The Green Graduate

The Green Graduate

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The challenge: every student graduates able to think and act as a sustainable practitioner, whatever their field.

This is the goal Otago Polytechnic set itself and, as one of the main proponents, Samuel Mann became the go-to guy. Here he takes the reader on that journey and in doing so provides the framework for making sustainability a core competency for graduates across every kind of tertiary education and training. The book will give practitioners the tools to integrate sustainability into their programmes in ways that work for them and are directly relevant to their discipline. The book also tackles common barriers to sustainability education, from “Do we need to tackle this right now?”’ to “Is it even our problem?”

From: The Green Graduate, by Samuel Mann

Chapter Three: Education for sustainability

If you are reading this book in the hope of becoming a convert to sustainability then you are reading the wrong book. In writing this book I have made the conscious decision not to try to convince people of sustainability’s worth. This is on the basis that the choir doesn’t need preaching to and disbelievers aren’t listening anyway. I would rather present the action-based sustainable practitioner as a sensible approach for the future of any discipline. But (and to continue the religious analogy), I am increasingly realising that there is a whole bunch of people who don’t fit into either the choir or the disbeliever category. I have had several experiences of someone coming up at the end of a development session and saying, “Yes, I get that, but what has it got to do with my teaching?” This chapter is for those people.

Sustainability has a long history. So does unsustainability. Diamond (2005) analyses the factors behind the collapse of societies, both ancient and modern, and finds the fundamental relationship is the one between a society and its climate and geography, resources and neighbours. Societies fail, he concludes when they mismanage the ecosystem—soil, trees and water. This observation of the close relationship between people and the environment is not new. In 1864 George Marsh wrote Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. In it he wrote, “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste” (p. 43).

The legal term usufruct is appropriate; it refers to the right to use and benefit from a resource, but not to damage or alienate it. Before Marsh, people knew that humans modify the natural world by cutting forests, draining swamps and depleting wildlife, but these actions were seen as progress. Marsh set out to show the negative side of such human impacts:

The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence, and of like duration with that through which traces of that crime and that improvidence extend, would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species. (p. 43)

At about the same time, John Ruskin observed that the same economic system that creates glittering wealth also spawns what he called “illth”—poverty, pollution, despair, illness. It makes life comfortable for some, but it does so at considerable discomfort to others. This era of intense, irreversible human influence on the Earth’s systems has been named the “Anthropocene”, and has been defined as that time which began in the early 1800s with the onset of industrialisation (Crutzen, 2002, 2005; Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007).

The concept of sustainability has deep roots. The Age of Discovery, the Wars of Religion and the mercantile expansions of the 15th and 16th centuries saw a massive growth in ship building across Europe. This resulted in rapid exploitation of domestic natural resources, especially forest resources, which led to widespread shortages of wood and an acute political problem. Hanns Carl von Carlowitz’s 1713 Silvicultura Oeconomica (as cited in McDonald & Lassoie, 1996) is considered to be the first text to take a sustainability approach. In it, von Carlowitz expresses the view that logging and reforestation have to be in balance. Heinrich von Cotta’s Anweisung zum Waldbau (1817/2000) is another cornerstone of sustainability. In it he exposes the essential fallacy of forestry—that human intervention improves forests:

Here and there we admire still the giant oaks and firs, which grew up without any care, while we are perfectly persuaded that we shall never in the same places be able, with any art or care, to reproduce similar trees. (von Cotta, p. 27)

Von Cotta also introduced some of the core planks of sustainability: answers are complicated by time and space, and by human perception. Variation in systems means that “what many declare good or bad, proves, good or bad only in certain places”. He paraphrases Wieland’s earlier (1768) statement that “they cannot see the forest for the trees” (as cited in Bartlett, 1980, p. 380) to introduce issues of perceptions of scale. He also suggested humility, both as a society and on a professional level, and that foresters should not assume that they have perfect understanding.

