Posted by: Jon | 07/06/2011

Envisioning Sustainability…

“As we know only too well, the impact of humanity on the planet is in danger of sacrificing the very ecosystems that provide the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the biological diversity for sustaining life. Failure to make changes will provide a planet which can no longer support our civilisation…

While progress has been made in raising awareness… we have yet to solve the systemic causes that continue to thwart meaningful, measurable change…”

Sir David King,  UK Chief Scientific Adviser 2000-2007

Envisioning Sustainability…

The first part of this article, Imagining Sustainability, discussed some of the institutional, social, and psychological barriers in Western societies that “continue to thwart meaningful measurable change”.

It also highlighted failings of population-scale information campaigns intended to motivate such change and indicated the better potential for small group and inter-personal approaches that engage deeper values-based motivation in overcoming unsustainability.

This second part considers in more detail some small group non-formal education approaches that show potential to achieve and maintain community-level shifts to sustainability.

The need for ‘ecological literacy’…

If we have only limited ability to read or write, we are clearly prevented from participating fully in modern society. Before the invention of the printing press, instinct and oral and visual articulacy perhaps enabled an illiterate aristocrat to exercise more power and influence than his highly literate scribe. But in our fast-paced technological age, verbal and numerical literacy is a prerequisite to making progress in the world.

In its widest metaphorical sense, ‘literacy’ refers to the cognitive skills we need to understand and have influence over diverse aspects of social life.  For instance, if we grow up in a rough area, we might learn to become ‘street-wise’. But to progress beyond such beginnings to achieve success in, say, a business career, we need also to become ‘literate’ in reading a balance sheet and preparing a sales pitch. Thus, our ability to participate and act effectively in any given area of society depends upon our level of ‘literacy’ in that area.

In modern Western societies, most of us live in urban or suburban settings at a considerable remove from nature. The need to become ‘ecologically literate’ in order to shift from human behaviours and systems that degrade the natural world was first proposed in the 1990s by Fritjof Capra and David Orr with the intention of placing “the well-being of the Earth” at the centre of how we educate. The ‘Centre for Ecoliteracy’  aims to promote widespread understanding of the basic principles of ecology so that protecting eco-systems might become a fundamental precept upon which our societies are organised.  Thus an ‘ecologically literate’ society would be a sustainable society with the knowledge and common values base that leads it to nurture the natural environment on which its survival depends.

A similar concept, albeit with a slightly different emphasis, has since evolved amongst some university and college teachers in the UK. Educating for ‘sustainability literacy’ focuses less on common understanding of eco-systems and how these are degraded by human activities and more on the social, cultural and economic systems that give rise to this degradation. 

In ‘The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy’ , Arran Stibbe and Heather Lunna explain ‘sustainability literacy’ as being “the skills, attitudes, competences, dispositions and values… necessary for surviving and thriving in the declining condition of the world in ways which slow down that decline as far as possible.”  Teaching of ‘sustainability literacy’ intends to enable us to “read society critically, discovering insights into the unsustainable trajectory that the society is on and the social structures that underpin this trajectory.”  And, more than this, to empower us “to engage with those social structures and contribute to the re-writing of self and society along more sustainable lines”.

The prime focus of both ‘eco-literacy’ and ‘sustainability literacy’ is on influencing mainstream education to place sustainability at the centre of what is taught in our societies instead of being, as currently, a peripheral add-on. Both approaches emphasise holistic thinking about the interactions between complex natural and human systems. Both have also been criticised as having no place in mainstream education. ‘Sustainability literacy’ in particular has been critiqued as having a moral and behavioural agenda that requires schools and universities to act as ‘social engineers’ in promoting green thinking and values; in short, to advocate rather than to educate.

But equally it can be argued that ‘schooling’ is currently directed at teaching conformity to unsustainable societal systems and that the spirit of unfettered enquiry of our universities is increasingly compromised by the agendas of corporate sponsors. In any case, it is undeniably true that our educational institutions have been notably slow to respond to the urgency of ecological crisis and, by not raising sustainability from its present marginal place to the very core of learning, teaching and research, our societies do appear to be morally failing not only our own young generations but also the welfare of a large majority of the lesser developed world. The real issue remains how to enhance ecological and sustainability ‘literacy’ amongst Western populations at large so that the moral and behavioural decisions we take for ourselves and our societies are adequately informed.

