and public awareness related to sustainable development.
It is in its function as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 that UNESCO has prepared the Thessaloniki Conference, acting as mobilizer and facilitator to bring together representatives of the United Nations system, governments, NGOs, experts and other major interested parties. The main framework for action is the special work programme on education, public awareness and training initiated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) at its fourth session in 1996 and carried forward in its second five-year programme of work. In addressing the priorities identified by the Commission, the Thessaloniki Conference is intended to provide UNESCO with elements to prepare an expanded version of the special work programme for consideration by the CSD at its sixth session in 1998.
In preparing the present document, UNESCO has drawn on a wide variety of sources: the results of the many national and regional conferences mentioned above; contributions from the United Nations system and key institutional partners such as the World Bank, OECD and the World Conservation Union (IUCN); the views of experts in all branches of education and specialists from other relevant disciplines; and inputs from the whole range of UNESCO’s programmes in education, science, culture and communication. A draft compiled from these diverse materials was reviewed by some thirty-five experts, whose extensive comments were integrated into the final version.
This document – the result of a collective ‘brainstorming’ – is to be seen as a beginning of a process not a conclusion, as an attempt to stimulate discussion not to direct it, as an action-oriented paper not a blueprint for action. It is at once the main working document for the Thessaloniki Conference and a response to the work programme of the CSD, which “calls upon UNESCO to refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, taking into account the experience of environmental education and integrating considerations pertaining to population, health, economics, social and human development, and peace and security”. Its intended public is not mainly those professionally concerned with education for sustainable development – many of whom will be familiar with the concepts and issues presented – but rather the multiple partners and broad community of stakeholders in the educational enterprise. It is for this reason that the document has been made available on the Internet in its English, French and Spanish versions and why a special web site is being developed by UNESCO to provide a knowledge management system for Chapter 36, which will include a registry of innovative practices in the field.
Promoting sustainable development, whose close interrelationship with democracy and peace is increasingly recognized, is one of the key challenges of our time; and education in all its forms is vital to addressing it successfully. UNESCO believes in education as the force of the future – which cannot be other than a sustainable future – and is committed to maximizing its efforts and multiplying its partnerships for the development and deployment of this force in the cause of peace and human betterment.
This document was prepared by UNESCO in its function as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 to serve two purposes. First, it is the main background paper for the International Conference on Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability to be held in Thessaloniki, Greece, from 8 to 12 December 1997. Second, it is a contribution by UNESCO to the implementation of the special work programme on Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which “calls upon UNESCO to refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development”.
The document is based on a wide variety of source materials, background papers prepared by specialists, and a preparatory meeting held in September 1997. It is to be considered the beginning of a process of discussion and debate, not a conclusion. Among the international institutions contributing to its preparation were: FAO, IUCN, OECD, UN-DESA, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, WHO and the World Bank, in addition to the Greek Organizing Committee for the Thessaloniki Conference.
Beginning with a preface by the Director-General of UNESCO, the paper addresses priority issues reflected in the work programme of the CSD. Part I (“What is ‘Sustainability’?”) examines the emerging vision of ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable development’, including consideration of its inter-related components such as population, poverty, environmental degradation, democracy, human rights and peace, ‘development’, and interdependence. The role of education seen in this perspective is discussed, no longer as an end in itself but as a key instrument for achieving sustainability in the future.
Part II (‘Public Awareness and Understanding: the Fuel for Change’) takes up the topic of public awareness and understanding as indispensable to support change towards sustainable development. Problems of vested interests, the difficulties of communicating science, the inherent complexity of the issues, and the tendency of the media to focus on extreme positions and controversies are considered. It is suggested that the most effective communication strategy for building awareness and understanding is to focus on problems which the public experiences in everyday life.
Part III (‘Reorienting Education to Support Sustainability’) emphasizes the importance of the concept of lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world, as well as the need to give high priority to basic education in the developing world. The need to reform curricula and educational policies and structures at all levels is also discussed, with an example given of recent reform of the curriculum in Toronto, Canada. The importance of teacher education and training as well as higher education in general is stressed. The valuable experience and role of environmental education is reviewed, and the need to develop interdisciplinary studies and programmes at all levels emphasized.
Part IV (‘Shifting to Sustainable Lifestyles: Changing Consumption and Production Patterns’) notes that the effectiveness of awareness raising and education for sustainable development must ultimately be measured by the degree to which they change the attitudes and behaviors of people as both consumers and citizens. Changes in lifestyles as reflected in individual behavior, households and at community level must take place. Particular emphasis is given to wasteful consumption patterns.
Part V (‘Ethics, Culture, Equity: Sustainability as a Moral Imperative’) evokes some ethical principles of sustainability such as the ‘ethic of time’, complexity as an ethical issue, the ethical link of past, present and future. The overriding importance of culture in achieving sustainability is discussed, and a parallel drawn between the loss of biological diversity and the loss of cultural diversity. The role of education in communicating the moral imperative of sustainability is emphasized.
Finally, Part VI (‘Mobilizing for Action’) highlights the international framework for action and the new vision of education, public awareness and training which have emerged from the series of UN conferences beginning with Rio in 1992. The umbrella role of Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, the work programme of the CSD adopted in 1996, and the reaffirmation of the importance of education by the Earth Summit + 5 are explained. Information is provided about the preparation, by UNESCO as Task Manager, of an expanded work programme for consideration by the CSD in 1998, working together with the UN system and other key international partners. Action at the national and local levels is discussed as the most effective and appropriate way to bring about the required change.
This document is obviously far from complete in terms of all that could be said on this vast subject. It is therefore intended as the beginning of a process and debate not a conclusion, as an attempt to stimulate discussion not direct it, and as an action-oriented paper not an action plan. This first attempt to articulate the key messages of education for sustainable development and to consider its many components will need to be refined over time, with the widest possible discussion and participation to which UNESCO is committed.
In embracing the broad scope of Chapter 36 and in addressing the priorities laid out in the CSD work programme, there are naturally some areas which are more advanced than others. It is for this reason that UNESCO anticipates that strategy papers on the different topics dealt with in this paper and for different regions of the world will need to be prepared in the future.
1. This paper was prepared by UNESCO in its function as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21. It serves two purposes:
- It is the main background paper for the International Conference on Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability, to be held in Thessaloniki, Greece, from 8 to 12 December 1997. As such, the document is intended to provide stimulus to discussion at the conference, rather than as a document for discussion per se.
- It is a contribution by UNESCO as Task Manager to the implementation of the special work programme on Chapter 36 of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development which “calls upon UNESCO to refine the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, taking into account the experience of environmental education and integrating considerations pertaining to population, health, economics, social and human development, and peace and security”.
2. UNESCO as Task Manager for the CSD Work Programme is preparing an expanded version for consideration by the Commission at its sixth session in April 1998. The Thessaloniki Conference has been designed to provide UNESCO with elements for that task as well as to mobilize action at international, national and local levels.
3. The document has been written based on a wide variety of source materials, including United Nations publications, documents and reports, studies issued by non-governmental organizations and academic institutions and accounts published in newspapers and journals. In addition, specialists on different aspects of sustainable development were invited to prepare background papers on selected aspects of the conference programme for use in the preparation of conference documentation. As a further step to prepare the conference, a panel consisting of UNESCO staff and outside experts was convened at UNESCO Headquarters on 22 and 23 September 1997 to discuss the organization and objectives of the conference and the nature of the documentation required. Account was also taken of the results of the numerous recent national, regional and international events on the subject.
4. An earlier draft of this document was circulated to individual experts both within and outside UNESCO as well as to numerous partner organizations and all sectors of the UNESCO secretariat. The high interest in the conference and the subject matter it addresses is demonstrated by the more than thirty-five responses received. Many of them were extremely detailed, ranging from five to thirty or more pages. All sectors of UNESCO also contributed to the revision of the paper through written responses and/or oral discussions. The paper has been extensively revised in the light of the suggestions, comments and criticisms received. Among the international institutions contributing to this document were: FAO, IUCN, OECD, UN-DESA, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, WHO and the World Bank, in addition to the Greek Organizing Committee for the Thessaloniki Conference.
5. The scope of the paper reflects the extremely broad scope of Chapter 36, which includes formal education at all levels, vocational training in all its forms, non-formal and informal education and communication of information to the general public about sustainable development. Chapter 36 also emphasizes that basic education, as defined by the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, 1990), is essential to education for sustainable development and must remain a priority for many countries of the world, linked as it is to their overall efforts to combat poverty and promote economic and social development.
6. This paper is obviously far from complete in terms of all that could be said on this vast subject. It is for this reason that in the preface the Director-General has characterized this work as the ‘beginning of a process not a conclusion’. This first attempt to articulate the key messages of education for sustainable development and to consider its many components will need to be refined over time, with the widest possible discussion and participation to which UNESCO is committed. It is for this reason that the paper has deliberately not been targeted to those already engaged in this field. For these relatively few persons, this document will no doubt appear to ‘repeat what we already know’. But for others engaged in one aspect or another of this broad topic – teachers, government officials, NGOs – or for those not directly connected to education but who are nevertheless prime stakeholders in education for sustainable development – business and industry, financial institutions, the academic community – this paper should open up the broader perspective offered by the concept of education for sustainability. It should also make clear that well-established disciplines such as environmental education and population education have a vital role to play while still maintaining their distinct identities.
7. In embracing the broad scope of Chapter 36 and in addressing the priorities laid out in the CSD work programme, there are naturally some areas which are more advanced than others. For example, education for sustainable consumption is still in its infancy. It is for this reason that UNESCO anticipates that, with this document as a start, and building on the results of Thessaloniki as well as those of the many very important national and regional meetings held recently, strategy papers on the different topics dealt with in this paper and for different regions of the world will need to be prepared in the future. UNESCO as Task Manager will continue to facilitate this process.
I. WHAT IS ‘SUSTAINABILITY’?
8. Most people in the world today have an immediate and intuitive sense of the urgent need to build a sustainable future. They may not be able to provide a precise definition of ’sustainable development’ or ’sustainability’ – indeed, even experts debate that issue – but they clearly sense the danger and the need for informed action. They smell the problem in the air; they taste it in their water; they see it in more congested living spaces and blemished landscapes; they read about it in the newspapers and hear about it on radio and television. The stories that carry the message may be about pollution alerts or the bans on driving and closed beaches that result from them, or about hunger and famine, growing health problems such as asthma and allergies, unsafe drinking water, ’greenhouses gases’ and the threat of global warming and rising ocean levels, the destruction of the world’s forests and the expansion of its deserts, the disappearance of species, the large-scale death of fish and birds caused by oil spills and pollution, or about forest fires, floods, dust storms, droughts and other so-called ’natural’ disasters. Or they may be about many other matters suggesting increasing levels of distress and desperation: inexplicable violence and outbreaks of war, mass migrations, the rise of intolerance and racism, the denial of democratic freedoms, corrupt practices that enrich the few at the expense of the many, rising prices and resource scarcities, growing unemployment and slipping standards of living for many of the world’s inhabitants.
9. Even banal accounts of everyday life cause one to pause and reflect: e.g. the need for poor women in developing countries to spend many hours each day searching for wood and water or the plight of the commuter in the developed world whose travel to work is now measured in hours rather than minutes. Are these random events and developments, unrelated to one another, or are they parts of a pattern? Both opinion polls and casual conversations suggest that people are increasingly beginning to sense that something has gone seriously wrong, that there must be some connection among the growing difficulties they encounter and read about, even if they cannot provide an adequate explanation of exactly what it is or how it has developed.
