Posted by: Jon | 07/07/2011

Sustainability Through Experience

You are deep in the woods at nightfall and it’s just started to rain.

With you are three colleagues: the girl from reception you nod hello to in the mornings who is complaining now about damp hair and no straightening iron; old so-and-so from accounts who is two years off retirement but still knows his knots and lashings from when he ran a Scout group; and a young intern you’ve never met before who actually seems to be enjoying himself and you have privately christened ‘Rambo’.

You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t been ‘volunteered’ for some sustainability-team-building-thingummy that you only agreed to because you’ve just applied for a promotion. And now you’re bracing yourself for a long uncomfortable night in a make-shift shelter a bit too up close and personal with your three unlikely companions.

When it comes to it, none of you can sleep and the young intern keeps shining his torch at rustling noises just outside which are definitely different to the rain pattering on the tarpaulin roof. So you chat to one another about work, then home and family, to pass away the time. You finally drop off just before dawn and wake up not much later to bird song and glorious sunlight filtering through the trees.

Old so-and-so from accounts whose name you now know is Edward and is a recent widower has already made a brew and Saleem, the intern, who says his girlfriend looks like Victoria Beckham (though you couldn’t quite see it in the photo he showed you) and Charlene from reception (Chas to her friends) whose younger sister has Down’s syndrome and a birthday tomorrow are cooking up porridge on the stove. You stretch your stiffened limbs and amble down to the stream to splash yourself awake.

You check your watch and, to your surprise, you feel quite good at not being stuck in traffic running the kids to school on the way to the office and you close off the fleeting thought of the back-log of emails that will await you on your return. You sip smoky tea and smile with Chas and Edward at Saleem’s lively retelling of the terrors of the night. You are looking forward now to heading back for a hot shower and make-up and the morning session to discuss some guy called Maslow. But what you really want to know is how the other groups have got on…


Sustainability through experience – a programme proposal

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is an approach to learning and development that involves learners in challenging and unfamiliar learning experiences, followed by a facilitated process of reflection and review to draw new insights and knowledge from these experiences.

It is a ‘facilitated’ rather than a ‘taught’ approach in which participants are responsible for their own learning and the relevant meaning they draw from it. 

Most of us naturally reflect on the various experiences we have in life. But, to be able to draw out and apply  constructive learning from these, we need to review them using appropriate analytical and decision-making skills.

So the process of facilitation enables reflective analysis of learning experiences, inviting consideration of wider contexts for their learning outcomes, and assisting the transfer of new knowledge and insights gained into more familiar life settings.

Facilitation also attends to the dynamics of the learning group, discouraging domination by individuals and motivating uninhibited participation and engagement by all participants.

Importantly, facilitation is neutral in terms of learning outcomes and the pace and scope of learning are determined by the participants themselves.

Why an experiential learning approach to sustainability?

We are living at a time of urgent environmental crises and a widespread human response is required.  But the consequences of environmental unsustainability are still largely unperceived in Western societies and many people are unaware of their extent and their severe nature.

This lack of direct experience may be a significant reason why, after more than a decade of awareness raising and behaviour change campaigns and increasing evidence of life-threatening environmental deterioration, Western populations have not yet collectively mobilised to shift to sustainable ways of living.

A small minority of people who are well aware of the sustainability crisis have gravitated towards taking part in a range of local and communal sustainability initiatives. But these people represent only a tiny fraction of Western populations and the vast majority remains largely ambivalent about issues of sustainability.

So in the absence of clearly perceivable impacts that could conceivably engender the necessary scale of social change, the ‘metaphorical’ approach of experiential learning provides a means to engage hitherto uninvolved people more meaningfully with important issues of sustainability.

Experiential learning is psychologically engaging…

Social science studies have shown that in order to motivate such engagement, public information campaigns are insufficient and people need to become involved with sustainability at a personal emotional level [3].

The physical, mental and emotional engagement of experiential learning makes its learning outcomes much more memorable and relevant to people than conventional ‘taught’ approaches that involve receiving information only passively. Active participation in shared learning experiences that are purposefully challenging and committing but also enjoyable and personally fulfilling can be a powerful means of stimulating new interest in issues that otherwise can seem irrelevant to our personal lives.  

For instance, in learning about the unsustainability of current uses of fresh water, a ‘bushcraft’  activity challenge to construct and use a simple solar still can lead to wider consideration of how we presently use and value water, how water insecurity is predicted to impact on our future lives and how it already effects the lives of increasing numbers who lack access to safe supplies.