Popular education and participatory democracy…

Sweden is often regarded as a very equitable modern society, albeit with a level of social conformity and state intervention that seems unpalatable to some other more individualistically-minded nations.  But there exists an important, if little known, aspect of Swedish education that enables the populace to engage with difficult social and moral decisions in a way that does not happen in other Western societies. Where other citizens might protest, Swedes often come together to inform themselves and deliberate on the issues before responding.

In 1980, following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Sweden held a referendum to determine the future of nuclear power in the country. Prior to the referendum taking place, over 17,000 adult education ‘study circles’ discussed the issues in depth, using study materials that reflected a diversity of view points. Through what has been described as “a true national discourse”, the Swedish public became ‘literate’ in the issues and thus able to decide on them free from external propaganda or top-down pressure. Contemporary commentators say that, without this participatory process of information exchange and debate between peers, the government would have proceeded full speed ahead with nuclear development. (It had previously been expected that the Swedish people would vote strongly against nuclear power). As it turned out, the referendum results were mixed with the largest percentage voting to “develop nuclear power slowly, stopping by 2010”. (This decision was reversed in 2009, partly in the light of achieving carbon reduction targets, following a further poll in 2008 which showed 48% of Swedes now to be in favour of building new reactors).

This culturally embedded model of popular education, through which societal concerns are debated and understood according to local circumstances and without external coercion, would seem to have much to offer to participatory democracy in other Western societies. In particular, it may be an effective means of engendering wide-spread public ‘literacy’ in urgent areas of ecology and sustainability without attracting criticism for moral ‘evangelising’ or institutionalized behaviour modification.

How study circles work…

Liberal adult education (folkbildning) in Sweden is characterised by its freedom to set its own objectives. Government defines only the general purpose for the funding it provides, which includes strengthening and developing democracy, fostering community development of society and enhancing people’s ability to influence their own lives.

In addition to 150 folk high-schools across the country, there are also nine national study associations, each with local branches that between them facilitate around 300,000 study circle groups annually. Over a quarter of Swedes participate in study circle education each year.

Groups of between 5 and 20 members meet in the work-place, in private homes or in public meeting rooms to share knowledge and to build on their own interest and desire to learn. The study circle movement creates a motivation which the Swedish Adult Education Association says “exceeds that of many other forms of education…  When people whose paths would not normally cross meet in this way, new ideas and new insights inevitably come to light. A kind of cross-fertilisation occurs, and this contributes not only to the development of those present, but also to the development of society as a whole. This mix is a crucial element of a successful democracy.”

Study circle themes might range from painting or Italian, botany or how to run a democratic organization” and are focused primarily on cultural and social improvement rather than on politics. But study circles have regularly chosen to be involved in public referenda in Sweden, disseminating information and generating debate about diverse political and social issues, from EU membership to organic agriculture and the role of information technology in society. They are also highly active in integrating immigration to the country.

Tried and tested guidelines have been established for study circle facilitators who are not teachers but willing group members with appropriate training. Their principle role is to stimulate and moderate study circle learning by managing the group process, preventing domination by individuals whilst drawing out quieter members and generally keeping the circle focused on the study topic. Facilitators remain neutral and do not seek to achieve group consensus. But neither are they prohibited from contributing their own knowledge or from asking for information for their own development.

Study circles and popular education in other Western societies…

As a means of extending popular education and social inclusion, study circle movements now exist in various other countries, notably in Australia and the USA, and they have even been proposed as internet based groups in Europe (although the original model of direct interaction still seems to have most appeal). But, whilst the practice has translated well and met with considerable success in these other countries, it has not yet transferred widely. In the UK, for instance, the nearest common equivalent might be the self-directed ‘book-club’ discussion groups that have become popular in some sections of communities in recent years.

Nevertheless, though not study circles by name or intent, there are various popular education and cultural initiatives in countries other than Sweden that contain elements of the same approach which might be built upon to enhance social and sustainability education. In France, for example, social and cultural life is strongly focused around ‘la vie associative’, a system of voluntary associations that are independent and self-determining in their interests but are enshrined in national law. Many French associations, both local and national, have been set up to focus attention on environmental issues.

In the specific context of sustainability, the focus groups that form within local Transitions initiatives in different localities mirror many of the information exchange processes of study circles. The same is true of local Carbon Reduction Action Groups or of the ‘weightwatcher’ style Eco-Clubs and Eco Teams that operate in Australia, the UK and elsewhere around the world. Similarly, the discussions and information sharing that take place on on-line forums like Energy Bulletin can often unconsciously reflect the study circle outcome of broadening and extending thinking and action amongst those that participate.