10. For countless millions of people, it is not simply a matter of speculating about causalities; they are already feeling the painful consequences of changing conditions in their daily lives. The situation is most severe for the poor and deprived, but increasingly even the more fortunate are experiencing a growing sense of anxiety and unease, of pending problems and unresolved difficulties. They perceive, for example, that the opportunities open to their children are shrinking even as the problems and challenges facing their societies continue to grow. Providing employment for the young and social security for the old is a growing challenge as populations expand in the developing world and age in the industrialized countries. Yet, if the future looks increasingly problematic, there is no retreating into the past, into time-honoured practices and values, for these, too, have been irreversibly altered by the profound transformation of society in the wake of the industrial and post-industrial revolutions. Attempts to do so usually end in frustration and sometimes in violence and nihilism.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
11. What lies behind these newspaper headlines and the rising concerns and problems of people around the world? There is evidently no single or easy answer, but it is not difficult to identify some important and interrelated contributing factors:
- the rapid growth of the world’s population and its changing distribution;
- the persistence of widespread poverty;
- the growing pressures placed on the environment by the worldwide spread of industry and the use of new and more intensive forms of agriculture;
- the continuing denial of democracy, violations of human rights and the rise of ethnic and religous conflicts and violence, gender inequity; and
- the very notion of ‘development’ itself, what it has come to mean and how it is measured.
12. These factors are probably more accurately regarded as symptoms rather than as causes as they themselves are the consequences of thinking, values and practices in social, economic and political affairs that have put the world on an ‘unsustainable’ path. It is, therefore, not only necessary to deal with the problems discussed below, but even more essential to get our thinking right: to see the interrelations among these problems and recognize the fundamental need to develop a new perspective rooted in the values of sustainability. It is this need which makes education the key to creating a sustainable future.
13. In 1950, the estimated population of the planet was 2.5 billion. By the year 2000, it is projected to grow to more than six billion and by the year 2025 to more than eight billion. Population pressures are undeniably a factor in the degradation of environments. Moreover, population pressures are increasing most rapidly in the regions of the world where resources for coping with the requirements and demands of growing numbers are most limited. Between 1990 and 1995, an estimated 94% of total population growth occurred in the less developed regions and only 6% in the more developed regions. While fertility rates are declining in all major regions of the world in response to improved access to education, health and social services, especially by women, rapid population growth is projected to continue well into the 21st century. By even the most optimistic scenarios, the world’s population will nearly double before it stabilizes. The predictable consequences of such growing population pressures, especially in already densely populated and poor countries, include rapid urbanization, possible further reductions in living standards, lower per capita investments in education and health and increased environmental distress and degradation. Less predictable outcomes might include a rise in violence or even war, large-scale migrations and escalating poverty and famine. While many of the worst consequences could possibly be avoided by early preventive action, the record of past decades provides little support for optimism or complacency in this regard.
14. Poverty is, in part, a consequence of the present pattern of population growth as well as a serious threat to both human dignity and sustainable development. Over a billion people, about a third of the total population of the developing countries, are desperately poor, struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day. Hundreds of millions more live on the threshold of poverty and face the constant risk of sinking below it. People unable to care for themselves can be excused for failing to care for their environment. Necessity drives them to use, and eventually overuse, all the resources at hand: land, water, wood, vegetation and, indeed, anything that can help them to meet their vital needs. Poverty also makes it difficult to mobilize people to work together for common goals, be they healthful environments, food security, jobs or other aspects of sustainable development. Poverty makes the delivery of education and health services more difficult and spurs population growth. Poverty also contributes to much of violence and war which destroy lives and undermine social and economic progress.
15. The solution to poverty must be found not only through economic measures, but also through political and social reforms, as poverty is caused not only by natural scarcities, but also by domination, exploitation and exclusion. Nor can the answer to poverty be sought only through increased production. What is produced, and the employment generated in producing it, must also be more equitably shared. At present, one quarter of the world’s population consumes three-quarters of the world’s natural resources. For particular resources, petroleum for example, the disparities are even greater: the average consumption of a North American is fifteen times greater than that of an Indian. At the extremes of wealth and deprivation – where the comparison is between individuals, not countries – the disparities defy belief: by one estimate, for example, the wealth of the world’s richest 359 individuals equals the annual income of the poorest 2.4 billion people, almost 40% of humankind. Poverty reduction is, at once, an essential goal and indispensable condition for sustainable development.
16. The rise of a worldwide industrial civilization during the past century and the parallel development of more intensive forms of agriculture – based on the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides – needed to feed and clothe a rapidly expanding population has placed unprecedented pressures and stresses on the world’s ecosystems. The problems and dangers are manifold. In industrialized regions, the combustion of fossil fuels, the ‘life blood’ of modern civilization, is resulting in an acidification of soils which is having a destructive impact on plants, forests and aquatic life in lakes and rivers. The use of fossil fuels is also responsible for the buildup of ‘greenhouse gases’ that are a key factor in global warming which is changing weather patterns and raising ocean levels around the world. Even a modest rise in the Earth’s average temperature, of say two to three degrees, would result in the inundation of vast amounts of fertile low-lying coastal lands and the disappearance of many islands. A growing dependence on chemicals, many of which have never existed in nature, is having a damaging impact on plants and animals, leading even to the extinction of certain species and thus to a reduction in the world’s biodiversity. Chemicals are affecting the stratosphere, depleting ozone and exposing the Earth’s surface to higher levels of ultra-violet radiation known to cause skin and other cancers. In the developing countries, land degradation presents perhaps the most immediate and urgent problem. As agricultural land per capita diminishes as a result of population growth and urbanization, it becomes essential to preserve the productivity of every available acre.
17. Yet, perhaps the greatest environmental danger lies in problems that are little discussed, even among scientists, such as the impact of human activities on natural ‘nutrient cycles’ required to produce and balance elements essential to life: including carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. While the long-term affects of anthropogenic activities on the environment are either unknown or poorly understood, it is abundantly clear that delicate balances are being disturbed and disrupted. Some of these changes – e.g. the extinction of species – are already irreversible. Other processes may soon pass the point of no return, if action is not taken promptly. Yet, measures to protect the environment are resisted by those who insist that the needs of development – rising living standards for growing numbers – must take precedence over ecological concerns. The challenge of sustainability involves reconciling and adjudicating conflicting claims and moving towards a development which is environmentally sound.
Democracy, human rights and peace
18. It is not only the harm that human beings are doing to nature, but also the injury that they are inflicting upon one another that is at the root of many of the world’s problems. While democracy has made impressive progress in many regions, it has faltered in others. Even many ‘democratic countries’, however, do not systematically practice democracy. The votes of the citizens may be counted, but the citizens themselves don’t count for much in the operation of society. Inequalities dominate in all sphere of life: in the sharing of wealth, jobs, opportunities and social services, gender discrimination, and, of course, political influence and power. Underdevelopment and poverty are, at once, a cause and a consequence of arbitrary and undemocratic rule. The State, whose duty it is to protect the rule of law, is often the first to disregard it. Human rights are violated and ethnic and religious tensions exacerbated for political or personal gain. The bitter experience of the last decades has been that the failure of development efforts has often been followed by outbreaks of violence and wars between cultural, ethnic and religious communities. Since 1990, more than nine out of ten wars have broken out within countries rather than between them and more than nine out ten casualties have been civilians rather than soldiers. Without peace, there can be no development in any meaningful sense of the term.
19. ‘Development’ itself – what it means and how it is measured – is also an important part of the problem. Standard measures of development, such as gross national product, equate ‘development’ with growth in production and consumption of goods and services. While such measures take into account investment in the means of production, such as the digging of copper mines or the drilling of oil wells, they fail to account for the use and eventual exhaustion of the precious capital represented by the world’s endowment of natural resources. Nor, until quite recently, have economists adequately recognized that the capabilities embodied in women and men through education, experience and training are, in fact, the most essential ‘means of production’.
20. Many economic measures fail on other scores as well. While they carefully account for productive outcomes, they treat the emission of smoke, gases and other pollutants, not as costs, but simply as ‘externalities’. This is so because society as a whole, not the polluter, bears the cost and burden of coping with the problem. National accounts also fail to reflect what is done out of love or duty rather than for profit, thereby deeply discounting the indispensable work that women have always done – and continue to do – for their families and in and about their homes. In addition, the focus of economics on the ‘immediate present’ is seriously at odds with the need to consider the long-term well-being of the environment. In addition, while economic costs are viewed as incremental and linear, the impact of economic activity on the environment is cumulative and subject to sudden and possibly irreversible changes. The traditional visions of the economist and the ecologist are thus fundamentally at odds. Fortunately, a search for common understanding is underway.
21. Yet, perhaps the greatest problem arises from the automatic equation of higher levels of production – and by implication, consumption – with ‘development’. Economists, and everyone else as well, recognize that this is at best a half truth. What is produced and, especially what it is used for, is every bit as important as how much of it is turned out. An added dollar of consumption, which doubles the daily income of an impoverished individual, evidently serves a very different purpose than the negligible addition of a dollar of purchasing power to the income of a millionaire. Yet, the automatic equation of a single technical measure of ‘development’, usually GNP, with the society’s overall progress and well-being is pervasive. It is part of an overall 20th century mind set that means are more important than ends, levels of activity more important than the purposes served.
22. Increasingly, developing nations set themselves the goal of ’catching up’ with Europe, Japan or the United States in levels of GNP per capita. It is necessary, however, to reflect that for all countries to achieve the current level of production of the most industrialized countries, worldwide consumption of natural resources would have to increase three-fold. Comparable increases would occur in the emission of pollutants and other perverse effects of production, assuming the newly industrializing countries make the same investment in controlling emissions as is presently done in the most industrialized countries. It may, however, be unrealistic to expect them to do so while urgent social needs are still unmet. The challenge is to find means and measures that assist the developing countries to meet the basic needs of their people without inflicting irreversible damage on their environment.
23. In pursuing this objective, measures of development such as the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which seeks to take account of the many dimensions of human well-being, would be extremely helpful in focusing attention on the ends that development must serve rather than on means, such as increased production, alone.
24. None of the factors discussed above can be examined or acted upon in isolation from the others. They are in constant interaction. Violence, for example, is, at once, a cause of poverty and its consequence. Growing populations place increasing stress on ecosystems, but human activity by contributing to climate change further intensifies population pressures though desertification and rising ocean levels. The issues, moreover, are not only related to one another in a physical manner, but also in a psychological sense. How people think about the issues – their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and especially their values – is as important in the search for solutions as the ‘objective realities’ confronted.
25. It is also essential to take account of the varying circumstances in which people around the world find themselves and the impact of their situation upon their priorities and values. To an individual living in rural poverty in the developing world, ‘sustainable development’, if it is to make any sense, must mean increased consumption and a higher living standard. By contrast, to an individual in a wealthy country, with a closet full of clothes, a pantry full of food and a garage full of cars, ‘sustainable development’ could mean more modest and carefully considered consumption. Similarly, the issue of inter-generational parity and justice, inherent in discussions of sustainable development, will raise very different questions and choices in a country with a rapidly growing population, nearly half of which is under twenty years of age, than in a country with a stable and aging population.
26. In sum, the puzzle of sustainable development cannot be solved by concentrating on the pieces. It has to be seen as a whole – in both its scientific and social dimensions – not as a series of isolated issues and problems. In the final analysis, sustainable development is humanity’s response to an emerging global challenge and crisis.
27. Any discussion of sustainable development has to take account of both the disparities between rich and poor nations and, equally important, what these differences imply for policy formulation. Policies appropriate to the north make little sense for the south and vice versa.