In addition to highlighting mankind’s role as the cause of environmental degradation, Marsh (1864, p. 35) also offered advice on the “restoration of disturbed harmonies”. He promoted the need for a different sort of relationship between man and nature, whereby man is to become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged environment. From these early conceptions, and with boosts from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and underlined by the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972), there has been an increasing awareness that human use of the Earth is approaching a range of environmental and resource limits, and that this, rather than diminishing, is escalating at an alarming rate.

Definitions of sustainability vary widely, from a strong environmental focus:

Sustainable development—improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems (International Union for Conservation of Nature, United Nations Environment Programme & World Wildlife Fund, 1991, p. 10)

through economic approaches:

Sustainable development: The amount of consumption that can be sustained indefinitely without degrading capital stocks, including natural capital stocks (Costanza, 1991, p. 8)

to a broad global view:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 43)

A key feature of the World Commission on Environment and Development definition is its potential to integrate environmental and economic concerns, along with a concern for the wellbeing of all. In this conception, sustainable development implies greater equity and continued growth, but growth of a more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable kind.

We live in a world in which our economic and social systems are interdependent, and both of these systems are completely dependent on the ecological systems upon which all life and all social and economic activity depend. This dependence is reflected in the Strong Sustainability model (Daly, 1996). As a result, current definitions of sustainability generally include three components: environment, society and economy, along with the recognition that these three areas are intertwined (McKeown, 2002).

“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are often used interchangeably, but they do mean different things. Sustainability usually means the capacity for continuance into the long-term future. Sustainable development is the journey or means of achieving the goal of sustainability. It is easy to become negative about sustainability. To do so, however, is to miss the point. The focus of sustainability is on the solutions, not the problems.

3.1 The biggest levers

Schendler (2009, p. 19) describes the scale of the climate problem as being “so great, that to many people it is incomprehensible”. He describes how individual actions such as using canvas bags at the supermarket are necessary but inadequate, saying “we can’t afford the delusion that such individual action is enough” (p. 19). Instead, he argues that we should indeed change our light bulbs, but more important is the task of figuring out how we can help ensure that everyone on the planet changes their light bulbs too. Schendler argues:

To lessen the charges of hypocrisy that could be brought against any of us, it seems obvious that the best thing to do would be to implement even more sustainable practices—the real ones, things that really matter and drive real change. To do that you need to be clear-eyed about how you can make a real difference: you need to find your biggest lever and use it [italics added]. (2009, p. 85)

For educators, our biggest lever is our ability to positively influence the skills, values and behaviours of our graduates. This leverage extends beyond sustainability. It is, of course, why we have an education system at all. AtKisson (2008) argues that “change agents—people dedicated to promoting sustainability ideas and innovations—are needed in every field, in ever increasing numbers” (p. 307). He says:

If the job of sustainable development is to save the world, and if the engagement of increasing numbers of people is required to accomplish this enormous but possible task, then we have a duty to help as many people as possible to get involved, to help them get better at it—and to survive and thrive economically at the same time. (p. 107)

To achieve this, AtKisson argues that the special role for educators is to “prepare current and future generations for a great responsibility, directing human development towards sustainability, and beyond” (p. 307).

3.2 The role for higher education

Corcoran and Wals (2004) put the imperative for education like this:

The higher education community is called to respond to times of disastrous anthropogenic environmental crises, failing political systems, religious intolerance, and unsustainable and inequitable economic development. (p. 3)

Similarly, Cortese (1999) explains that society has granted higher education a unique role, in that it receives public and private funds in exchange for educating students and producing the knowledge that will lead to a thriving civil society. Cortese goes on to suggest that current higher education systems are largely failing to help students develop the skills and explore the values, perspectives and knowledge for the deeper learning necessary for sustainable development.

More than just missing the opportunity to prepare sustainable practitioners, several authors argue that education is complicit in un-sustainability. Corcoran and Wals (2004) have the view that “the scope and range of the negative impacts of university-educated people on the natural systems that sustain Earth are unprecedented” (p. 3). Lautensach (2004, p. 2) makes a similar point:

The fact that a large number of well-educated people continue to make decisions that are blatantly counterproductive in the present situation indicates that merely being informed about the crisis does not by itself dispose a person toward responsible behaviour.