But it is important to note that the success of study circles depends to a very large extent upon the skills of facilitators in making them inclusive to all and keeping them focused on the subject being studied. Poorly facilitated study groups can degenerate – as anyone with much experience of community meetings will know – into public lecture platforms for individuals or exclusive ‘therapy’ groups that are off-putting to potential new members. Therefore it is seen as crucial to maintaining participation and to achieving constructive learning outcomes that guidelines for facilitation and appropriate study materials are clearly thought through and adhered to.

Outreaching sustainability education…

A recent – and apparently unrelated – approach to sustainability education that nevertheless appears closely to mirror study circle methods, has been devised by Ro Randall, a psychotherapist in the UK (referred to in Part One of this article). Her programme of ‘Carbon Conversations’  takes place in groups of six to eight participants with two trained facilitators and was listed in 2009 by the Guardian newspaper as one of “twenty ideas that could save the world”.  Six two-hour study sessions (covering Introduction, Energy, Food, Travel, Other Purchases, Conclusion) are held at weekly or two week intervals and are supported by a course manual to provide structure for group discussions and to aid volunteer facilitators in keeping the study on track.

Although still early in their practice and not yet formally evaluated, ‘Carbon Conversations’ have now taken place in various locations across the UK with more than 70 facilitators trained to deliver the programme. A recent report on ‘Carbon Conversations’ run by Transition Edinburgh University is anecdotal, but gives some indication of their potential to motivate sustainable life-style changes.

Ro Randall’s model is grounded on well-established psychological processes that engage participants both cognitively and emotionally.

Paul Murray, a professor in Sustainable Construction at Plymouth University in England, has evolved a 30-hour sustainability training curriculum which also is firmly rooted in psychological theories of change. His recent book, ‘The Sustainable Self’, results from a series of sustainability training workshops he has developed and piloted over four years with “over 600 academics, students and industry-based professionals, as well as local and national government officers”. The book provides a manual of theory and practical training activities that educators and students can adapt and use in their own learning settings.

The programme takes learners through a five-step process of acquiring knowledge and skills designed to overcome prevalent barriers to change and to motivate sustainable behaviour through deep psychological connection with the issues. These are: 

  • ‘Awareness’  – of the need for change; of understanding that sustainability issues are complex and interconnected; and of acceptance that what we do as individuals matters.
  • ‘Motivation’  – connecting our core values with our understanding of sustainable and unsustainable behaviour so as to motivate the “deep intention” to act sustainably.
  • ‘Empowerment’ – becoming able to overcome our self-limiting beliefs and internal barriers to change.
  • ‘Knowledge’ – acquiring “the right knowledge at the right level” on which to base effective decisions.
  • ‘Skilful Means’ – the means whereby we apply our knowledge and skills, e.g., through systems thinking, futures thinking, mindfulness, critical thinking, and through inter-personal competencies of communication, cooperation and collaboration.
  • ‘Practice’ – integrating our values, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and skills to implement sustainable behaviours in practice.

Paul Murray’s training progression in some ways compares with the well-known ‘Stages of Change’ model developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  His ‘Awareness’ stage reflects their ‘pre-contemplation’ and ‘contemplation’ stages, ‘Motivation’, ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Knowledge’ are the cognitive and affective processes involved in ‘preparation’, and ‘Skilful Means’ and ‘Practice’ are the point of committing to ‘action’. Paul Murray also allows for their ‘maintenance’ and ‘relapse’ stages by acknowledging that changing to sustainable behaviours “takes time and practice, trial and error”.

What is as yet unclear in the practice of Carbon Conversations’ and of Paul Murray’s sustainability workshops is to what extent those who participate might already be pre-disposed towards sustainable behaviour and whether such approaches have been successfully implemented with people still in the ‘precontemplation’ stage of failing to recognise that a sustainability problem even exists. Clearly future evaluative study would be helpful here.

Nonetheless, the value of developmental approaches such as these that are based on psychological understanding of behaviour change is strongly borne out by recent research carried out for WWF’s ‘Identity Campaigning’ project and also by community health experience of therapeutic group processes in overcoming addictions and other problematic behaviours.

If we are to successfully convey the challenging (and, to many, distasteful) idea that our unsustainable habits and behaviours are an addiction that requires treatment, then such ‘therapy-lite’ group approaches coupled with the participant-led popular education methods of study circles may be a socially acceptable means of achieving this.