28. The major challenge facing the developing nations of the south is that of significantly increasing productivity and output to overcome poverty and deprivation. Until this is achieved, at least in part, it is unrealistic to expect the environmental standards that apply in the north to be adopted in the south as well. So long as poverty is widespread, the south will be tempted – and often compelled – to accept higher levels of pollution and lower levels of control, just as the highly industrialized countries of today did until relatively recently.
29. One of the tasks of education for sustainable development, especially in northern countries, will be to explain why these differences exist and why, at least for the time being, the application of equal standards would result in very inequitable outcomes. The north can, of course, help to shorten the interval in which lower standards will be necessary by assisting the south in its development efforts, especially, as concerns education, in the development of its schools, universities and training programmes for scientists and other key personnel through financial and technical assistance, sharing of knowledge, and the training of experts from the south in their institutes and universities.
30. There are, of course, many similarities as well as differences. Many of the emerging issues – e.g., the need for renewable energies and fresh water – affect all regions of the world in varying degrees. A major challenge of education for sustainable development in all countries is that of helping people to understand and adapt to a pace of change which is, as yet, ‘unnatural’ to all cultures. In a deeper sense, as neighbours on the same planet our destinies are ultimately joined.
TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF SUSTAINABILITY
31. Sustainable development has been variously defined and described. It is not a fixed notion, but rather a process of change in the relationships between social, economic and natural systems and processes. The World Commission on Environment and Development, for example, defined sustainable development in terms of the present and the future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Other definitions have extended the notion of equity between the present and the future, to equity between countries and continents, races and classes, genders and ages.
32. Perhaps the most widely used definitions focus on the relationship between social development and economic opportunity, on the one hand, and the requirements of the environment on the other: ie., on improving the quality of life for all, especially of the poor and deprived, within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. This does not necessarily set fixed limits on ‘development’, but rather recognizes that the prevailing notions and definitions of development must themselves evolve in relation to changing requirements and possibilities. Caring for the Earth (IUCN, 1991), for example, notes that a sustainable economy “can continue to develop by adapting, and through improvements in knowledge, organisation, technical efficiency and wisdom”. In brief, sustainability calls for a dynamic balance among many factors, including the social, cultural and economic requirements of humankind and the imperative need to safeguard the natural environment of which humanity is a part. What is sought is the condition of ‘human security’ for all people.
A dynamic balance
33. Sustainability, in effect, involves an equation between environmental requirements and development needs. It can be balanced by acting either to reduce stresses or to increase ‘carrying capacities’. The argument between ecologists and economists has been that the former have stressed the first course of action and the economists the latter. It is evident that in a crisis, both possibilities have to be carefully explored. There are environmental strains, such as the multiplying of populations, that at some point become incompatible with both the maintenance of the environment and the quality of life. By the year 2030, for example, it is projected that there will be three billion more people on Earth than today. The task of feeding, clothing and sheltering them will be enormous, that of providing them with education, employment, security and a minimum of well-being and satisfaction vastly greater still. These facts of life must not be ignored. But neither should the capacity of humanity to find and invent solutions be overlooked or minimized.
34. The higher levels of production required by three billion additional people will certainly inflict serious damage upon the environment unless modes of production change significantly in the coming decades. Fortunately, this is what is happening. As this document is being prepared, the invention of a fuel cell has been announced that, it is claimed, is capable of directly converting hydrocarbons, such as gasoline, into electricity, with nearly twice the efficiency of an internal combustion engine and without the production of carbon-dioxide or other pollutants. Within ten to twenty years, the introduction of automobiles, buses and trucks powered by such fuel cells is expected to substantially improve air quality in large cities of industrialized countries. Whether the cost of this new technology will be affordable in the developing regions of the world in the near future is of central importance and, as yet, unclear. Of greater relevance to developing countries, major breakthroughs are being made in agriculture which allow farmers to produce more food on less land while reducing the impact on the environment. Moreover, the widening use of computers and the growing reach of the new information and communication technologies are ensuring a far more rapid and wider dissemination and application of innovations than was the case even a decade ago.
35. While such developments are highly encouraging, it would be imprudent to expect science and technology to find a solution to every problem that humanity is capable of creating for itself. Nor would it be wise to rely on technical solutions alone without considering the capacity of human societies to adjust to the changes and stresses that they may impose. But it would be equally short-sighted to overlook the capacity of people to invent solutions to problems or to find ingenious ways of coping with such problems. The concept of sustainable development is informed by both the warnings of environmentalists and the arguments of economists in favour of development. It seeks to strike a realistic balance between dangers and possibilities, hopes and fears, aspirations and constraints. The ‘point of balance’ is, of course, influenced by many factors and, thus, subject to constant change.
An emerging vision
36. Yet, while there are many definitions of sustainable development, it can perhaps be better understood as an emerging vision rather than as a neatly defined concept or relationship. In truth, it is as much an ethical precept as a scientific concept, as concerned with notions of equity as with theories of global warming. Sustainable development is widely understood to involve the natural sciences and economics, but it is even more fundamentally concerned with culture: with the values people hold and how they perceive their relations with others. It responds to an imperative need to imagine a new basis for relationships among peoples and with the habitat that sustains human life.
37. Its strength is that it frankly acknowledges the interdependence of human needs and environmental requirements. In so doing, it rejects the single-minded pursuit of one objective at the cost of others. A heedless pursuit of ‘development’, for example, can not be accepted at the cost of inflicting irreparable damage on the environment. But neither can the preservation of the environment be achieved at the cost of maintaining half of humanity in poverty. Or, in the terms in which the debate is sometimes posed, we cannot sacrifice people to save elephants, but neither can we – at least not for very long – save the people by sacrificing the elephants. Indeed, this is a false dichotomy that must be rejected. We must imagine a new and sustainable relationship between humanity and its habitat: one that places humanity at centre stage, but does not neglect that what is happening in the ‘wings’ may turn the drama of everyday life into an ancient Greek tragedy in which we see a terrible fate approaching, but can muster up neither the collective will nor common means to escape it.
EDUCATION: THE FORCE OF THE FUTURE
38. It is widely agreed that education is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future. Indeed, education will shape the world of tomorrow. Progress increasingly depends upon the products of educated minds: upon research, invention, innovation and adaptation. Of course, educated minds and instincts are needed not only in laboratories and research institutes, but in every walk of life. Indeed, access to education is the sine qua non for effective participation in the life of the modern world at all levels. Education, to be certain, is not the whole answer to every problem. But education, in its broadest sense, must be a vital part of all efforts to imagine and create new relations among people and to foster greater respect for the needs of the environment.
39. Education must not be equated with schooling or formal education alone. It includes non-formal and informal modes of instruction and learning as well, including traditional learning acquired in the home and community. By defining education broadly, one also widens the community of educators, as the programme statement of Education 21 promoted within the United Kingdom notes, to include “teachers, lecturers, curriculum developers, administrators, support staff, industrial trainers, countryside rangers and staff, environmental health and planning officers, education officers with NGOs, community educators, youth leaders, parent association members, media people, representatives of learners in all contexts – and yet more.” One might further widen this community to include all those, whatever their role in society, who perceive a need or duty to inform and educate people regarding the requirements of a sustainable future. International organizations, government departments and institutions, foundations and many others are deeply involved in education in the broad sense of the term used here. Many firms in the private sector also see the need to play their part in promoting awareness and are doing so in innovative ways: for example, through sponsoring the publication of articles in newspapers and journals exploring environmental and social issues. This vast community of educators represents an enormously potent, but largely untapped human-resource for sustainable development that can be invaluable in a range of contexts as well as education. It represents, above all, a means for bringing the struggle for sustainable development into communities and local institutions around the world which, in the final analysis, is where the cause of sustainable development will either triumph or fail.
40. Education serves society in a variety of ways. The goal of education is to make people wiser, more knowledgeable, better informed, ethical, responsible, critical and capable of continuing to learn. Were all people to possess such abilities and qualities, the world’s problems would not be automatically solved, but the means and the will to address them would be at hand. Education also serves society by providing a critical reflection on the world, especially its failings and injustices, and by promoting greater consciousness and awareness, exploring new visions and concepts, and inventing new techniques and tools. Education is also the means for disseminating knowledge and developing skills, for bringing about desired changes in behaviours, values and lifestyles, and for promoting public support for the continuing and fundamental changes that will be required if humanity is to alter its course, leaving the familiar path that is leading towards growing difficulties and possible catastrophe, and starting the uphill climb towards sustainability. Education, in short, is humanity’s best hope and most effective means in the quest to achieve sustainable development.
II. PUBLIC AWARENESS AND UNDERSTANDING: THE FUEL FOR CHANGE
41. Awareness is a prelude to informed action. In democratic societies, action towards sustainable development will ultimately depend on public awareness, understanding and support. Common information and shared understandings, however, are important not only for mobilizing public support, but also for carrying out work consultative and participatory approaches in all fields.
42. Public awareness and understanding are, at once, consequences of education and influences on the educational process. A public well informed of the need for sustainable development will insist that public educational institutions include in their curricula the scientific and other subject matters needed to enable people to participate effectively in the numerous activities directed towards achieving sustainable development. The students that emerge from such courses will, for their part, be alert to the need for public authorities to make adequate provision for the protection of the environment in all development plans. Education is particularly important in developing a ‘taste for knowledge’.
43. Perhaps the greatest problem that advocates of sustainable development face is to convince not only those who are opposed to their ideas, but also those who simply ‘don’t want to know’. An approach that emphasizes local issues, rather than global ones, is likely to be most effective in dealing with this constituency. This may account, in part, for the success of non-formal community education and local environmental communication programmes in reaching and sensitizing people to environmental and development issues in both developing and industrialized countries. A particular benefit of such programmes is that they are often directly linked to action to control or solve the problems identified.
THE NEED FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION
44. Advocates of sustainable development and the environmentalists who proceeded them have learned much about how to communicate effectively. Initially, their emphasis was on ‘getting the science right’ with little thought given to how to communicate findings and make them meaningful to a wide and non-technical public. It was assumed that the facts would speak for themselves. Sadly, it didn’t prove that easy.
45. It is important to explore the difficulties that arose in order that they may be avoided in the future. There are several sorts of problems: the influence of vested interests, the neglect or inadequacy of communication strategies, the complexity of the messages and the unfortunate tendency of some of the messengers to spend more time squabbling with one another than communicating with the public.
CONFRONTING VESTED INTERESTS
46. In any struggle – including one to win over the minds of the public – it is important to understand the motives and strengths of those on the other side of the issue. Naively, one might imagine that few would find reason to oppose measures necessary to avoid potentially calamitous consequences for humanity. But, alas, what is good for humanity in general may nonetheless be costly and inconvenient to particular individuals, groups and other vested interests. The electrical power industry, to cite a current example, is vigorously against more stringent controls on the emission of ‘greenhouse gases’, even though there is convincing and growing evidence – if not yet certainty – that the build-up of such gases in the atmosphere is leading to global warming and all that could ensue from it. Regulation is not going to come about on the basis of the evidence alone. Public mobilization and vigilance are essential, if effective measures are to be enacted into law and enforced.
47. Until quite recently, advocates of the common interest have had difficulty mustering the needed public relations expertise and support to overcome the influence of vested interests. Fortunately, in the past two decades, many lessons have been learned, especially by environmentalists, on how to convert a growing public concern for the state of Earth into effective support for specific measures to address concrete problems. Yet, in most countries, while environmental issues are now receiving greater support, measures aimed at promoting population policies, social development, poverty reduction and other necessary measures for achieving sustainable patterns of development continue to be largely ignored by the general public. Ultimately, though, there can be no solution to environmental problems unless the social and economic ills besetting humankind are seriously addressed. It is this broader message and reality which remains to be effectively communicated to and internalized by the public.
