Getting Real About Educating for Sustainability in Universities

As Professor Ross Garnaut suggested in his authoritative 2011 Climate Change Review for the Australian Government, climate change is a “diabolical public policy problem” because it impacts on every aspect of our economy and society.  The urgency of the climate change mitigation and adaptation project highlights the critical importance of sustainability education.  One of the key challenges of sustainability education is the problem of how to incorporate sustainability thinking and climate change literacy into discipline-specific curricula.

I explored this question with a number of sustainability educators from around the country at a workshop on Education for Sustainability in the Tertiary Sector at La Trobe University on 20th February 2014.  Thank you to Dr Colin Hocking for organising the event, Prof Geoff Scott for his entertaining keynote address, and the other participants, who provided a lively and stimulating discussion.

The workshop discussions highlighted a number of obstacles to the further embedding of sustainability principles in higher education, which I will briefly distil here.  I am receptive to all reasoned critical feedback and welcome the opportunity to discuss the themes of this posting with anyone interested in education for sustainability.

What is sustainability?

The amorphous conceptual understanding and interpretation of sustainability is a major obstacle.  Many public policy initiatives are predicated on the idea that sustainability occurs at the intersection of environment, society and economy, as if those systems are separate entities.  This is the kind of ridiculous thinking from which green-wash is born.  Unfortunately, this interpretation of sustainability is symptomatic of a problematic ontology in which humans are located as separate entities from the natural world, and ontology that underpins the ideologies of limitless growth to which many of our politicians, financiers, captains of industry and the educational institutions that support them are captive.

The ontologically flawed conception of sustainability.

It is more appropriate to consider environment, society and economy as nested systems.  Economies are social constructions of human societies, which are themselves dependent on the natural environment in which they exist.  As the natural world changes, so inevitably must the human systems nested within it.  There is an urgent need for all of us to face the inescapable reality that we live on a finite planet.  All our material wealth, all of the goods we consume, is made with resources that have been extracted from the Earth.  Our economic systems are social constructions of human societies, which are themselves nested and inter-dependent components of the natural world.  There are limits to the amount of resources we can extract from the Earth and the amount of waste we can pollute, beyond which the biological processes of the planet and therefore human societies that depend on them come under threat.  Consequently, human societies, along with the economies that facilitate the exchange of goods and services within and between them, can only grow to the extent that the physical limits of the natural world will allow.

Environment, society and economy as nested systems.
Environment, society and economy as nested systems.

I favour definitions of sustainability like this one articulated by American ecological economist Erick Zencey: “Something is sustainable if it doesn’t undercut it pre-conditions for existence,” or this definition by Melbourne permaculturist and energy expert Adam Grubb: “A system is sustainable if it returns more energy than is invested into it, without depleting non-renewable resources.”[1]  These definitions acknowledge the interdependence of human systems with the natural environment in which they exist, are energy-literate and cognisant of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Old economy vs new economy

We stand today straddling the juncture between two different worlds.  We stand with one foot in a dying paradigm, in a global capitalist economy largely powered by fossil fuel energy and underpinned by ideologies of rapacious neoliberal economics, the cancerous ideal of perpetual economic growth and ontological separation from everything non-human.  Our other foot stands in an emerging yet undefined post-carbon society based on sustainable existence within the natural world on which we are entirely dependent.  The perpetuation of human civilisation and possibly even the survival of the species itself depend on the timely success of the transition from the former to the latter.

As battles over carbon pricing and climate change policy attest, Australian politics has been unavoidably subsumed within the vortex of the transformation, as has the university sector, given its role as the training ground for Australia’s future economic elites and technocratic middle class.  This raises obvious questions: How can modern universities survive while they remain symbiant organisms so comprehensively entwined with the dying old economy?  Are universities capable of rebirth into institutions with something to contribute to the emerging post-fossil fuel paradigm?  The present model of higher education in Australia is not sustainable.  If the sector can evolve with the times, it has a future.  If not, it will eat itself and collapse.

Organisational structure: Kicking own goals

The seminal report on education for sustainability in Australian higher education—Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Educationargues…

“EfS leaders must work across disciplinary ‘silos’, divisions and organisational ‘tribes’ to integrate the efforts of a wide variety of players at every level from academia, operations and administration, and help reshape unsupportive or unaligned systems, structures, funding mechanisms, leadership roles and performance indicators.”[2] 

I agree that this is an important objective, but we must be realistic about the difficulties.  It is enormously challenging to get important decision-makers in universities to embrace and embed sustainability thinking who have not also embraced the ontological commitment to human inter-dependence with the natural world that is inherent to true sustainability.  Many of the arguments that sustainability champions must make business cases that are based in the ontological logic of old economy.

The breaking down of disciplinary silos seems to be a perpetual managerial KPI.  It is perpetual because it is unavoidable; in practice, universities are an aggregation of entities competing with each other for resources, under the unifying banner of a brand name.  Institutional silos are inevitable, following the contours of management and financing lines of responsibility.  These are more easily overcome in research collaboration, but more difficult in the teaching sphere where there is competition for equivalent full-time student load (EFTSL) between programs.  I have been involved in the teaching of cross-faculty, multi-campus subjects which have successfully bridged the institutional divide between competing faculties and programs, but I would be remiss to under-emphasise the practical difficulties encountered in this exercise in disciplinary silo circumvention.

