Introducing SF Associate Member Hanns-Fred Rathenow, Germany

What have been the key milestones on your environmental/sustainability education journey so far?

It was a long journey that began at the beginning of the eighties. These years were characterized by the nuclear arms race and – particularly in Europe – by the NATO double-track decision. Hard to imagine by today's standards, that at that time anywhere in Western Europe, millions of people took to the streets in nonviolent protest to prevent the spiral of violence and the arms race between East and West. Paul Smoker, the then Director of the Richardson Institute for Peace and Conflict Research at the University of Lancaster and later President of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), invited me in 1983 to work for half a year at his institute as a visiting professor. With him, I examined how the local education authorities in England and Wales handled the issue education for peace in schools - or bypassed it. At that time I was a member of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). I was (and still am today) of the belief that scientists should not only seemingly objectively describe their research object. Rather, they should contribute along with their scientific findings to preserving and sustaining peace, actively implementing the results of their work in practice insofar as scientists do have a social and political responsibility. Education for peace was my first milestone.

Under the influence of the Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung it became clear to me that peace education was more than just disarmament education and peace more than just the absence of war. A reasonable definition of what peace should include beyond, resulted soon after initial discussions with David Selby, whom I met in 1983. The reduction of structural violence, that is, the violence that results from unequal power relations and accordingly unequal life chances, also has to face inevitably a struggle against the exploitation of nature by humanity, by political and economic powers. My peace education credo also affiliated with what David Selby and Graham Pike developed at the University of York based Centre for Global Education (the former World Studies Teacher Training Centre) and what came to be condensed in their well-known bestseller, Global Teacher Global Learner (1988).

In 1989 I had the pleasure of being a Fellow at the Centre for Global Education and later, in 2000, of working together with David at the International Institute for Global Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. This cooperation led to the first practical manual on Global Education in the German language. (… and with the Selby family in the Hockley Valley north of Toronto to my first experience with vegan food.)  David and I published this book with the German publisher, Cornelsen in 2003. In this handbook we emphasized global education as ‘transformative, that is oriented to personal and social change learning, explicitly opposing economic, political and social asymmetries and structural power relations at national and international level.’  With this statement global education placed itself at the center of political education in Germany, as I understand it. The development of judgment and action competences belongs to the critical skills of political education, which benefits from the global education approach, as advocated by Sustainability Frontiers. Here I find an expanded concept of peace that focuses, among other things, on the violent exploitation of natural resources (including the slaughter of animals) and which lays the foundations of a biocentric approach – as opposed to the mainstream anthropocentric education. This has been my second milestone.

How do you see the environmental/sustainability education landscape at this point in time?

I want to relate the question of how the landscape of education for sustainability can be described at the moment to my own country, the Federal Republic of Germany. This situation is mainly characterized by the so-called cultural sovereignty of the Bundeslander, the German states. That is, each of the 16 states has its own ministry responsible for school and teaching affairs. According to the states’ school laws, the ministries issue curricula for all subjects and grade levels. Here it is now part of the educational mainstream to deal at all school levels with the problem how pollution and the destruction of the environment can be prevented (in all facets). For some years there has also been  countrywide consideration - especially after the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012 – of how the keyword sustainable development can be anchored in the guidelines of the 16 federal states. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is then understood as a cross-curricular issue that has recently been addressed in appropriate educational guidelines.

However, it is also clear that in many places much of the teaching practice still sticks to the idea of development education in the conventional sense. Obviously education policy decisions are dependent on the overall political conditions, e.g. on the election results at state level as well as the general election for the federal parliament (Bundestag). While the old Development Ministry has since been renamed the ‘Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’, I still feel that this is just old wine in new bottles. Behind this there is still the idea that the countries of the so-called ‘third world’ and the emerging economies need to be aligned in their development with the level of industrialized countries of the North. Development seems to be inseparable from growth and growth tends to damage the common good. The idea of ‘the Commons’ has the welfare of the whole community in mind. It refers to the general welfare, defined as the overall interest of society, as opposed to individual or group interests. Both the common good as well as the ecological foundations of our planet, the Commons, are extremely vulnerable to unrestrained exploitation of our social and physical basis of life. In Germany we are far away from what American author Rachel Botsman and others have called Collaborative Consumption. They observed a shift from a culture of ‘me’ to a culture of ‘we’. Such culture of ‘we’ that serves the needs of fellow humans AND the planet, would be a wonderful prerequisite to tackling climate change, because it would help to reduce the ecological footprint of people in the Northern Hemisphere and elsewhere.

What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications for your own work?