48. Debate and defence of particular interests are, of course, inherent in the democratic process. Vested interests have to be overcome by democratic means: namely, by more effective mobilization of public opinion aimed at gaining support at all levels: international, national and local. The difficulties in achieving this goal should not, however, be under-estimated. As can be seen in the discussions about implementation of the Convention on Climate Change, the opposition comes not only from particular industrial interests, but also from countries and groups of countries. While nobody favours pollution per se, many countries would nonetheless like to exempt themselves or others from bearing the cost of stringent controls. A vigilant and informed world public represents a powerful counterweight to the vested interests that appear, at present, to have the upper hand on many issues. It is no accident that the countries that are militating most strongly for controls on emissions and other environmental measures are the same nations that have strong environmental lobbies and publics committed to action – locally, nationally and internationally – to preserve the environment.
49. One of the lessons of recent experience is the need to establish effective communication strategies as an integral part of any major scientific inquiry or programme. A comparison, which highlights this need, can be made between the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (NAPAP) in the United States and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established in 1988 by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). NAPAP, while it was highly regarded by scientists, had virtually no communication strategy. As a result, while its research and recommendations were well considered, there has been little follow-up action. IPCC has sought to avoid this failure by keeping both the scientific community and the general public systematically informed of its work and findings from the very start. It has also sought, with considerable success, to build bridges to policy-makers in order that they be aware of and able to reflect upon the implications of the panel’s emerging findings. By informing the public, IPCC has made it much more difficult to simply sweep its conclusions under the carpet. The lesson here is that communication has to be seen as a long-term interactive process strategically aimed at particular groups and audiences, not as a concluding message when a project or panel is about to present its final report and wind up its activities. It is not necessary – or even desirable – for scientists to become propagandists, but it is essential that studies conducted in the public interest have adequate means to communicate their findings to the public on whose behalf they were carried out.
50. The messages of sustainable development represent a challenge in and of themselves. Rather than being simple and unambiguous – thus easy to communicate – environmental and developmental issues tend to be complex. This is so because of the inherent complexity of ecological and human systems. They defy simplistic explanations, solutions and predictions. Some scientists, for example, expect that the buildup of greenhouse gases that causes global warming may, initially, result in several decades of falling temperatures in particular regions of the world because of the affect of the melting of the polar ice caps in slowing or stopping the warm ocean currents. This contention may or may not be correct. There is great uncertainty about what may happen, even if there is a general consensus that it won’t be favourable to life on Earth. Yet, the ambiguity of the situation makes it hard to explain to non-specialists. To the general public, hot and cold are opposites, even if to the climate scientists they are merely different manifestations of environmental stress. To urge people to beware of global warming, but to keep both their woollens and their beachwear handy, just in case, is in no way convincing. Such uncertainty suggests that global warming may be more speculative than scientific. This, evidently, is not the case. The truth is that complex realities are difficult to communicate in simple messages. Yet, attempts to simplify what, by its very nature is not simple, may result in further confusion and misunderstandings and, ultimately, in lack of credibility.
51. The same problems arise, although to a lesser degree, in dealing with major transformations such as population growth and urbanization. For example, the projection that by the middle of the next century several cities in the developing world may have populations approaching, or even exceeding, 50 million may be accepted matter-of-factly without due reflection on what is involved in managing an urban centre on such a scale or what the quality of life might be for its inhabitants. Thus, while the statement may appear easily understandable, the problems and issues that it raises may go undetected or be seriously underestimated. The fact is that people have difficulty adjusting from the scale of things encountered in everyday life to the scales of magnitude – enormously large and infinitesimally small – needed to understand demographic or ecological phenomena. Ultimately, a solution can be found only by educating the public in the developmental and environmental ‘facts of life’. Indeed, in the 21st century, the literacies of science, ecology and development will be as essential to comprehending the world as were the traditional skills of reading and writing at the start of the present century.
52. In the meantime, it will be important for those advocating sustainable development to choose, wherever possible, those cases and examples that are most easily understood by the general public. For example, air pollution is, if not always visible, often capable of being smelt and tasted. Closed beaches are plausible evidence of the pollution of rivers, lakes and seas. Even if one wishes, or is compelled, to go on to discuss complex issues such as global warming, it is well to begin with the evidence at hand: car, bus and truck exhaust, smoke stacks, etc. Health issues also are readily understood by the general public: allergies, asthma, and bronchial infections are widely accepted as consequences of deteriorating air quality. Average citizens may not gain a perfect understanding of global warming from such evidence – even scientists don’t have that – but their common sense will tell them that what harms their environments and health is capable of doing even greater damage on a global scale. The basic dictum of pedagogy is to begin where the learner is. This is also good advice for the communication specialist. Start with problems that people feel and understand at the local level. That is both valuable knowledge in itself and, if need be, a basis for moving on to more complex and global understandings.
53. Emotionalism and exaggeration are another frequent source of difficulty. The press is understandably drawn to those with the most extreme views: e.g., to ecological fundamentalists who will accept no compromise or individuals who possess an apocalyptic vision of the future. Disagreements and quarrels between specialists are also ‘newsworthy’ and are skillfully exploited by the opponents of reform proposals to suggest that the evidence supporting them is weak and confused. More moderate and reasoned voices often go unheard in the din. Extreme positions, while they may be useful in catching the public’s attention and alerting it to pending dangers, make it difficult to move from declarations and debate into action.
54. It has to be recognized that neither individuals nor societies are ready or even able to change their habits and behaviours from one day to the next. Proposals for change, if they are to be effective, have to be feasible. Both the messages and the messengers have to appear credible and responsible. Nothing is to be gained by scaring people. Alarmist predictions that make it seem that the world is about to end are evidently not conducive to the long-term planning and action that sustainable development requires. On the contrary, it is far more effective to present problems as manageable through responsible conduct and, wherever possible, put forward a realistic solution and a means to take preventive action.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
55. This section has focused upon selected problems encountered in raising public awareness on a complex issue such as sustainable development and the many concerns that it subsumes. Yet, while these problems are important and need to be addressed, there is abundant reason for optimism. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the crises afflicting the environment and impeding development. This is, in part, because communication on such issues has become more effective and focused, but mainly because these problems – especially those concerned with the environment – are increasingly impinging on people’s lives: their health, their comfort and their hopes for the future. Scientific data alone have rarely won an argument when people were not ready to accept its conclusions and, equally rarely, have scientific findings lost an argument in which people had an intuitive sense that the data were right and relevant. The climate of opinion is changing and becoming more favourable to the promotion of sustainable development.
56. This is not an opportunity to be wasted, but a chance to be seized. To do so will require effective leadership – not in the sense of direction from above – but in the form of responsibility and responsiveness. There is also an important role for the press and media in responding and building upon the growing interest of the public in sustainable development concerns. Evidently, the fullest possible use must be made of the new information and communication media, but traditional and folk media must also be creatively employed. The messages of ancient cultures on sustainable development often took the form of metaphors and analogies. These are still powerful means of communicating, especially with poor peoples who are often little schooled, but very much in tune with their culture. The greatest challenge is precisely that of reaching the more than one billion people who live in poverty and deprivation, often in remote rural regions, urban slums and refugee camps.
III. REORIENTING EDUCATION TO SUPPORT SUSTAINABILITY
57. “Until recently, the planet was a large world in which human activities and their effects were neatly compartmentalized within nations and within broad areas of concern (environmental, economic, social). These compartments have begun to dissolve. This applies in particular to the various global ‘crises’ that have seized public concern. These are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one.” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987)
58. Reorienting education to sustainability requires recognizing that traditional compartments and categories can no longer remain in isolation from each other and that we must work increasingly at the interface of disciplines in order to address the complex problems of today’s world. This is true both within education, where interdisciplinarity is slowly and with difficulty gaining ground, and between the spheres of education, work and leisure as lifelong learning emerges as a key concept for planning and developing educational systems. It is also true as concerns the most important boundary of all: that separating those included in education systems from those who are excluded from them. These changes are not occurring nearly as rapidly as would be desired, but they are nonetheless taking shape within education at all levels.
59. Ultimately, sustainable development will require an education that not only continues throughout life, but is also as broad as life itself, an education that serves all people, draws upon all domains of knowledge and seeks to integrate learning into all of life’s major activities. The time when education was the activity of childhood and work the pursuit of adults is long over. The rapid growth of knowledge has rendered the notion of schooling as a ‘once and for all’ preparation for life utterly obsolete. The growth of knowledge is advancing exponentially, yet not nearly as fast as the need for understanding and solutions at which it is aimed. As concerns sustainable development specifically, it is impossible to predict with reliability what will be the key issues on which people will need information in five, ten, twenty or fifty years. It is predictable, however, that such developments will not fit neatly into the existing and artificial sub-divisions of knowledge which have been in place for more than a century. Hence, understanding and solving complex problems is likely to require intensified co-operation among scientific fields as well as between the pure sciences and the social sciences. Reorienting education to sustainable development will, in short, require important, even dramatic changes, in nearly all areas.
60. The importance of education was underscored at the at the nineteenth Special Session of the General Assembly (23-27 June 1997) convened to review the implementation of Agenda 21 five years after Rio. The resolution adopted by the session emphasized that a “fundamental prerequisite for sustainable development is an adequately financed and effective educational system at all levels, particularly the primary and secondary levels, that is accessible to all and that augments both human capacity and well-being. Even in countries with strong educational systems,” the resolution continues, “there is a need to reorient education, awareness and training to increase widespread public understanding, critical analysis and support for sustainable development. Education for a sustainable future should engage a wide spectrum of institutions and sectors and should include the preparation of sustainable development education plans and programmes”. In the sections that follow, a number of key issues relating to education’s role in sustainable development will be briefly examined.
IMPORTANCE OF BASIC EDUCATION
61. Inherent in the concept of sustainability is the vision of a more equitable world. This can only be achieved by providing the disadvantaged with the means to advance themselves and their families. And of these means, the most essential is education, particularly basic education. Over 100 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 never attend school and tens of millions more enter school only to drop out within a few months or years. Moreover, there are over 800 million illiterate adults, most of whom have never been enrolled in school. The first requirement in the quest for development and equity must be to change this situation and make schooling of quality available to all. But that goal, alas, is still far off. For the present, the challenge is to make the best of an unfortunate and unjust situation.
62. The World Conference on Education for All used the term ‘basic education’ to refer to all forms of organized education and training that meet the basic learning needs of individuals, including literacy and numeracy, as well as the general knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that they require to survive, develop their capacities, live and work in dignity, improve the quality of their lives, make informed decisions and continue learning. The Conference consciously choose to define education in terms of learning outcomes rather than levels of instruction.
63. Given the situation today in many developing countries, it does not suffice to orient formal education towards sustainability. Attention also has to be given to those who are presently unserved or poorly served by schools. This is a large group, well over a billion people, and a vital one for the future. Girls and women, the mothers of today and tomorrow, are in the majority. They are, or will be, the first and most influential teachers of their children. The goals of educating young children are focused on ensuring their health, development, happiness, well-being and adjustment to the environment in which they live. If these goals are not achieved, the future of the child is compromised and the prospects of sustainable development diminished.
64. Basic education provides the foundation for all future education and learning. Its goal, as concerns those in the pre-school primary school-age population, whether enrolled in school or not, is to produce children who are happy with themselves and with others, who find learning exciting and develop inquiring minds, who begin to build up a storehouse of knowledge about the world and, more importantly, an approach to seeking knowledge that they can use and develop throughout their lives. Basic education is aimed at all the essential goals of education: learning to know, to do, to be (ie., to assume one’s duties and responsibilities) and to live together with others, as outlined in Education: the Treasure Within, the report of the Independent Commission on Education for the 21st Century Report published in 1996 by UNESCO. It is, thus, not only the foundation for lifelong learning, but also the foundation for sustainable development.
