View from the Linden Barn 2

June 20, 2013


The Future We Want?

Oriental Poppy, Linden Barn, June 2013

In a recently published number of the Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, the editor asks whether the Rio+20 Conference held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012 has enabled education to edge ‘closer to being mainstreamed’ within sustainability and development discourse (1). He makes a commendable effort to argue in the affirmative by pointing out that the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, notes that sustainability can be achieved ‘including through education’, that the call for civil society and youth participation in achieving sustainability depends on knowledge sharing and capacity building, and that the document reaffirms the importance of access to education in achieving development goals (2).

The view that Rio+20 marks a milestone in education becoming central to forging a desired-for sustainable future is belied on two counts.

First, there are sub-textual messages arising out of where discussion of education is placed in The Future We Want text as well as the space given over to that discussion.  The section on education comes very late in the document and is afforded seven paragraphs in all (paras.229-235).  It comes after, for instance, sections on health and population with twenty paragraphs (paras.138-57), oceans and seas with twenty-three paragraphs (paras.158-80), and chemicals and waste with eleven paragraphs (paras.213-23).

Second, there is a decidedly jaded, lukewarm, even platitudinous feel to the paragraphs on education.  Paragraph 229 reaffirms the right to education and that access to quality education is essential.  Paragraph 230 recognizes that ‘younger generations are the custodians of the future’ and resolves ‘to improve the capacity of our education systems to prepare people to pursue sustainable development’ through enhanced teacher training, sustainability curricula, youth training programs, and more effective use of information and communications technologies.  Paragraph 231 encourages Member States to ‘promote sustainable development awareness among youth’.  Paragraph 232 emphasizes the importance of international cooperation in improving access to education and investment in infrastructure.  Paragraph 233 resolves to ‘integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development’ (an unintended comment, perhaps, on the overall patchy record of practical engagement during DESD).  Paragraph 234 strongly encourages educational institutions to adopt ‘good practice in sustainability management’ with the active involvement of all the campus community; also the teaching of sustainable development across disciplines.  Paragraph 235 underscores the importance of supporting higher education institutions in sustainable development research, training and innovation, including program innovation.

It is as though all the buzz and excitement, leading-edge thinking and innovation of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development had, for the most part, never happened!  Some might argue that rounded aspirations, reaffirmations and endorsements more or less provide an umbrella of legitimacy for ongoing innovation but there was surely a case for more fine detail in terms of policy development, values frameworks, horizontal and vertical curriculum integration, localization and contextualization of curriculum, the need for pedagogical diversity, viable forms of sustainability-appropriate assessment, learning outcomes, fit-for-purpose forms of teacher education, monitoring and evaluation processes.  Other sections - such as those mentioned above - are significantly richer in fine detail.  We learn about marine pollution, alien invasive species, sea level rise, coastal erosion and marine ecosystems in the section on oceans and seas (paras.164-6) but nothing about the necessary responses to climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation within formal, non-formal and informal learning settings in the seven paragraphs devoted to education.

Reinforcing this sense of disappointment is the failure of the disaster risk reduction and climate change sections (respectively paras.186-9 and 190-2) of the document to directly flag up their educational dimensions.  While there is a reaffirmation of commitment to the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (para.186), which included ‘knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety’ as an action priority (3), reference to education’s role in resilience building is oblique: ‘We further recognize the importance of comprehensive hazard and risk assessment, and knowledge- and information-sharing’ (para.187).  While reaffirming that ‘climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time’ (para.190), there is no reference to education picking up that challenge and to the role it can and should play in fostering climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Geranium  x magnificum

Standing back from education and looking at The Future We Want as a whole, we find a significant deficit in vision and imagination in that a document purporting to outline a desired future for the twenty-first century has so readily and uncritically embraced the neo-liberal economic growth agenda.

In the text the phrase ‘economic growth’ appears twenty times, ‘sustained economic growth’ six times, while ‘sustainable development through economic growth’ and ‘corporate sustainability’ appear once each.  On other occasions sustained growth is linked with equity and inclusivity: ‘sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth’ (six mentions); ‘sustained and inclusive economic growth' (three mentions); ‘sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth’ (one mention); ‘inclusive growth’ (one mention).  There is one reference to ‘sustainable development through economic growth’.

It might have been anticipated that references to ‘green economy’ would restore the balance by opening up the issue of how economic growth and the global marketplace have had deleterious economic, environmental, social and cultural effects worldwide; also that the opportunity would be seized upon to sketch in alternatives to the growth economy.  Not so.  The discussion of green economy is set, not unproblematically, within the ‘context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’.  The green economy is seen as ‘one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development’ that ‘could provide options for policymaking’ but, it is added, it ‘should not be a rigid set of rules’ in that ‘there are different approaches, visions, models and tools available to each country’ (para.56).  The latter point is well taken but the whole discussion of green economy is enervated by the failure to outline key distinguishing features and guiding principles.  The reader seeking alternatives to the growth model is left bewildered as to whether the green economy ‘represents the paradigm shift they had been hoping for’ (4). Given the vagueness and also the references elsewhere to the corporate sector greening itself and contributing to the wider sustainability process (paras.46-7), green economy in the document becomes more or less ‘just Global Capitalism dressed in another colour’ (5).  ‘Without real information or concrete examples of what this new economy would look like, who would drive it and how it would be financed, many worry that the current economic system will remain, with the transnational corporations holding much of the power – just with “greener” job titles’ (6).

We have argued elsewhere that the growth economy and its economic, environmental, social and cultural impacts be subjected to critical scrutiny in learning programs and that visionary and concrete elaborations of slow-growth, no-growth and steady state economic thinking be reviewed as students prepare for the future (7). It would be a good start if the international community took the lead by treating alternative economic visions seriously, shaking off the ‘no alternatives to growth’ fetishism straitjacketing the political and economic establishment.  As a minimal requirement, visions of the ‘future we want’ need to include mechanisms, arenas and processes, local through global, enabling full and thoroughgoing debate and discussion about the sustainability viability of growth-focused and alternative models for twenty-first century wellbeing.  The Future We Want is, at best, cosmetic in this regard falling far short of offering urgently needed transformative vision.

- By David Selby

Candelabra Primulas

(1)    Sarabjai, K.V. (2012). ‘Rio+20: Has education edged closer to being mainstreamed?’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 6(2), 167-70.
(2)    Ibid. 167-8.  The data marshaled in support of the argument is taken from The Future We Want, paragraphs 11, 43-4, 50-1, 229-244.  https://rio20.un.org/sites/rio20.un.org/files/a-conf.216l-1_english.pdf
(3)    UNISDR. (2007). Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. Geneva: UNISDR.  http://www.unisdr.org/we/coordinate/hfa
(4)    Smith, T. & Parnell, J.  Rio+20: Five climate change ideas that didn’t make the Earth Summit outcome.  http://www.rtcc.org/rio20-five-climate-change-ideas-that-didnt-make-the-earth-summit-outcome/
(5)    Ibid.
(6)    Ibid.
(7)    See, for instance: Selby, D & Kagawa, F.  (2011).  ‘Unleashing blessed unrest as the heating happens’, Green Teacher, 94, 3-15; Selby, D. & Kagawa, F. (2011).  ‘Development Education and Education for Sustainable Development: Are They Striking a Faustian Bargain?’, Policy & Practice. A Development Education Review, 12, Spring, 15-31. http://www.developmenteducationreview.com/issue12-focus3?page=show




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