A missing ingredient…

But one strong motivational driver towards sustainability that is markedly absent in the West is that of direct experience of the consequences of unsustainability. A recent study in the UK shows that people who have experienced flooding are more concerned about climate change and more willing to act to mitigate it than those who have not. But despite the increasing frequency of local and global extreme weather (as predicted by climate science), most people in the West (apart perhaps from farmers) are still not making this connection.

As Paul Murray points out, “we will not be motivated to respond to a problem unless we feel personally connected with it”. To overcome this lack in his own training programme, he uses the indirect experience of photographs to stimulate thinking about the human and environmental issues that underlie unsustainability. Interestingly, he reports that, regardless of greatly varying social backgrounds and viewpoints of participants, ensuing discussions frequently progress beyond initially superficial reactions to elicit deeper more reflective responses based upon commonly shared values of empathy and compassion.

Without follow-up study, it is not possible to know whether such indirectly inspired empathic responses are long-lived or indeed whether they result in lasting attitudinal and behavioural changes. It may be that they are more akin to the experience of being moved by an emotional film, only to have the feelings displaced upon leaving the cinema and re-entering the hurly-burly of everyday experience.

A strong motivational factor in groupwork-based addiction therapy is that those being treated have direct experience of undesirable consequences as an incentive to change. Equally people with first hand experience of addictions are often most empathic and effective in aiding the recovery of those still struggling with them. As Bob Dylan has enigmatically noted, “Ain’t it funny how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content”.

The question of whether it is possible to motivate sustained behaviour changes without such a strong internalized incentive as direct experience of unpleasant and harmful consequences remains a moot one. But in the field of experiential education, the lack of an immediate direct experience can often be replicated by another contrived one that perhaps has potential to be more memorable than the experience of watching a film or being guided to consider issues indirectly from photographs.

For example, an adventurous experience of improvising shelter deep in the woods in challenging weather can elicit powerful consideration of what are essential sustainability needs and what are unessential desires. People who participate in such challenging exercises frequently report them to be not only instructive and emotionally engaging but also confidence building and fun. As with study circles, such experiences need to be well structured and facilitated to ensure constructive outcomes. And they need not be dramatic. A group challenge to improvise a solar shower out of junk materials or to manage for a day on a limited water ration can similarly stimulate deep thought about what we take for granted in our societies that other people lack.

I am currently working to create a range of experiential learning activities that aim to motivate sustainability, especially amongst ‘harder-to-reach’ populations, through combining the cognitive thinking skills of ‘sustainability-literacy’ and ‘eco-literacy’ with the participant-led approach of study circles and the strong psychological engagement of active experiential learning. This project intends to build on and be complementary to the inspiring educational work already taking place in Transitions groups, ‘Carbon Conversations’ and the many other small community-based sustainability initiatives across the world.

I am looking for interested collaborators and for funding to develop and pilot this project with a view to providing programmes both here at our embryonic ‘Sustainable Life Project’ in France and also peripatetically. I also have in mind an on-line and hard-copy compendium of experiential activities that add to the range of resources already provided by other sustainability initiatives and can be adapted and used in diverse settings.  If you have thoughts or comments on either this post or on the project, it would be great to hear from you.

Further On-Line Reading:

Cecile Andrews (1992): Study Circles – Schools for Life

Poppy Villiers-Stuart and Arran Stibbe (eds) (2009): The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy Multimedia Version

Centre for Ecoliteracy Resources

Paul Murray (2011): The Sustainable Self extract (pdf) and On-line Activity Resources

Tom Crompton & Tim Kasser (2010): Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Identity Campaigning (pdf)

WWF Strategies for Change project and research downloads

WWF Natural Change project and evaluation report downloads

Kari Norgarrd (2009) – Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change – Research review and annotated bibliography prepared for World Bank policy research (pdf)

Update: 13 June 2011

The Guardian reported yesterday that a key government adviser recommends that climate change should not be included in the school curriculum in the UK. 

The UK Government has already withdrawn support from National Sustainable Schools and axed the Sustainable Development Commission, its own advisory body on sustainability issues. See here for the SDC’s very direct closing statement.

Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute at the LSE writes on why and “How climate change education can still be part of a slimmed down curriculum” here.



  1. Jon,

    A very helpful pair of posts and links to what’s out there. I think your thoughts on experiential activities in particular are something that’s often missing from the debate – we talk at people and expect them to take action just from that.

    Having said that, the one point I’d disagree with you on is that lack of awareness of sustainability issues rather than climate change specifically _does_ seem to be a problem. I work in this area looking at it from a specifically religious-based perspective and give talks at churches on my work. The proportion of people I talk to who are aware that oil is likely to be in short supply and/or much more expensive within a decade or two is alarmingly small.