65. Basic education for adults is aimed at empowerment. It is, in the words of the Amman Affirmation, the document summing up the mid-decade review of progress towards Education for All, “…the key to establishing and reinforcing democracy, to development which is both sustainable and humane and to peace funded upon mutual respect and social justice. Indeed in a world in which creativity and knowledge play an ever greater role, the right to education is nothing less than the right to participate in the life of the modern world.” In sum, if our vision of the future is a world based on democracy, striving to achieve greater social justice and economic opportunity, and concerned to improve the quality of life and preserve the environment, then basic education has to be the first order of business, for it holds the power to contribute to all of these goals by enabling people to take their destinies into their own hands and play their role in shaping the common destiny of humanity. Sustainable development cannot be achieved by a small minority on behalf of the vast majority. It will require the contribution and commitment of each and all. That is why it is essential to give all people the means – starting with basic education – to participate in shaping a sustainable future.
WHAT CHANGES DOES SUSTAINABILITY REQUIRE?
66. In spite of the considerable progress which has been made, there are still enormous barriers to reorientation of formal education to sustainability, barriers that cannot be addressed by the efforts of individual teachers or even schools, no matter how committed they might be. Effectively overcoming such barriers requires commitment by society as a whole to sustainable development. Such commitment would involve all of society’s stakeholders to work collaboratively and in partnership, including industry, business, grassroots organizations and members of the public, to develop policies and processes which integrate social, economic, cultural, political and conservation goals. A sustainable society will be one in which all aspects of civic and personal life are compatible with sustainable development and all government departments at all levels of government work together to advance such a society.
67. Education plays a dual role, at once in both reproducing certain aspects of current society and preparing students to transform society for the future. These roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, without commitment of all of society to sustainable development, curricula have tended in the past to reproduce an unsustainable culture with intensified environment and development problems rather than empower citizens to think and work towards their solution. The role of formal education in building society is to help students to determine what is best to conserve in their cultural, economic and natural heritage and to nurture values and strategies for attaining sustainability in their local communities while contributing at the same time to national and global goals.
68. To advance such goals, a curriculum reoriented towards sustainability would place the notion of citizenship among its primary objectives. This would require a revision of many existing curricula and the development of objectives and content themes, and teaching, learning and assessment processes that emphasize moral virtues, ethical motivation and ability to work with others to help build a sustainable future. Viewing education for sustainability as a contribution to a politically literate society is central to the reformulation of education and calls for a ‘new generation’ of theorizing and practice in education and a rethinking of many familiar approaches, including within environmental education.
69. Education for sustainability calls for a balanced approach which avoids undue emphasis on changes in individual lifestyles. It has to be recognized that many of the world’s problems, including environmental problems, are related to our ways of living, and that solutions imply transforming the social conditions of human life as well as changes in individual lifestyles. This draws attention to the economic and political structures which cause poverty and other forms of social injustice and foster unsustainable practices. It also draws attention to the need for students to learn the many processes for solving these problems through a broad and comprehensive education related not only to mastery of different subject matters, but equally to discovering real world problems of their society and the requirements for changing them.
70. This kind of orientation would require, inter alia, increased attention to the humanities and social sciences in the curriculum. The natural sciences provide important abstract knowledge of the world but, of themselves, do not contribute to the values and attitudes that must be the foundation of sustainable development. Even increased study of ecology is not sufficient to reorient education towards sustainability. Even though ecology has been described by some as the foundation discipline of environmental education, studies of the biophysical and geophysical work are a necessary – but not sufficient – prerequisite to understanding sustainability. The traditional primacy of nature study, and the often apolitical contexts in which is taught, need to be balanced with the study of social sciences and humanities. Learning about the interactions of ecological processes would then be associated with market forces, cultural values, equitable decision-making, government action and the environmental impacts of human activities in a holistic interdependent manner.
71. A reaffirmation of the contribution of education to society means that the central goals of education must include helping students learn how to identify elements of unsustainable development that concern them and how to address them. Students need to learn how to reflect critically on their place in the world and to consider what sustainability means to them and their communities. They need to practice envisioning alternative ways of development and living, evaluating alternative visions, learning how to negotiate and justify choices between visions, and making plans for achieving desired ones, and participating in community life to bring such visions into effect. These are the skills and abilities which underlie good citizenship, and make education for sustainability part of a process of building an informed, concerned and active populace. In this way, education for sustainability contributes to education for democracy and peace.
72. Reorienting the curriculum towards sustainable development requires at least two major structural reforms in education. The first is to re-examine the centralized mandating of courses and textbooks in order to allow for locally relevant learning programmes. Local decision-making can be facilitated through the reform of centralized educational policies and curricula, and the formulation of appropriate syllabuses and assessment policies. Nationally-endorsed syllabuses can serve as ‘broad framework documents’ which provide aims and general objectives for subjects, an overview of broad content themes, appropriate learning experiences, relevant resource materials, and criteria for assessing student learning. This type of syllabus can provide centralized accountability, while allowing schools, teachers and students to make choices about the specific learning experience, the relative depth and breadth of treatment for different topics, the case studies and educational resources used, and how to assess student achievements.
73. A second major area of structural reform is the development of new ways to assess the processes and outcomes of learning. Such reform should be inspired by what people want from their educational system, as well as what society needs. The period of profound change in which we are living needs to be taken into account by educational systems, which were, for the most part, designed to serve a society which is fast becoming history. Learning needs to be seen as a lifelong process which empowers people to live useful and productive lives. The reorientation of education along these lines – and in anticipation to the extent possible of future needs – is fundamental for sustainable development, including its ultimate objective not only of human survival but especially of human well-being and happiness. Similarly, there also needs to be a revamping of the methods of credentialing students. The various ways in which students are judged (testing, report cards, evaluations) and the basis for awarding diplomas at all levels need to reflect the reformulation of outcomes of learning towards sustainability.
EDUCATIONAL REFORM: A CASE STUDY
74. What does reorienting education towards sustainability mean in practical terms? This is the question that educators immediately want to know. Does it mean adding courses to an already overweight curriculum? Will it require new teaching approaches and methods? New physical facilities, equipment and textbooks to be purchased from an already severely pinched budget? Is it something that can be achieved in a month, a school year or several years? While the reform of education in this direction is still more talked about than put into practice, there are examples emerging which shed light on how to move in this direction.
75. One example is that of the Toronto (Canada) Board of Education which recently undertook a reform of its curriculum through a massive community consultation. Thousands of parents, students, staff and members of the public contributed to full day community consultations aimed at exploring how education should respond to the demands of a changing world. The focus of the inquiry was the question “What should students know, do and value by the time they graduate from school?” Although the notion of ‘sustainability’ was not imposed, it emerged as an essential requirement in the course of the consultation.
76. The education that parents and the community wanted for their children was in many respects hardly revolutionary or even surprising. The six graduation outcomes specified were: literacy; aesthetic appreciation and creativity; communication and collaboration; information management; responsible citizenship; and personal life skills, values and actions. These differ from most traditional curricular objectives in that they are broader and more closely related to the needs and organization of life than to the requirements and structures of schooling.
77. The essence of the Toronto reform is that the curriculum is no longer focused exclusively on the traditional core subjects of language, mathematics, history, etc. Informed by the new vision of what the community felt tomorrow’s students would need to know and be able to do, these disciplines underwent major revision. Mathematics, for example, now includes the skill of comprehending extremely large and extremely small numbers – e.g., ppm and ppb – which are essential to being environmentally literate and capable of understanding relative risk factors both in personal life and at work. Health now includes environmental issues including cancer, allergies and food additives as well as ‘consumerism’.
78. Much of the success of the Toronto reform is due to the fact that it was not – and was not seen to be – an effort to change education to meet goals set by an elite or unduly influenced by outside pressures. The impetus to change came from within. The new curriculum had equal or greater academic rigour, but far greater relevance to life outside school walls. What it demonstrates is that education for sustainable development is simply good education, and that good education needs to make children aware of the growing interdependence of life on Earth – interdependence among peoples and among natural systems – in order to prepare them for the future.
79. Toronto had one great advantage in implementing its curriculum reform: well- educated and well-trained teachers. In reality, what students learn is not necessarily what is written in the syllabus; it is what the teacher delivers in the classrooms. By far, the most frequent cause of curriculum failure is inadequate teacher training. In Toronto the development of the curriculum itself constituted an informal type of training in which thousands of teachers were involved. This was followed up by more formalized sessions and by systematic provision for teachers to upgrade their qualification through university courses and other forms of training. The lesson in this is that efforts to adapt education systems to sustainable development have to consider not only the question, “what are the essential messages that must be delivered?”, but also and equally, that of “how will teachers be trained to put those messages across powerfully and effectively?”.
80. In general, reforms aimed at sustainability will require much more of teachers than do traditional curricula. Students will have to be more actively involved in individual and collective activities. This will require teachers to play new roles which, in turn, implies a need for increased training and support. Educational reforms, like the movement towards sustainable development itself, requires holistic and systematic thinking; piecemeal approaches will not suffice and can not produce the required results.
REFORM AT DIFFERENT SCALES
81. It must, of course, be recognized that curriculum reform can take place in different ways and on different scales. If schools are granted greater autonomy, as proposed above, significant reforms could take place within schools or even classrooms, rather than at the national, provincial or district levels. Certain of these reforms would be aimed at changes in particular lessons or courses rather than for the curriculum as a whole. Such reforms would not be sufficient to fully orient the curriculum towards sustainability, but they could nonetheless be highly valuable. It is also necessary to recognize that schools and school systems in many developing countries are struggling under enormous burdens. They have insufficient resources to implement their present programmes of study – often only four or five textbooks are available for a class of fifty or more – and no means to aim at the more ambitious objectives that were possible in Toronto and in other industrialized countries. This inequality in educational resources and, hence in opportunities, is itself one of the major causes of unsustainability. If schools are to be a means to the reform of society, it is then essential that society at all levels – local, national and international – invest adequate attention and resources in its schools.
CONTRIBUTION OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
82. It is clear that the roots of education for sustainable development are firmly planted in environmental education. While environmental education is not the only discipline with a strong role to play in the reorienting process, it is an important ally. In its brief twenty-five year history, environmental education has steadily striven towards goals and outcomes similar and comparable to those inherent in the concept of sustainability.
83. In the early 1970s, the emerging environmental education movement was given a powerful boost by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which recommended that environmental education be recognized and promoted in all countries. This recommendation led to the launching in 1975 by UNESCO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) of the International Environmental Education Programme (IEEP), which continued until 1995. The influence of the IEEP – and the national and international activities which it inspired – has been widely felt and is reflected in many of the educational innovations carried out in the last two decades.
84. That work was inspired largely by the guiding principles of environmental education laid down by the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education held in Tbilisi in 1977, which followed a comprehensive preparatory process which included the International Workshop on Environmental Education held in Belgrade in 1975 to draft the concepts and vision which were later taken up by governments in Tbilisi. These encompass a broad spectrum of environmental, social, ethical, economic and cultural dimensions. Indeed, the recommendations of the Rio Conference, held fifteen years later, echo those of Tbilisi, as is evident in the following quotations from the report of the 1977 conference:
- “A basic aim of environmental education is to succeed in making individuals and communities understand the complex nature of the natural and the built environments resulting from the interaction of their biological, physical, social, economic and cultural aspects, and acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes and practical skills to participate in a responsible and effective way in anticipating and solving environmental problems, and the management of the quality of the environment.”