Stephens, Hernandez, Roman, Graham and Scholz (2008) examine the role of tertiary education as a change agent. They argue that higher education has a “unique potential to catalyze and/or accelerate a societal transition toward sustainability” (p. 320). In addition to the operational level of change though curriculum, campus operations and research, they recognise higher education can have impact at the strategic and tactical levels. At the strategic level, higher education can be involved in defining and developing strategic societal visioning and setting long-term goals. Fostering and facilitating coalitions and co-operation among stakeholders are considered tactical.

All three of these levels are important in articulating the critical role of higher education in sustainability. Cortese (1999; Cortese & McDonough, 2001) has stressed the importance of articulating the future (he uses the year 2050): as professionals in our disciplines we need to examine what role we see our graduates playing in that future. As educators charged with creating those graduates, we are doubly responsible, because we have also put in place the system to get us there.

3.3 Every graduate

The new “business as usual” needs commitment across the board. This means we expect sustainable behaviour from everyone, because everyone has both a vested interest in a sustainable future and must act if we are to achieve it. The most famous metaphor in sustainability is that of Buckminster Fuller (1969). He compared the Earth to a spaceship, which has a limited set of resources and which cannot be resupplied except for energy from the mothership, Sun. Most importantly for us, he saw us all as astronauts, or, more specifically, crew, because “there are no passengers on Spaceship Earth” (Fuller, 1965, as cited in Vallero, 2005, p. 367).

This inclusiveness—the stress on everybody being involved— translates to the professionals whom we train in our institutions. Cortese (1999, p. 6) states:

Unless higher education responds quickly to ensure that all of their graduates, regardless of their fields of study, are environmentally literate, then it is unlikely that our future leaders will demonstrate the analytical thinking, the will or the compassion to adequately address complex issues such as population, climate change and social equity.

Environmental specialists alone will not help us move toward a sustainable path. A compartmentalized approach further reinforces the assumption that environmental protection should be left to environmental professionals. All humans consume resources, occupy ecosystems and produce waste. We need all professionals to carry out their lives and activities in a manner that is environmentally sound and sustainable.

3.4 The sustainable practitioner

The concept of the sustainable practitioner is fundamental to the Otago Polytechnic approach. It involves applying the lens of sustainability to a person’s work. A practitioner in this context is anyone who is working, and it applies as much to those in IT as it does to midwives, lawyers, geographers, mechanics or wildlife rangers.

In order to work through what it means to be a sustainable practitioner in any discipline, it is necessary to work through the skills, values and behaviours that are expected of that profession or trade. One way to do this is to develop a statement starting with these words: “A sustainable practitioner in [discipline] is someone who …”

This should be accompanied by a short narrative that describes the desired behaviours. The focus here is not on specific practice, but on answering the question, “Imagine a sustainable future (in 10, 20, 50 years): what is your discipline’s contribution to that sustainable future?” In describing these behaviours we must try to go beyond the trivial, the things that every worker should do (recycling office paper, walking up stairs, etc.), and get to the harder questions about the nature of the profession.

In Box 3 is an exercise to help identify the skills, behaviours and values of any discipline. Although it describes a specific role and set of issues, it could be useful to think through the equivalent situation in your own discipline.

Each department in an institution can work with its stakeholders to identify behaviours expected of their own graduates. What are the equivalent technical skills? What are the arguments for not using these skills? What responses would you offer? What is the equivalent in your discipline to the last kauri tree? Would you recognise it? You might not expect to be told to cut down the last kauri tree, but you might get told to cut down the 999th, so what is the equivalent of the 999th kauri tree, and would it matter? What say the leader of the logging gang says we need to be very productive this month: your colleague’s child needs expensive medical treatment, so yes, green is good, but not this month?

This scenario was used as part of a survey of incoming students across the entire institution. Incoming computing students were particularly strident that they would follow instructions even if a task was unsustainable. This seems at odds with the characterisation of our students as independent thinkers.