    We’re intending to develop some resources for Christians looking at sustainability issues, probably along the same sort of lines as Carbon Conversations (I’m in Cambridge and involved with Ro and her group.) but including the motivations for action that come from care-for-creation and principles of money and possessions from the Bible. The practical applications will be very similar though. It would be interesting to compare notes with what you’re putting together.

    This approach gets round, at least to an extent, what I see as the key problem of getting people to commit any time at all to think about something they either don’t regard as an issue, or perhaps might be in a state of denial about. Carbon Conversations, Transition and the like are excellent, but at least from the people I’ve come across in them, it seems they’re only reaching those who are pre-disposed to action anyway, or even already committed.

    So I wonder what thoughts you’ve had about getting the majority of the population to sign up for your projects in the first place.

    (Project for the website is – we’re running a conference on faith and sustainability in September.)

    Thanks again,


    • Hello, Colin. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I actually do agree very strongly with your assessment that “lack of awareness of sustainability issues” is a problem – which is why I always refer to converging crises rather than, say, to the single issue of climate change which can serve to divert attention from the bigger picture. Rob Hopkins has recently questioned whether climate change and peak oil might outlive their usefulness as motivational messages. My view, like yours, is that very few people are aware of fast depleting energy resources. and that a focus on climate change alone enables global warming ‘disbelievers’ to easily discount the need for renewable energy. A majority consensus towards the good sense of renewables would only seem to be achievable by achieving widespread understanding of the interconnected nature of ecological, energy and economic crises.

      My background (in youth social work) of using ‘experiential’ learning has predominantly been with often resistant (and sometimes openly hostile) groups. I am convinced of the potential for outdoor experiential activities that are fun as well as mind-opening and psychologically challenging to overcome such resistance and engage participants.

      But as you point out the challenge is to motivate people beyond an already predisposed minority to sign up to sustainability initiatives in the first place. The types of avenue I have in mind for ‘sustainability through active learning’ include corporate team-building events (appealing to companies by also fulfilling corporate social responsibility agendas), school and other outdoor activity programmes, and adventure holiday packages, as well as through linking with organisations like the Workers Educational Association, trades unions (see, faith groups like your own, and so forth. I am sure that there are many other routes to achieving mainsteam appeal and I am very interested in any other suggestions.

      Thanks for the link to the forth-coming ‘Sustainability in Crisis’ conference which looks very interesting. You have achieved an impressive line-up of speakers and panelists and I am certainly keen to attend if I can. Best wishes, Jon

  2. Jon – I have spent many years thinking about how to facilitate change both in the energy world and as a licensed psychologist. You say, “The question of whether it is possible to motivate sustained behaviour changes without such a strong internalized incentive as direct experience of unpleasant and harmful consequences remains a moot one.” This is the gist of it to me. Even the true sustainability believers are still living high on the hog.

    And I can tell you that only hitting bottom (often more than once) will facilitate people managing their behavior in a new way. A contrived bottom hit is like the young people here in Minnesota that go out and live in card board boxes for a night or two in support of the homeless. They, the young people, can get up and go to their nice warm homes, cars, full stomachs and medical care. It is false to the hilt.

    And it is not just the billion more or less of high energy users, all the people, including those that crave what they envision the US of A has, must find sustainability. The fights for “freedom” now taking place at various places in the world are nominally for democracy but are realistically for the vision of a higher (material) standard of living.

    From three spread sheets on per capita energy use in the world that I generated in 2000. Three quarters of the people have minimum to no real use of electricity, natural gas and petroleum. And most want it.

    Here are some thoughts on change. This report on people becoming more entrenched in their beliefs is germane to the problem: ‘How facts backfire’. I have the pdf from the original research if you want it:
    Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains –

    My essay on transitions may be helpful:

    Another essay looks at the social part of sustainability which to my mind is the primary issue:
    This essay has a whole bibliography which is relevant to your quest.

    Finally, I found this book since I created the bibliography.
    The coming age of scarcity : preventing mass death and genocide in the twenty-first century / edited by Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann ; with a foreword by John K. Roth. 1998 updated
    Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann. 2002. On the edge of scarcity : environment, resources, population, sustainability, and conflict. Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press.

    I am including some of my essays that you might find interesting but probably discouraging.

    The one below here was written about 1998.

    I probably have not been helpful but I have shared my truth.
    John Weber
    Rising Rock Orchard
    Northern Minnesota

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