- “A further basic aim of environmental education is clearly to show the economic, political and ecological interdependence of the modern world, in which decisions and actions by the different countries can have international repercussions. Environment should, in this regard, help to develop a sense of responsibility and solidarity among countries and regions.”
- “Special attention should be paid to understanding the complex relations between socio-economic development and the improvement of the environment.”
85. These principles were successfully translated into educational goals and, with greater difficulty, into schoolroom practice in many countries.
86. The motto of the environmental education movement has been: ‘think globally, act locally’. Over a period of more than two decades, it developed a highly active pedagogy based on this premise. In the early grades, in particular, the emphasis was upon learning the local environment through field studies and classroom experiments. By starting in the primary grades, before the process of compartmentalization that marks secondary and particularly higher education sets in, students were encouraged to examine environmental issues from different angles and perspectives.
87. The influence of environmental education in promoting interdisciplinary inquiries can be seen at all levels of education. A course on environmental economics, for example, looks to anthropology for insights and source material. It studies the decline of ancient civilizations – e.g., the Sumerian and Mayan and that of the Easter Islands – which exploited their environment without due regard for its sustainability. Equally valuable lessons might be drawn from tribes and groups that faced challenging environmental conditions, but survived against difficult odds by developing an awe, love and respect for nature. In many such cultures, the environment was placed in the sphere of the sacred and used according to a set of well-defined rules that, whatever their origins, served to prevent the over-use and exhaustion of natural resources. Environmental education has also found original ways of looking at and measuring human impact on the environment, such as the ‘ecological footprint’, which estimates the number of acres of land required to sustain individuals according to their lifestyles and patterns of consumption. Innovative work has also been done in the field of environmental health by relating illness to environmental stress and ways of life.
88. In brief, the record of the environmental education movement is one of resourcefulness, innovation and continuing accomplishments. Lessons learned from environmental education provide valuable insight for developing the broader notion of education for sustainable development.
89. A basic premise of education for sustainability is that just as there is a wholeness and interdependence to life in all its forms, so must there be a unity and wholeness to efforts to understand it and ensure its continuation. This calls for both interdisciplinary inquiry and action. It does not, of course, imply an end to work within traditional disciplines. A disciplinary focus is often helpful, even necessary, in allowing the depth of inquiry needed for major breakthroughs and discoveries. But increasingly, important discoveries are being made not within disciplines, but on the borders between them. This is particularly true in fields such as environmental studies which are not easily confined to a single discipline. Despite this realization and a broadening support for interdisciplinary inquiries, the frontiers between academic disciplines remain stoutly defended by professional bodies, career structures and criteria for promotion and advancement. It is no accident that environmental education and, more recently, education for sustainable development, has progressed more rapidly at the secondary and primary levels than within the realm of higher education.
Sept. 3, 2017 — In The Planet Remade (2015), journalist Oliver Morton imagined a future scenario where the Earth’s climate has been changed by geoengineering. A collective of countries with little power in world affairs secretly agrees to a low-cost plan to cool the planet. With funding from a billionaire, the collective flies several planes a day to spray tonnes of aerosol into the stratosphere, creating a veil that reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, thereby dramatically slowing global warming. After eighteen months, the collective of countries discloses its activities – to massive uproar – at a United Nations (U.N.) climate summit, framing the veilmaking as an act of international civil disobedience. A U.N. resolution calls for a Convention on Climate Engineering and Protection. “Down on the ground,” wrote Morton (2015: 352), “people scrutinize sunsets with a new attention, comparing them in their imaginations with those they remember from their youth, or from just a few years ago.”
A version of this essay appears in a new edited volume by Peter Berglez et al. titled “What Is Sustainable Journalism?”
Morton, a veteran journalist who is currently editor of The Economist’s Briefings articles, said he wanted to craft a utopian vision of a climate future. It has been easier and more common, he wrote, to imagine catastrophic visions. His scenario allowed him to explore what he called “useful truths” about geoengineering, especially the belief that the application of a new technology should develop hand-in-hand with the governance of that technology (2015: 359). Morton discussed the potential negative consequences of the veilmaking scenario he outlined, such as the potential decision by some countries to see this climate cooling as a license to burn more fossil fuels. But, Morton concludes, there is a radical end to the scenario: “It works” (2015: 369).
The Planet Remade reflects a new direction in environmental journalism. This way of reporting on the environment is underpinned by the philosophy of ecomodernism, which argues that government-driven technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity are the principle means by which societies can hope to achieve sustainable development. The distinguished environmental journalist Fred Pearce identified several of the ecomodernists’ core beliefs. “The modernists,” he wrote (2013), “wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change.”
The application of these ideas, ecomodernists argue, would set societies on the path of sustainable development. Ecomodernism, in a vital first step, offers a foundational set of ideas and practices that define the broad concept of sustainable development itself. As Nature (2015: 407) has editorialized, sustainable development is a “catchphrase that neatly defines what the world must ultimately achieve, but nobody knows precisely what it looks like at full scale.” Such ambiguity presents a major barrier to collective action in support of specific policy actions or goals, since under such conditions, decision-makers and the public lack clear organizing principles or a paradigm by which to define and coordinate actions or solutions. Ecomodernism, more broadly, aims to reshape how citizens think about the relationship between society and the environment. As environmental journalist Keith Kloor (2012) wrote in Discover, the philosophy aims to “remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency.”
Journalism informed by ecomodernist ideas, we argue in this essay, fulfills a vital need in public and political debates over sustainable development. Ecomodernist journalism offers a particular vision of what sustainable development looks like and how it can be achieved. Ecomodernist journalism also critiques what its advocates view as faulty assumptions that underpin competing policy proposals for a sustainable future. And ecomodernist journalism brokers dialogue among different parts of society about realistic paths forward.
In this essay, we analyze the work of Oliver Morton and several other high-profile journalists writing on the environment and climate change who draw on and apply principles of ecomodernism to offer a distinct framing of sustainable development. We demonstrate how the philosophy informs the work of these writers and thinkers, and the particular approaches they take in assessing expert knowledge, evaluating policy proposals and technological options, and in brokering cross-cutting dialogue. Our analysis of these prominent writers and thinkers demonstrates that ecomodernist journalism has successfully gained global audiences, been assimilated into mainstream reporting, and has the potential to be the animating worldview that distinguishes the coverage of individual journalists and news organizations as they report on sustainability.
Ecomodernism and Environmental Journalism
Ecomodernism shares fundamental characteristics with ecological modernization, a distinct view of sustainable development described by European sociologists in the early 1980s. This perspective argues that economic growth can proceed in tandem with environmental protection. But in order for this to happen, modern economic and political systems, including market economies, industrial production, centralized welfare states, agricultural production, and scientific and technological institutions, must be restructured to achieve ecological reforms. As environmental policy scholar John Dryzek (2013) argues, the perspective is distinct from sustainable development more generally because it has specific ideas about how the state and government should be restructured. A central part of that social vision is the ability of governments to catalyze technologies that, by reducing resource consumption, stretch environmental limits, enabling economic growth to continue indefinitely. The key agents in ecomodernism are governments, companies, scientists, and moderate environmentalists, all motivated by “the common good or the public interest, defined in broad terms to encompass economic efficiency and environmental conservation” (Dryzek 2013: 174).
Ecological modernization also puts forward specific ideas about policy and governance. Governments, from this perspective, integrate environmental considerations into all public policies, set strong industrial regulations, and provide companies with incentives to innovate. Policies are forged in a consensus-based decision-making process, with governments, businesses, scientists, and environmentalists involved in planned policy interventions. While ecological modernization does not advocate for a system-wide overhaul, it does note that investment patterns, planning decisions, research funding, and policy decision-making will change significantly because of ecological reforms (Mol and Spaargaren 2000). Ecological modernization presents a third way between command-and-control environmental regulation and free market fundamentalism, offering “realistic utopian models for the future,” argues the sociologist Anthony Giddens (1990 cited in Mol and Spaargaren 2000: 38).
Following the failure of the 2010 U.N. climate change negotiations and emissions trading legislation in the U.S., there emerged a space in public life for new ways of thinking about environmental problems. A group of U.S. and U.K.-based scholars, writers, and advocates put forward ideas that broadly conformed to, but expanded on, ecological modernization. In Whole Earth Discipline, ecologist and futurist Stuart Brand (2009) laid out a range of innovation-driven strategies for achieving a sustainable society, his ideas captured effectively by the subtitle: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, And Geoengineering Are Necessary. Other prominent ecomodernist thinkers include green campaigner Mark Lynas who in The God Species (2011) similarly argued in favor of nuclear power and genetically modified crops as solutions to climate change and other problems. Science writer Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden (2011) advocated for embracing the human-altered landscapes of cities, farms, and parks, challenging traditional conservation ideals of a pristine wilderness walled off from human interference. In Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009), geographer Mike Hulme argued that climate change had been misdiagnosed as a conventional environmental problem. Instead it was a uniquely “super-wicked” problem, not something societies were going to end or solve, but a problem societies were going to do better or worse at managing over time.
These ideas and others have been researched, expanded on, and promoted by The Breakthrough Institute, a U.S.-based think tank founded by the environmental activists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In 2015, the two brought together 16 other similarly-minded thinkers including Lynas and Brand to author An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Calling themselves “ecopragmatists and ecomodernists,” they argue that current environmental problems are not reason to call into question the economic policies and technological advances that have enabled human society to flourish over the past century. Indeed, halting the many societal gains we have achieved through technological innovation, they argue, rules out the best tools we have for combating climate change, protecting nature, and helping people. For ecomodernists, the urgent environmental problems we face are evidence in favor of more modernization, not less (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 7; Nordhaus et al. 2011).
Hope for a better future, they contend, starts with advanced technologies that intensify rather than weaken our mastery of nature. High-tech crops, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, aquaculture, desalination, and high-efficiency solar panels all have the potential to not only reduce human demands on the environment, but also spark the economic growth needed to lift people out of extreme poverty. These advances will enable more people to live in bigger cities that are powered and fed more efficiently. People in cities also tend to have fewer children, slowing population growth. From this perspective, technological advances and urbanization will free up more space on the planet for nature, “decoupling” human development from resource consumption. For ecomodernists, progress also requires respectful engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas. “Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by the extremes, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance,” they wrote (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 31).
Not surprisingly, ecomodernist ideas are difficult for many journalists to accept or to apply to their coverage, since the philosophy is at odds with core tenets of the environmental movement, a tradition that has shaped the thinking of generations of writers, documentary filmmakers, and other media professionals. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), environmental journalism developed in the U.S. in the late 1960s, coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement (Fahy 2017). Carson’s seminal work created an entire genre of books, articles, news reports, and films that warned of the negative environmental and health impacts of industrialization, consumption, and technological advances, casting into doubt the claims of their promoters and defenders.
From this origin, two dominant discourses in journalistic coverage of environmental issues emerged. The first, as embodied by writers like Bill McKibben and many journalists writing for left-wing publications, framed problems like climate change as looming catastrophes, symptomatic of a capitalist society that in prioritizing economic growth and consumerism had dangerously exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. This framing emphasizes the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and social protest that would dramatically transform society, ending our over-consumption and material greed, replacing global capitalism with small-scale economies reliant on locally-owned farms and renewable energy sources. The second discourse, as embodied by writers like The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman and most mainstream journalists, also emphasizes that limits to growth must be respected, but assumes that environmental limits can be stretched if the right market-based mechanisms such as carbon taxes are implemented. These market mechanisms would catalyze the transition to renewable technologies, conservation policies, and energy efficiency practices, enabling global economic growth to continue indefinitely (Nisbet 2014).
