Introducing SF Associate Member, Sue McGregor, Canada

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

For over 40 years I have been a home economist, first teaching in public school for five years and then 30 years at university. Home economics uses an interdisciplinary, integrated, holistic approach to practice, grounded in systems and human ecosystemic thinking. From this perspective, I have taught graduate level courses on global education and consumer citizenship education for nearly 15 years. In these courses, I started out using David Selby and Graham Pike’s groundbreaking books on global education – including Global Teacher, Global Learner (1) - because they are grounded in the holistic, integrated paradigm.

The turning point in my personal journey towards environmental and sustainability education was my fortuitous exposure to David Selby’s 1999 article in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education titled ‘Global Education: Towards a quantum model of environmental education’ (2). This happened around the same time that I discovered David Korten’s work on mindful, life-oriented markets (3), Margaret Wheatley’s leadership understood from the new sciences(4), Ken Wilber’s integral theory (5)  and Basarab Nicloescu’s approach to transdisciplinarity (6). All of these vanguard ideas, including Selby’s approach, draw on the new sciences of chaos theory, quantum physics, living systems theory and complex adaptive systems theory. The convergence of these ideas truly reshaped my approach to teaching global education, and education for sustainable development.

David Selby’s concept of sustainable contraction continues to inspire and intellectually stimulate my philosophy and pedagogy. He calls for a focus on Gaia, denizens (as much as citizens), a respect for fear and despair balanced with hope and he urges us to educate for ephemerality, elusiveness and ineffability. Another key milestone was my exposure to Arjen Wals’ 2010 speech when he became the UNESCO ESD Chair at Wageningen University (Message in a Bottle: Learning our way out of unsustainability) (7). These and other initiatives help turn people’s thinking on its head.

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

I like that this phenomenon has been framed as a landscape. This word, this metaphor, has several meanings that informed my thoughts on this question. A landscape is all of the visible features of an area that can be seen from a visual scan. Landscape is also a verb, referring to activities taken to change or improve the appearance of an area by changing its contours, decorative elements et cetera. Landscape can also refer to distinctive features of a sphere of intellectual activity, like the ‘political landscape’ or in this case the ‘sustainable education landscape’.

I recently taught a course on education for sustainable development (ESD) intentionally exposing graduate students (mainly educators) to alternative, vanguard approaches to ESD. I prefaced the preparation of this course by familiarizing myself with the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development initiative (philosophy, pedagogy). The UN message about ESD was embraced at the global level, but was not accepted by everyone. Through my analysis of mainstream initiatives for ESD, and the powerful critiques tendered by David Selby, Arjen Wals, Bob Jickling, and Bob Giddings (plus others), I shifted paradigms myself again and can now readily envision a new landscape for education for a sustainable future if these theoretical and pedagogical pioneers preservere and if the political will emerges. A powerful paradigm shift has to occur if we ever want to see a different landscape, a different sphere of intellectual activity pursuant of a sustainable future.

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

If people educating for sustainable future continue to embrace the UN thinking on ESD, we are destined for a future where our youth will continue to be taught the weak model of sustainable development. Given the plight faced by humanity, educators must let go of the weak models in favour of approaches grounded in the new sciences. In particular, I am very engaged with integral thinking, complex adaptive systems thinking and transdisciplinarity and, more recently, generative thinking. I can see an exciting synergy between these approaches and emergent, vanguard, alternative approaches to dealing with the sustainability of the future. Notice that I no longer use the term ‘education for sustainable development’ because I have embraced the idea that a focus on the future cannot be narrowed to a focus on growth and development. It must be focused on sustaining the future by re-imagining our relationship with each other and the planet. A complex world demands complex, emergent, outside the box thinking, better to envision new horizons and beacons of hope and tenacity for the common good.

Q. How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?

I hope SF can continue to find a space for the transdisciplinarity approach to sustainable frontiers. SF is so named because its focus is the frontier (Latin for ‘front’). Frontiers are considered to be borders separating two entities, and especially the extreme limits of these borders beyond which lies the unknown. Frontiers can also refer to the extreme limit of one’s understanding or achievement in a particular area, in this case, the extreme limits required for education for a sustainable future. By naming their organization Sustainable Frontiers, Selby purposefully challenged us to consider what lies beyond the familiar boundaries of sustainability, pushing our thinking into unknown areas. Working near, on or beyond frontiers (trans) is the sole intent of transdisciplinarity (TD). TD is about solving the wicked, messy, vicious problems of the world (including unsustainability) by working at the boundaries between university disciplines and civil society. Using inclusive logic, appreciating that there are many levels of reality (perspectives and world views) across which information and consciousness flows, those solving wicked problems generate emergent, complex knowledge that is open, alive and always in-formation. The TD approach assumes the space between universities and civil society is alive and in flux rather than dead and empty. The best solutions to society’s messy problems happen in this dynamic space, in the unknown, extreme areas where disciplines and civil society intersect - on the frontier.

(1) Graham Pike & David Selby. (1988). Global Teacher, Global Learner. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

(2) David Selby.  (1999). Global Education: Towards a Quantum Model of Environmental Education.  Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 125-41.

(3) For a summary of Korten’s thinking, see Mindful Markets and Life after Capitalism, Business, May/June 1999, 21(3), 6.  To read more, see: David Korten.  (1999). The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism.  West Hartford, Conn: Kumarian.

(4) Margeret Wheatley.  (1992).  Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.  Margaret Wheatley.  (1999).  Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

(5)  Ken Wilber.  (2001).  A Theory of Everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. Berkeley CA: Shambhala.

(6)  See, for instance: Basarab Nicolescu.  (2008). (Ed.)  Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice.  Creskell NJ: Hampton Press.


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