The concept of the sustainable practitioner easily translates into graduate profiles, learning outcomes, objectives and assessments. Sustainability is about context and the big picture (systems thinking, ethics, evaluating change, scientific and creative paradigms) and a few methodologies (e.g., carbon footprinting, as appropriate). At Otago Polytechnic, the participatory process of articulating the sustainable practitioner for each department has meant that very few people have said, “But I’m a [discipliner], this has nothing to do with me.” The response has been the opposite, with a surge of sustainability-related teaching and research.

We can offer a bottom line for each discipline. A sustainable practitioner will be successful when they support people and nature in their actions by:

•  enabling people to meet their own and future generations’ needs in an equitable way

•  causing no harm to nature

•  consuming resources at a rate at which nature replaces them

•  ensuring nature is not subject to materials it cannot process.

3.4.1 Relationships with the professions

The role of the disciplines is fundamental to building an understanding of sustainable practice, along with the appropriate teaching to deliver on that understanding. The relationship between the professional bodies and the educational institutions is therefore of critical importance. The development of a new business as usual in some cases requires a radical upheaval of what is expected within a discipline—and these changes may be more fundamental than adding some recycling.

As an example, consider hospitality. When Otago Polytechnic rewrote the programme document for the National Diploma in Hospitality (Management) (Level 5), it included an explicit statement describing a sustainable graduate profile:

The statement goes on to identify several specific areas of sustainability, including:

•  encouraging use of the most efficient and productive methods (e.g., reducing power outputs, using seasonal products, composting waste and reducing washable linen usage)

•  encouraging use of local products where available, including coffee roasted in New Zealand

•  demonstrating a commitment to using environmentally friendly products

•  increasing the provision of materials to students online rather than in hard copy

•  encouraging the construction of professional networks and support structures

•  encouraging ownership and responsibility by helping students to realise that social sustainability is the result of everyone’s actions, and that each of us must consider the impact we are having.

This last outcome is significant. In hospitality, until recently the response would have been, “In the kitchen you do what you are told”, and the best we could hope for was that graduates would hold on to that knowledge for a few years until they were in a supervisory position. Now, even within the acknowledged hierarchical structures of the kitchen, there is recognition of personal responsibility.

Our aim is for the sustainable practitioner to have sustainability issues at the forefront of their mind, which they use as a framework for balancing the demands put on them. This positions sustainability as a framework—not as a competing demand. How does this differ from normal professionalism? A profession is more than membership of a society; it has implicit obligations to a commitment to competence, integrity and morality, altruism and the promotion of the public good within their domain (Cruess & Cruess, 2008; Evetts, 2003; Rice & Duncan, 2006). These commitments, Cruess, Cruess and Johnston (1997) argue, form the basis of a social contract between a profession and society.

3.4.2 The role of disciplines

There are two contrasting schools of thought regarding the role of disciplines. Some see disciplines as the problem: Van Dam-Mieras (2006, p. 15) refers to a “fragmented reality” and Lautensach (2004, p. 12) criticises the “intransigent barriers between disciplines and departments”. Lautensach argues that such parochialism leads to a blinkered view, giving a “misleading assessment of risks and novel concepts, diverting our attention from the crisis” (2004, p. 12), and that it reinforces the curricular compartmentalisation of environmental education:

As long as universities insist on structuring teaching and research by means of the traditional disciplinary boundaries, they will not be able to give full attention to the most urgent problems of the day … By ignoring the limits of their discipline and getting away with it, specialists and professional organisations are implicitly, and perhaps unwittingly, communicating to the learner that such behaviour is morally acceptable despite its adverse outcomes. (p. 12)

Charpentier (1994), on the other hand, promotes the role of the disciplines in EfS. Although she advocates a campus-wide initiative, she argues that a programme of EfS should be flexible enough to adapt to each department’s knowledge area and curricular focus. Stephens et al. (2008) also see value in the disciplines, but only with the addition of interdisciplinary approaches. Only when the “fiefdoms” allow interdisciplinarity will graduates be able to cope with complex, real-world problems that cannot to be addressed adequately by a single discipline or profession.