These two discourses are strongly reflected in U.S. and U.K. news coverage of the 2015 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There is near universal agreement among scientists that human-driven climate change is happening and that it is an urgent problem, but there are considerable uncertainties about the severity, timing, and location of climate change impacts (Painter 2013). Yet journalists around the world usually present future climate scenarios in the darkest of terms, warning of devastating disasters and catastrophes (Weingart et al. 2000; Painter 2013). Indeed, in coverage of the 2015 IPCC report, the dominant framing was that climate impacts would be disastrous, with journalists neglecting alternative possible climate futures. In comparison to the risks posed by climate change, the section of the report that dealt with actions to reduce emissions generated far less news coverage, even though it concerned apparently newsworthy topics such as the future of energy or whether energy should be produced or consumed in a more equitable and just way (O’Neill et al. 2015).
When journalists have covered potential solutions to climate change, they have tended to favor solutions consistent with the two dominant discourses. For example, when sixty-four journalists from Germany, India, Switzerland, U.S., and the U.K. were asked to rate various solutions to climate change, the reporters ranked highest energy policies that stressed renewable energy sources. They ranked lowest policies that advocated the expansion of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technologies (Engesser and Brüggemann 2015). These findings suggest that many journalists embrace the idea that addressing climate change requires rapid technological innovations, as ecomodernists argue. But at the same time, they have a bias in favor of so-called “soft path energy” technologies, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and a bias against “hard path technologies” like nuclear power or geoengineering, which are considered controversial, even though the IPCC report and many experts conclude that such hard path technologies are needed to meet global emission reduction goals.
Yet there are several journalists whose reporting is driven by ecomodernist principles. They are exemplars of ecomodernist journalism, showing what this type of reporting looks like in practice. Their journalism is distinguished not only by its perspective on sustainable development, but also by the particular roles that these journalists undertake in their work. Elsewhere we argued that these roles are useful ones for journalists to adopt in science policy debates more generally (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). As our analysis will show, with reference to the prominent work of several reporters, these roles can be applied to the reporting of sustainable development, an issue that draws on knowledge from various scholarly disciplines and which merges perspectives from politics, economics, sociology, and science.
Ecomodernists as Knowledge Brokers
In the first role, journalists reporting on sustainable development often serve as “knowledge brokers,” critically assessing the process of expert knowledge production, evaluating how and why scientific, economic, and policy analysis of environmental problems was undertaken, and how the findings were interpreted (Nisbet and Fahy 2015).
Andrew Revkin, who joined in 2016 the non-profit media organization ProPublica after more than two decades as a reporter and opinion writer at TheNew York Times, is a leading example of an ecomodernist journalist serving in the role of knowledge broker. He earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a postgraduate degree in journalism, before becoming a science writer with Science Digest in 1983, followed by stints at Los Angeles Times and Discover, where in 1988 he wrote one of the first national magazine cover stories on global warming. After joining The New York Times in 1995, he worked for almost five years on the Metro section before becoming national environment correspondent in 2000, reporting in the role for a decade before accepting a buyout from the paper, but staying on to write the Times’ “Dot Earth” blog (Nisbet 2013). With world population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, Revkin’s focused on how to “balance human affairs with the planet’s limits.” Combined with elements of ecomodernist philosophy, Revkin’s experience enables him to critically evaluate the multiple perspectives and frameworks that are brought to bear on debates over sustainable development and climate change.
At “Dot Earth,” Revkin frequently warned about the tendency to hype scientific findings about environmental problems and to overlook the inherent uncertainty in research. He has been openly critical of the process by which institutions and journals “pump up the volume” on a specific research finding. This hyping, explains Revkin, becomes amplified by advocates, journalists, and bloggers on either side of an environmental debate and by news organizations and reporters “at the end of the chain” who have the incentive to search for “the front page thought” – the particular interpretation that will give their story the most prominence and attention. Revkin is also able to distinguish the various forms of knowledge that contribute to our understanding of climate change. In his writing and talks, he often refers to a figure that displays different distributions or “curves” of scientific knowledge about climate change. He explains that there is a “clear cut” convergence among experts that more carbon dioxide equals a warming world, but on specific impacts, such as increasing the intensity of hurricanes or the efficacy of alternative energy strategies, there is a much broader distribution of scientific opinion. That range of opinion, he argues, should be reflected in news reporting” (Wihbey 2011).
In 2012, Revkin served in a knowledge broker role during his extensive journalism about Hurricane Sandy, which flooded parts of the New York City/New Jersey region, causing dozens of deaths and billions in damages to property and coastal infrastructure. As the hurricane neared landfall on the U.S. East Coast, Revkin examined the connections between climate change and extreme weather. He acknowledged that #Frankenstorm was the Twitter handle for the hurricane. “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster,” he wrote, “it’s just not that simple.” A huge number of factors shape how tropical cyclones form and grow. “There remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms – on time scales from decades to centuries – to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet” (Revkin, Oct 28, 2012).
Amid storm-caused blackouts near his home in the Hudson Valley area of New York, Revkin sought to shift discussion away from what he believed was the polarizing and misguided discussion about whether or not climate change caused the storm. Instead, he framed the significance of the storm in terms of urban planning and resilience-focused construction. “While scientists and campaigners debate what mix of factors shaped this epic storm,” he wrote, “what’s indisputable is that much of the disaster that unfolded as it came ashore was the result of human actions and decisions – ranging from where we’ve chosen to build or subsidize development to how seriously our governments take the need to build with the worst in mind” (Revkin, Oct 31, 2012).
Ecomodernists as Policy Brokers
In a second complementary role as “policy brokers,” ecomodernist journalists distinguish themselves in their coverage by expanding the range of policy options and technologies under consideration by the public and political community (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Because climate is so complex and the future cannot be predicted exactly, it is possible for different, but similarly plausible narratives to exist about policy options and technological fixes. In the face of such ambiguity, journalists can play a key role via their coverage by helping to construct a common outlook and language among networks of experts, advocates, and political leaders that aids in the coordination of decisions and actions. Yet if one problem definition and set of solutions, such as an emphasis on “soft path” energy technologies like renewables over “hard path” technologies like nuclear energy, are prioritized in news coverage to the exclusion of others, such influence can lock in powerful forms of groupthink that dismiss valuable alternative interpretations and courses of action, contributing to policy gridlock rather than progress (Nisbet 2014).
In working against such groupthink, the impact of ecomodernist journalists as policy brokers can be understood by way of several relevant areas of research. First, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. (2007), drawing on a series of case studies, concludes that the broader the menu of policies and technologies available to decision-makers in science-related debates, the greater the opportunity for decision-makers to reach agreement on paths forward. Applying these principles to climate change, Pielke Jr. (a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto) argues that once technologies are available which make meaningful action on climate change lower-cost and less threatening to the economic status quo, then much of the political argument over the scientific certainty of climate change causes and impacts will diminish. “The challenge facing climate policy is to design policies that are consonant with public opinion, and are effective, rather than to try to shape public opinion around particular policies,” Pielke Jr. (2010: 43) writes in The Climate Fix.
Carbon capture and storage by limiting emissions from coal and natural gas power plants, for example, could “transform the political debate” as it “does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles” and therefore “enfranchises the very groups that have the most to lose from conventional climate policies – from powerful corporate interests to many of the world’s poorest people,” wrote science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz and Pielke Jr. in a 2013 article at The Atlantic.
Second, these conclusions are consistent with the social psychological research of Dan Kahan, whose experimental findings suggest that perceptions of culturally contested issues such as climate change are often policy and technology dependent and that polarization is likely to be diffused under conditions where the focus is on a diverse rather than a narrow set of options. “For instance, people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution,” argues Kahan (2010: 297). “They would probably look at the evidence more favorably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.”
Over the past decade, several ecomodernist journalists serving in the role of policy broker have helped to diversify the range of technological options considered to address climate change, calling greater attention to these policy and technology options. These journalists challenged longstanding claims by many environmentalists and activists that solar, wind, and other renewables are the only energy technologies needed to combat climate change; that genetic engineering was too risky; and that geoengineering should be off the table for consideration. In doing so, they shifted policy debate away from the narrow goal of making fossil fuels more costly to a broader focus on making a diverse portfolio of low carbon technologies less expensive; and to making society more resilient to inevitable climate change shocks.
Oliver Morton, for example, has long emphasized that a range of policy and technological options are needed to address climate change. In 2009, he argued in The Economist that a reduction in global emissions requires that governments help catalyze a massive new infrastructure to support carbon capture and storage, and subsidize the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies. In 2010, he wrote that it was clear after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks that “the nations of the world will not commit themselves to controls on carbon emissions anything like as strict as enthusiasts imagined.” He proposed a broader approach to climate change that stressed the link between climate action and development, a focus on achievable goals like reduced deforestation, and a change in the mix of energy used in the world, a mix that should include geoengineering (2010, Nov. 22). Morton’s reporting is informed by his previous journalistic experience: He was energy and environment editor at The Economist, chief news and features editor at the scientific journal Nature, and editor of Wired UK.
Morton’s reporting of geoengineering culminated in 2015’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. He argued that the risks of climate change merit serious action, but bringing an industrial economy’s carbon dioxide emissions to zero is incredibly difficult because the world’s energy system is built on fossil fuels and maintained by a vast global infrastructure, such as mines and power stations, that will have to be replaced in order to rapidly reduce emissions and stabilize the climate. Geoengineering is therefore a useful response, he wrote, because it reduces climate risks “without impractically rapid cuts in fossil-fuel use” (2015: 4).
Morton also offered an explanation, grounded in the sociology of science, as to why politicians did not see geoengineering as a serious policy option. The political focus in the 1990s quickly narrowed to one issue: carbon dioxide. Amid the complexity of climate change, it was practical to focus on an agreed-on scientific problem that could be measured. “Carbon dioxide is a technical matter,” Morton wrote (2015: 142), “the sort of thing that fits well inside the realm of science, the sort of thing that scientists have authority to talk about.” Diplomats like it, too, as it made “climate change a thing-there-ought-to-be-less-of problem” with cuts that could be agreed-on, monitored, and verified (Morton 2015: 143). The focus on carbon dioxide reduction, he argued, neglected adaptation, which came to be seen not as a crucial counterpart of mitigation strategies, but as a second-choice strategy that left the world’s response to climate change badly served.
The Planet Remade argued for a wider discussion of geoengineering as part of a broadened set of policy response to climate change. There should be new settings for debate and new evidence to discuss in these settings. Such a debate would avoid a mistake that Morton (2015: 168) argues is often made by natural and social scientists: “to talk as though what geoengineering is has already been decided, rather than treating it as something still up for grabs.” He argued that the meaning of geoengineering was not fixed – it was still open to discussion and constructive debate, one that brought in issues such as the governance of new technology. A broader reflection on geoengineering, for Morton, is more than an exercise in evaluating policy and technology. It is also a way to imaginatively think about the impacts of climate change on the world and how humanity might react to those impacts, with or without geoengineering.
Another journalist who has undertaken the policy broker role is Eduardo Porter, who writes the “Economic Scene” columns at The New York Times. Like Morton and Revkin, he draws on highly specialized education and experience to inform his journalism, including two degrees in physics. He joined TheNew York Times in 2004 as a specialist in economics after a twenty-year career covering politics, finance, and business from Brazil, Tokyo, London, Mexico, and Los Angeles. Writing from an economics perspective, his point-of-view could be seen in his critical reporting leading up to and during the 2015 U.N. climate change summit, challenging arguments that solving climate change required a shift away from a global capitalist system towards small scale local economies powered by locally-renewable energy sources.