The ecological overexploitation of planet Earth and the social disparities within and between societies in particular between North and South seem unstoppable. 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the resources in a way that has long since passed the limits of growth and threatens the sustainability of the planet. Just as quickly the gap between rich and poor is growing both within individual countries and internationally. Large parts of the world's population are excluded from decent development, one billion people are hungry, and more than half of humanity is considered poor. Millions of people are motivated to migrate not only from ethnic conflicts, but are economically propelled in the face of (mass) unemployment. In the coming decades, anthropogenic climate-geographical factors in particular will cause economic poverty and social deprivation, particularly in the so-called ‘Third World’.

It becomes increasingly clear that sustainable development towards a positive change is possible only through a profound transformation of the economic and political relations between the industrialized countries and the developing countries oand emerging markets. Similarly, a paradigm shift in the current resource-intensive lifestyle and mentality, especially amongst the inhabitants of industrialized countries is necessary and no more so than amongst lifestyle of some elites that wastes resources while enjoying high social attractiveness.

Like a mantra, politicians of the geographical North tell their electorate that only economic growth contributes to workplaces in their societies. Individual happiness can only be achieved by growth in every direction. But could this kind of growth be equated with development? In many cases green growth is on the agenda of progressive politicians. However, I think, the question is whether or not green growth is a myth just like the myth that happiness cannot be achieved without growth. The challenge for industrialized countries is how to achieve that pursuit of happiness and a sufficient standard of living without destroying the fundamental prerequisites of life. We have to say goodbye to the credo of growth, and implement more regionalized policies of reduced consumption, reuse, repair and repurposing of materials, and to recycle what we cannot immediately reuse. Regional economic circles could be one of the starting points for what is termed in some European countries décroissance or de-growth. We must dispose of the current chain of production that generates excessive waste as it follows closely the cycle of production and consumption. We must localize the chain of production to create self-sustaining economies and rid ourselves of rampant consumerism perpetuated by marketing strategies that intend to sell us what we don’t need.

How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?

Today students are socialized in the early course of their life trajectory to the current socio-economic system without questioning it. They usually take for granted those patterns that are exemplified in their social environment by parents, peers and role models in the marketing industry. It belongs therefore to the current challenges of today to find ways to follow ‘the pursuit of happiness’, the ‘buen vivir’, not only for the countries of the North, without destroying the fundamental conditions of life on our planet. Every design for an economic-political education curriculum dealing with global issues has to challenge the mantra of unlimited growth. I was very happy to see just recently that the Berlin Ministry of Education has issued learning materials for secondary schools entitled: Learning in Global Connections: The Great Transformation. [Lernen in globalen Zusammenhängen: Die große Transformation]. And I was happy too, that the transformative approach, which ten years ago David and I emphasized in our joint book proved to be finally socially acceptable.

Transformative-oriented action in educational processes allows young people to recognize how the needs of consumers are manipulated in the interest of multinational companies and transnational corporations focused on maintaining growth and ever more consumption. So thoughts need to be turned to reduced consumption, reusing, repairing, repurposing, up-cyling in addition to the almost self-evident habit of recycling. I favor the idea of student companies who work according to the design thinking method. This method has great similarities to project oriented methods known from the progressive education period, linked to educationalists like John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick . Like in educational projects (Typhus project) the Design Thinking method responds to a need of the social environment using interdisciplinary, cooperative and creative methods. Student companies could align in this way with regional economic cycles maybe creating an alternative to the neo-liberal economic growth agenda. They could contribute to ‘de-growth. Given the political debates about growth, economic growth of the ‘business as usual’ genre could be easily compared with a malignant tumor cell that proliferates also for the sake of growth. The following key notions would complement strongly with a curriculum for climate change education: peer-to-peer consumerism including tool sharing, co-housing, peer-to-peer rental, social car-sharing or social (ethical) banking. These ideas should be part of any social studies and/or economics school curriculum.

Any visitor entering the Berlin Humboldt University met him on the stairs, i.e. Karl Marx with a quote from his manifesto: ‘The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Change today does not happen by revolutions on the road, but through a revolution in social relations towards a bottom-up society. This is about conviviality within the meaning of Ivan Illich, the state of a peaceful, creative and community life of a collectively self-managed manner. The term thus represents a just and participatory way in a society beyond growth. Where else but in school, can young people learn to shape our planet so that – even after decades of ill-use – they don´t need to flee to extragalactic worlds?


David Selby & Hanns-Fred Rathenow,  (2003).  Globales Lernen: Praxishandbuch fuer die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.

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