Teaching Sustainability: Moral Imperatives and Psychotherapy

Peter Wood

An NAS member brought to our attention a free UK-based webinar on sustainability education which took place on January 27. The speakers were three authors of sustainability education books published by Earthscan, the host of the webinar. 

Two attendees—an Argus volunteer whom we’ll call William Augustine, and the environmental manager of a large university in the South whom we’ll call Matt Greene—agreed to report on their observations. We summarize Augustine and Greene’s observations and draw some conclusions of our own.

William Augustine (in his own words):

Last week, I had the opportunity to experience a real-time webinar presentation on sustainability education hosted by Earthscan (it’s available for replay here). The point of the webinar was to present “innovative ideas and strategies for embedding sustainability in curricula and professional development, and in teaching and learning practices” and to “look at the response of Higher Education & Training to the sustainability agenda.” 

The host reported that about 250 people were attending the webinar. 

The first speaker was Stephen Sterling, Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the University of Plymouth. Dr. Sterling (his Ph.D. is in Education and Sustainability from the University of Bath) provided the usual language of 

1) imperatives;
2) myths;
3) moralism.

That is, he first described Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as “the kinds of education, teaching, and learning that appear to be required” in order to ensure “social, economic and ecological wellbeing, now and into the future.” (Boldface added.)

In case listeners weren’t up to speed on what sustainability is and is supposed to be, Sterling then turned to “misconceptions.” To use his italics, ESD is not “a separate subject or discipline,” nor is it “just about the ‘environment.’” (We have seen this assertion many times before.) Nor is it “separate from and unrelated to other H[igher] E[education] agendas such as employability, enterprise and internationalisation.”

That is, ESD is an imperative, and it is for everyone. I know this was a short webinar, so it wouldn’t be fair to criticize Sterling for taking these points as given and without argument. I presume he would defend them in a different context.

Sterling soon turned to a quotation from Second Nature:

Higher education institutions bear a profound moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge, skills and values needed to create a just and sustainable future.” (Boldface added.)

But what is justice? Again the meaning of the term is taken for granted. Are colleges today really not interested in justice, or just not sustainability’s particular agenda of justice? Indeed, Sterling’s next line suggests the problem, again quoting Second Nature: “the change sought is a deep cultural shift.” The implication is that today’s morality, and just about all past morality, have produced deep cultural problems that the new sustainability morality of justice can begin to solve.

Why would a university start with all the moral answers instead of the moral questions? Are students really supposed to think for themselves--but only if they end up with the "right" morals in order to create a just and sustainable future?

Sterling apparently thinks so. ESD “Is an overarching agenda and challenges existing policy and practice, involving organisational change,” and it “requires [a] holistic and transformative approach.” It “also encompasses social relations, justice, ethics, economic viability etc.”

Wow, where have the universities been all these years, teaching the wrong things about social relations, justice, ethics, and economics, etc.?

It turns out the universities have been all wrong all this time. One of the next slides explains why, quoting from the book Integrating Concepts of Sustainability into Education for Agriculture and Rural Development. Teaching ESD actually “requires the transformation of mental models,” and programming [that transformation]“requires a rethinking of teaching and learning,” yet there is “no universal blueprint for educational change towards sustainability.” (Italics in original slide.)

A knotty problem, indeed. That is, we know all of this is required, but we don’t know how to get there.

Sterling helps us get where we are required to go via a number of additional binaries, catchphrases, and false stereotypes about traditional education. The change we need, he says, is from “fixed knowledge” to “provisional knowledge,” from “abstract knowledge” to “real world knowledge,” and so on.

Following an explanation of how some of these ideas have been working at Plymouth, Sterling concluded with a quotation from a publication called Leadership Skills for a Sustainable Economy, emphasizing just how urgently we need ESD:

“Developing the leadership skills we need for the transition to a sustainable economy is both urgent and critical to our future economic success – as well as to our social and environmental well-being.” (Boldface added.)

* * * 

One purpose of the webinar was to teach about “innovative approaches – that are working – for embedding sustainability in curricula.” Our second observer, Matt Greene, remarked that the word “embedding” resembles the language of religious indoctrination. The webinar advertised that participants would learn about “a 'whole of institution' strategy for rapid curriculum renewal,” which registered with Greene as a kind of “voraciousness.” The webinar’s online announcement also promised that participants would “learn techniques to help you align your core values with working and living sustainably,” which seemed to Greene to reverse the appropriate order of things.

Augustine and Greene were both struck by the third lecturer, Paul Murray, who counseled the participants to use emotional imagery to spur people to action. Murray is an associate professor in sustainable construction education and sustainability at the University of Plymouth, and the author of The Sustainable Self: A Personal Approach to Sustainability Education.

To influence people to behave sustainably, Murray said, use “neuro-linguistic programming,” NLP.   NLP is a fringe movement in psychotherapy that has been by and large rejected by the scientific community. But Murray described it as “a powerful tool” that “immediately evokes feelings and attitudes.” Proponents of NLP often claim that it offers a quick way to change people’s attitudes, in contrast to more conventional forms of psychotherapy. Murray explained that NLP techniques could make people “self-challenge” their own responses, judgments and attitudes. Murray’s example was a picture of a homeless man, head bowed, kneeling on the sidewalk behind his “Please help / God bless” sign.

What does homelessness have to do with sustainability? The idea in this case seemed to be to use the picture to trigger an emotional response that could sufficiently unsettle the viewer to make him susceptible to appeals on unrelated subjects, such as “sustainable living.” Augustine said that Murray “was intentionally playing on people's emotions: show a homeless man and then link up these feelings with the sustainability agenda as the solution.” Greene called the practice “psycho-social manipulation techniques.” Murray acknowledged that such use of imagery was controversial. 

Murray summed up his approach with the slogan, “Help individuals think and feel their way toward sustainability,” which Greene said appeared to be “a secular replacement for religious evangelism and education.”

In summary, wrote Greene:

The webinar offered few particulars. Most of the time was focused on social and personal reprogramming / behavior change based on no technical foundation. This is surprising since some of the participants are engineers. The lecturers and participants seem to be focused on effecting change (i.e., social activism), almost irrespective of the direction it is leading. 

Our Thoughts

These reports surprised us in several ways. We’ve been observing the higher education side of the sustainability movement for over three years and we supposed that we had already seen most of its characteristics. The webinar on sustainability education, however, presented two novelties: the insistence that sustainability isn’t and doesn’t aspire to be a distinct branch of knowledge, and the effort to advance the sustainability movement by means of persuasive techniques drawn from unconventional psychotherapy. 

Dr. Sterling’s expansive idea about sustainability as moral imperative that rightly inhabits every aspect of higher education has been enunciated by others, such as the folks at the activist group Second Nature, but seldom with Dr. Sterling’s comprehensiveness. Many in the sustainability movement, at least in the U.S., are intent on establishing the field as having a firm scientific footing and the potential to be turned into a discrete curriculum such as might support degree programs. But if Dr. Sterling’s version prevails, sustainability will be everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. 

Professor Murray, whose title suggests that he is some kind of engineer (“sustainable construction”), comes across to us as an even stronger opponent of careful, rational inquiry than Dr. Sterling. Professor Murray in effect advocates treating those who do not (yet) endorse the sustainability movement as people in need of psychotherapy. He tops this by proposing a form of psychotherapy that is grossly manipulative. 

Does the Earthscan webinar represent the state of the art in sustainability promotion? If so, we might have to conclude the movement is nearing its end. These are manifestly silly ideas that few real scholars would take seriously. But then we are brought up short by the claim that 250 people sat through this webinar, and only two of them (to our knowledge) were skeptics. 

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