At the time, these decades-old arguments had gained historic prominence by way of Naomi Klein’s international best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014). Reviewing a number of studies, Porter wrote that strategies focused entirely on local economies and renewable energy – strategies that featured in Klein’s book – were driven “more by hope than science.” In this case, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options,” he concluded. Instead, Porter (2015a) argued that dealing with climate change “requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on.” He argued, based on research he cited from various fields, that carbon capture and storage, and an expansion of nuclear power, are needed to address climate change. These technologies would not only be needed to serve as backups to the intermittent energy produced from solar and wind power, but also to meet the rapidly growing energy needs of India, China, and African countries.
Porter also rejected the strategy promoted by Klein and others of negative economic growth as a path to reduce emissions. “Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed,” he wrote. He synthesized a range of expert views on this topic, interviewing historians and economists to argue that economic growth over the past century had created dramatic benefits for global societies. Economic growth, he noted, helped reduce war and conflict, enabled democracy and consensus-based politics, and empowered women. Discussing Klein, he wrote that he doubted that an end to capitalism “would bring about the workers’ utopia she appears to yearn for.” Zero economic growth, he warned, would instead provoke intense resource conflicts, endangering the powerless and poorest. A better way to serve the most vulnerable people in the world, argued Porter (2015b), is to shift from fossil fuels to a range of advanced low carbon energy technologies.
Ecomodernists as Dialogue Brokers
A third role that ecomodernist journalists play is that of a dialogue broker. In this approach, a journalist uses blogging, podcasts, video interviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools to convene interconnected, cross-platform discussions among a professionally and politically diverse network of contributors and readers (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Not only does this networked journalism approach aid efforts to contextualize and critically evaluate environmental debates, but the method is also guided by a philosophy that cross-cutting dialogue can help readers to better understand, and therefore accept, why they may disagree with others (Rosen 2012; Nisbet 2014). Using blog posts and other digital tools, dialogue brokers bring together multiple, contrasting perspectives about sustainability problems, while offering context on the scientific and policy arguments made. A core tenet for dialogue brokers is the need to welcome perspectives that challenge their own and that of their readers. As media scholar Donald Matheson (2004: 458) wrote, this is “a journalism of linking rather than pinning things down, that is situated within a model of knowledge-as-process rather than knowledge-as-product.”
The value of a dialogue-based form of networked journalism is supported by many of the arguments of social theorists studying the politically contested terrain of issues such as climate change. Political theorists have long argued that progress on climate change lies not in staking out a hardline position on a contested terrain and then castigating those that are in disagreement, but in recognizing and understanding multiple positions, and finding ways to negotiate constructively among them (Verweij et al. 2006). Dismissing alternative perspectives not only weakens our ability to understand the complexity of these issues, but also risks the loss of legitimacy and trust among key constituencies (Thompson and Rayner, 1998). In this scenario, what are needed then are journalists who convene discussions that force critical reflection and examination, rather than playing to an ideologically like-minded audience (Nisbet 2014).
In a leading example, at his former “Dot Earth” blog, Andrew Revkin not only functioned as a knowledge broker, but also as a dialogue broker. As a skilled convener, he used his blog and a variety of other digital tools to facilitate discussions among experts, advocates, and readers, all the while contextualising specific claims. As he told us in a previous interview (Fahy and Nisbet 2011: 783): “The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp. … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.” Revkin’s past work at “Dot Earth” and current reporting for ProPublica is informed by his reading of social science research which led him to question his own journalistic assumptions about the best way to reach readers: “I had long assumed the solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication,” he wrote (Revkin 2016: 32). “If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.”
Frequently at “Dot Earth”, Revkin merged the roles of dialogue broker and knowledge broker. In 2013, for example, he reported on a study in which scientists and energy analysts identified how New York State could run entirely on clean energy by 2050. The study was published in Energy Policy and it laid out a plan for the state to eliminate its use of fossil fuels and nuclear power. As a vision for a sustainable future, Revkin argued that the study worked best as a “thought experiment” that raised, as one of its central questions, the dilemma of whether such a dramatic shift in the state’s energy infrastructure matched the risks posed to the state by climate change. “That’s a question,” he wrote, “that will always – with or without industry lobbying – get varied answers depending on competing priorities and differing perceptions of risk across society” (Revkin, March 12, 2013).
Revkin created cross-cutting dialogue on this issue in several ways. When he reported the study on “Dot Earth”, he posted long excerpts of his questions and answers with the study’s authors, and then curated reactions to the blog post on Twitter from scientists, journalists, and energy policy scholars. Revkin also moderated a subsequent event to discuss the energy transition at Pace University in New York, where he teaches, that brought together the study’s lead author and a sustainable energy expert. He encouraged his readers to come to the event, watch the live video stream, post real-time questions to his blog, or contribute using specific Twitter hashtags. “My hope for our chat,” he wrote, “was that we could dig down a bit into how to move from ideas to action” (Revkin, March 11, 2015).
The dialogue continued months later as other researchers argued in Energy Policy that the original study overlooked technical and policy factors that could hinder the plan’s implementation. Revkin noted how the original authors defended their work in a response published in the journal. These contests over knowledge, and over the realisation of a sustainable future, were not confined to the pages of a specialist journal. Revkin (June 18, 2013) reported the ongoing expert debate, bringing into wider public focus these intense struggles over the production and application of knowledge.
A similar combination of dialogue brokering and knowledge brokering can be seen in the journalist Nathanael Johnson’s year-long series on genetically modified food for the sustainability-focused news and commentary site Grist.org. Although not an advocate of the ecomodernist philosophy, Johnson demonstrated in the “Panic-free GMOs” series how to report a complex issue charged with ideological conflict. As the introduction to the series (Grist 2013) explained, the journalistic exploration sought to see past the polarized thinking on the topic that veered between “dubious anti-GM horror stories” and “the dismissive sighing . . . of pro-GM partisans.” At first Johnson sought clear answers. But the reality he encountered was far more complex.
Johnson, who has written about the environment for several publications and is the food writer at Grist, brought several diverse perspectives on GMOs into dialogue. When he examined regulation, for example, he quickly came to an apparent contradiction. Genetic engineering’s critics say the industry is not required to test the safety of its products, while the industry says it conducts voluminous tests. “Both are correct,” wrote Johnson. “If you try to cross-check the claims of people on either side of the GM debate, you run into problems, because these warring clans speak different dialects. Their foundational assumptions point them in opposite directions, facing different landscapes and talking past each other” (Johnson 2013, July 10).
As he reflected on the challenge of coming to a clear consensus on GMO research, he noted that researchers from different disciplines become, as he put it, “balkanized.” He wrote: “Those familiar with the science basically agree on the evidence, they are just exasperated by one another’s values and customs” (Johnson 2013, Aug. 20). His in-depth reporting constrained him from broad, sweeping conclusions. Because every crop is different, he wrote, it is difficult to make major generalizations. Avoiding such mistakes can also help soften polarization. “If GMOs aren’t a monolithic entity, the stakes in this fight fall even further,” he wrote (2014, Jan 9). “It’s harder to get worked up about an issue when it’s a mixed bag of good and bad.”
A second conclusion grew from the intense debate generated by his work. Readers picked apart every point. Comment threads regularly ran to more than 200 entries. “Nothing else I’ve written, in more than a decade of working as a journalist, has generated this mixture of fascination and hostility,” Johnson concluded in his last piece for the series. After reflecting on what he called his “learn-as-I-go experiment,” he observed that critics and sources who disagreed with what he wrote were usually not disputing facts. “What seemed to bother them was my failure to interpret the evidence in a way that fit into a larger narrative.” These narratives were grounded in different views of nature and technology. For GMO opponents, the issue was a story about “corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet.” For GMO advocates, the issue was a story about “the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science” (Johnson 2014, Jan. 9). The different views were, in effect, narratives about contrasting visions of a sustainable future.
Conclusion: Ideas that Leverage Social Change
As ecomodernist journalists, Oliver Morton, Andrew Revkin, Eduardo Porter, and others have played a vital role in forging new narratives about environmental problems and sustainable development, challenging conventional assumptions, enriching the discussion of policy options and technologies, and encouraging cross-cutting dialogue. In these roles, they express, to varying degrees, ecomodernist ideas in their work: the centrality of technological innovation, the reliance on government investment to catalyze innovation, the necessity of a diverse portfolio of policy options and technologies, and the need for public forums that encourage critical self-reflection and solutions-focused discussion. Even when a journalist does not fully share the ecomodernist philosophy, as the example of Nathanael Johnson shows, their work can demonstrate the benefits of applying ecomodernist principles to encourage critical dialogue.
The ecomodernist journalists analyzed in this essay are successful because they share fundamental characteristics. They combine specialized education, often in different scientific disciplines, with years of experience reporting across different topics for various audiences and a variety of news organizations. This essential diversity of experiences, when combined in their journalism, allows them to evaluate assumptions and arguments about technology, society, politics, and the environment as they relate to the many dimensions of sustainable development. Moreover, these journalists are alert to the historical and sociological underpinnings of contemporary debates, including those influences that shape expert knowledge and conventional explanations about sustainability. The journalists analyzed here, furthermore, are based in the U.S. and U.K. If such a style of ecomodernist journalism can gain an audience in these countries with their traditions of antagonistic two-party political cultures, then it is likely that this style of reporting can gain an audience – and influence – in countries such as Germany, Sweden, or Norway with histories of consensus-based politics.
Ecomodernist journalists are therefore valuable examples for other reporters to emulate, and models to follow for news organizations seeking to improve their coverage of sustainable development. They demonstrate, first, how coverage of sustainable development can be brought into mainstream news coverage and commentary. Morton and Porter do not write only in specialized science or environment sections. Their work is integrated into their publications’ core coverage of business and public affairs. In other words, their work is not ghettoized, featured exclusively at the science page or in sections dedicated to the environment. There is a wider trend towards this type of integrated coverage of issues like sustainable development, as specialist reporters in the U.S. are being reassigned from the environmental beat and integrated into areas such as politics or economics – a process that has been called “mainstreaming” (Friedman 2015: 148). Such a process would allow reporters to apply their environmental expertise to mainstream news stories that address sustainable development.
Second, the popularity and longevity of Revkin’s “Dot Earth” blog and the success of Johnson’s series at Grist.org demonstrate that there is a global audience for networked, dialogue-based coverage of sustainable development. Third, as Morton, Porter, and Revkin demonstrate, journalists can and should offer readers a distinct perspective on sustainability. Given the scale of scientific and environmental problems societies face, notes media critic Jay Rosen (2012), coverage must have a view from somewhere. The ecomodernist view on sustainable development is one that can not only drive the work of individual journalists, but can be an editorial perspective adopted by news organizations, or can potentially form the perspective that distinguishes the approach of new digital ventures examining sustainability.
By applying their ecomodernist views and by serving in the roles of knowledge broker, policy broker, and dialogue broker, ecomodernist journalists help prevent other distinct perspectives from dominating coverage, challenging citizens to critically assess expert claims and deeply-held assumptions. As Revkin (2016: 35) argues, on the responsibility for responding to climate change: “We need edge pushers and group huggers, faith and science, and – more than anything – dialogue and effort to find room for agreement even when there are substantial differences.” Morton in The Planet Remade advocates for thinking about geoengineering as more than merely a technological fix. He argues that deliberation over geoengineering can be a powerful imaginative tool for identifying the levers that will move the earth system in ways that will help humanity. Those levers he advocates could be an institution, a shared goal, an idea – or all of them and more. In fashioning a new discourse that enriches thinking and sparks new ideas, Morton’s work and that of other ecomodernist journalists could prove to be one such lever.
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September 3, 2017
Anthropocene, Climate Change, Environmental Communication, Environmental Politics, Journalism, Political Polarization, Pragmatism, Public Intellectuals, Wicked Problems