The contracting university sector

The current funding model for higher education in Australia is not sustainable.  Successive national governments have under-invested in the sector over a number of decades, which has driven an increasing reliance on revenue from full fee paying overseas students.  Simultaneously (and paradoxically), these revenue streams have been eroded by the global financial crisis and the mining boom (through a higher Australian dollar, making Australia a less attractive study destination for overseas students).  Austerity across the sector is now the name of the game, along with increasing calls from some corners to make domestic students pay full fees for their higher education.  The mass student market appears to have plateaued, which is likely to accelerate the stresses effecting universities in the coming years.  Enrolment growth, if and when possible, will be relative rather than absolute.

Despite this reality, many institutions suffer under the outrageous growth forecasts of senior management figures, based on either poor data, over-confidence in the power of marketing, or a fundamental misreading of sectoral pressures.  The funding squeeze has been accompanied by a crisis in university governance whereby managerial elites have attempted to adapt to this environment by increasing investment into non-productive activities to boost the market appeal of courses, at the expense of core functions in teaching and research.  An operational model weighted so heavily toward non-value adding activities in the current period of austerity is doomed to fail.

In this context, sustainability initiatives are too often couched within strategic plans that are essentially plans for managed institutional contraction.  Sustainability initiatives consequently become toxic by association and are too easily (and often correctly) dismissed as green-wash.  Top-down imposition of these initiatives generates resistance from university staff fatigued by a sense of permanent revolution of institutional change and curriculum reform initiatives.[3]  Additionally, sustainability initiatives are often articulated within “work ready” marketing schemes which aim to foster the skills and employment culture for technocrats in the old economy.  These skills and cultural traits are not necessarily relevant to the new economy.

Sustainability-illiterate political elites

Because of its reliance on public funding, the university sector is beholden to the policy preferences and ideological proclivities of the government of the day.  Unfortunately, politicians of both sides of politics in Australia have demonstrated illiteracy in sustainability principles, founded upon a fundamental misunderstanding of energy systems and ecology, and in some cases a disdain for science itself.  It is particularly dispiriting for sustainability educators to see the current government engaged in what can only be described as a counter-revolution against sustainability through its dismantling of environmental institutions, repeal of legal environmental protections and recalcitrant position in international institutions devoted to environmental protection.  Our political elites embody the flawed ontology of the old economy.  Unfortunately, this is a difficult political environment in which to advance the agenda for more holistic sustainability education in the university sector.

Protest banner at National Climate Action Day, November 2013.
Protest banner at National Climate Action Day, 17 November 2013.

Navigating around the obstacles

I do not want to portray these obstacles as insurmountable.  Indeed if they were, sustainability educators should quit immediately, lie on the floor in the foetal position and wait for the collapse of human civilisation.  Nonetheless, we need to be realistic about the difficulties involved in education for sustainability, be cognisant of the institutional nodes at which we can exert the most leverage, and be aware that the paths of least resistance to institutional change in universities may flow outside of the institutions themselves.

Academics could do more, and have a responsibility to, engage directly with the community through grassroots engagement.  Why might this be a fruitful strategy?  University managers (sometimes) pay close attention to the preferences of their client base in the student market.  If academics can influence the preferences of this client base through sustainability-related community outreach, and in the process influence community attitudes more broadly, reactive education providers are more likely support sustainability-based curriculum changes because of their sensitivity to market preferences.

The same logic hold true of the political process.  The legislative and executive arms of our representative democracy are reactive institutions that are (theoretically, if not always in practice) beholden to the preferences of their constituencies.  Sustainability-conscious academics can play a leading role in shaping those preferences.

To do this, academics need to operate to a greater degree outside of the insular and ritualistic channels of academic knowledge transmission (peer-reviewed journals, grant applications etc) to liaise more directly with ordinary people.  This can be done through direct participation and/or expertise sharing with community groups, publicity of research findings through popular media, and full utilisation of social media platforms to reach audiences beyond the intellectual elite.  As I said none-too-eloquently during the workshop, “sometimes academia has its head up its own arse”; we need to talk to ourselves less and reach out to the community more.

I am not putting forward any of these suggestions as a panacea for the obstacles we face.  Education for sustainability is a long-term social project and as such must be established upon a foundation of strong grassroots action, as all great social movements are.

Further Information:

Learning and Teaching for Sustainability.

Scott, Geoff, Daniella Tilbury, Leith Sharp, and Elizabeth Deane. Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education—Final Report. University of Western Sydney.

Habib, Ben. The Whitehaven Coal Hoax: Climate Change, Liberal Democracy and the Drawbacks of 19th Century Ideology. 16 January 2013.

Habib, Ben. Making Climate Action Happen, Part III — Scrutinising Our Underlying Beliefs. 15 February 2011.

Habib, Ben. Making Climate Change Happen, Part IV — The Power of Being the Change You Want to See in the World. 24 February 2011.

[1] Cited from Adam Grubb’s presentation in the CERES Permaculture Design Course, CERES (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies) Environment Park, Brunswick, 25 February 2014.

[2] Scott, Geoff, Daniella Tilbury, Leith Sharp, and Elizabeth Deane. Turnaround Leadership for Sustainability in Higher Education—Final Report. University of Western Sydney,, p. 10.

[3] Hil, Richard. Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012.



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