Alex Koutsouris (2009) argues for education and research to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, and describes a continuum of collaboration from multidisciplinarity, through interdisciplinarity, to transdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity entails each discipline working in a self-contained manner but working on a common problem; interdisciplinarity is a mixing of disciplines that can lead to new questions and methodologies; and transdisciplinarity gives rise to an “overarching paradigm” that brings together divergent world views, “thus creating new boundaries for exploration and understanding” (Koutsouris, 2009, p. 17).

We have, then, a strong call for a transdisciplinary, sustainable approach to higher education. The sustainability journey is described as a “wicked problem” (Morris & Martin, 2009) because it involves complexity, uncertainty, multiple stakeholders and perspectives, competing values, lack of end points and ambiguous terminology. It means dealing with a mess that is different from the problems for which our current tools and disciplines were designed. For this, we need multidisciplinary thinking, we need transdisciplinary thinking, and we need new thinking.

The driver for EfS within each discipline is a sustainability statement for the discipline. In order to develop this, the stakeholders need to work together to produce a vision for their discipline.

3.4.3 From discipline statements to curriculum

The development of such a vision statement for a discipline can then be used to drive the development of a discipline-based sustainability curriculum, using a three-dimensional model: a cube. The cube has these axes:

•  levels on the New Zealand Qualifications Authority framework

•  sustainability curriculum descriptors

•  discipline and subdiscipline areas.

Each axis has a number of divisions, creating rows and columns of cells. For each cell in this cube, sustainability can be considered in terms of:

•  value change

•  articulation

•  strategies

•  legitimacy

•  informed decisions

•  learning outcome statements

•  exemplar teaching strategies and resources.

It is not anticipated that every cell will be filled. Rather, the model provides a “sustainability matrix” whereby a discipline can decide which sections of the cube to fill in.

3.4.4 An example from computing

The breadth of the impact of computing is what drives many of us to take sustainable computing beyond our own footprint. This is recognised in statements such as National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (NACCQ) policy, which makes sustainability a priority for computing education:

Computing and IT underpins every sector of society as a pervasive and influential discipline with global impact. The NACCQ vision is that our graduates, our practitioners and our academics understand the concepts of social, environmental and economic sustainability in order for them to evaluate, question and discuss their role in the world and to enable them to make changes where and when appropriate. (National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications, 2007, p. 5)

Several Otago Polytechnic graduates have held titles along the lines of “Editor: Web edition” for various newspapers. Others are in TV, online news sites and so on. Crucially, there has been a significant change recently: these people are making decisions about the news, prioritising and presenting; they are not just technicians for someone else. Emily Nussbaum (2009, p. 1) describes the emergence of a Web team at the New York Times:

The proposal was to create a newsroom: a group of developers-slash-journalists, or journalists-slash-developers, who would work on long-term, medium-term, short-term journalism—everything from elections to NFL penalties to kind of the stuff you see in the Word Train. This team would cut across all the desks, providing a corrective to the maddening old system, in which each innovation required months for permissions and design. The new system elevated coders into full-fledged members of the Times—deputized to collaborate with reporters and editors, not merely to serve their needs.

We have, then, a new discipline, one that combines computing and journalism to produce a hybrid with significant impact.

In this new role of developers/journalists, the potential impact is enormous. As the future of journalism becomes programming and interaction with data, and more of our graduates find themselves in this position, the question must be asked, “Are we preparing them for this responsibility?” My point is that in this new era we are going to have to work carefully to ensure the capabilities delivered by the new toys are used appropriately. I doubt that many in computing education could say that we are properly preparing graduates for roles in a new discipline such as this. It serves to highlight for me the need for our focus on sustainable practitioners.

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  • Author: Samuel Mann
  • Publisher: NZCER Press
  • Availability: Worldwide
  • Pages: 175
  • Originally published: 2011
  • Illustrations: Illustrations
  • ISBN: 9781927151181 (EPUB)
  • $9.95

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