On the same theme, a challenge to improvise a solar shower from assorted junk materials can inspire new thinking about the relevance of appropriate technologies, renewable sources of energy and the natural resources that we tend to take for granted. Or an exercise to make do on a minimal water ration for part of a day can lead to new consideration of about basic and essential human needs.

The possibilities for stimulating new thinking about different dimensions and aspects of sustainability that can be achieved from imaginative experiential learning activities are many and varied.     

Experiential learning fosters positive interpersonal relationships…

Shared experiences of group challenge are frequently reported as promoting strong group bonds and high levels of trust between participants [4].

This aspect of experiential learning enables a supportive environment in which participants from a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances can feel free to be themselves and to contribute fully to group learning and development.

It also encourages unprejudiced consideration of conflicting attitudes and opinions held by individual participants and permits deeper exploration of commonly-held ‘core’ values such as empathy and compassion which in turn can stimulate insights into ethical and equitable dimensions of sustainability [5].

Public views on environmental issues have become highly polarised and recent research has found that people’s different political views, levels of personal autonomy afforded by wealth, and sense of social identity manifested through consumption correlate directly with their attitudes towards sustainability [6]. The potential for experiential learning to place participants on a more equal footing and to overcome interpersonal barriers by engaging commonly shared core values is particularly significant in this regard.

It is well recognised by campaigners that social change towards sustainability depends on motivating collective and communal action rather than on isolated individual efforts.  First-hand experiences of how mutual trust and cooperative relationships may be developed through shared learning activities provides high potential for experiential approaches to community building to be spread more widely.

Experiential learning is personally meaningful and relevant…

The learning outcomes that arise from experiential learning are determined by the participants themselves. This self-directed and self-motivating approach ensures that learning is immediately relevant and meaningful to participants in their individual lives and circumstances [7].

Objections have sometimes been raised that sustainability initiatives promote moral agendas or seek to engineer ‘green’ values and behaviour [8]. In an experiential learning approach, whilst experiences are intended to stimulate new thinking about issues of sustainability, facilitation is intentionally neutral in terms of learning outcomes. Because these are identified through an open-ended process of reflection and review, objections about manipulated behaviour change are avoided.

Facilitation does intend to engender ‘sustainability literacy’ skills such as critical analysis and relational and holistic thinking to assist understanding of human and ecological sustainability. [9]. Participants are encouraged to apply these same analytical skills to reflecting on their own life decisions beyond the programme.

Participants often report that the learning they gain from experiential programmes is personally meaninful to their lives and causes them to reflect anew on their personal life decisions and priorities. However, the application of learning beyond the programme presents different and less supported challenges [10]. For this reason facilitation also anticipates difficulties that may be encountered in transferring learning back to everyday settings where familiar barriers to sustainability and old habits and influences prevail.

Experiential learning leads to closer connections with nature…  

Experiential learning often takes place in the context of outdoor and environmental education or therapeutic outdoor programmes. As a result of this outdoor setting, participants frequently report forming closer connections to nature and an enhanced ‘sense of place’ in the natural world [11]. This outcome does not appear dependent on improved understanding of natural sciences and systems but seems to arise naturally as a result of close exposure to the natural environment. In this way, outdoor learning experiences can lead to deeper reflection on what value human societies and systems place on it and what actions are necessary to conserve and safeguard the biological resources that sustain us.

Programme Structure:

‘Sustainability through experience’ programmes could take place over a consecutive five to seven day period or else in shorter periods over a series of weeks or months. All programmes will ideally include one or more outdoor residential periods.  

An advantage of a single programme of a week’s duration is that the learning progression is continuous and uninterrupted. Equally, a staged programme over several weeks can provide opportunities to implement new learning in ordinary life settings and to give and receive feed-back on personal experiences of this during subsequent programme sessions.

Programme Participation:

Whilst programmes can be designed for all age groups and abilities, the principal aim of this proposed approach to sustainability is to attract participation by self-autonomous adults (i.e. mid-teens and above) from population groups who are largely or entirely unengaged with the issues.

Groups will ideally be made up of between six and twelve participants from a diversity of backgrounds. These might be, for example, employees from the same company but with varying work-place roles or inter-generational groups of families and friends.

The more diverse the composition of a participating group, the more opportunities will arise for new and challenging experiences and encounters that lead to potentially beneficial learning outcomes.

Outreaching of Learning:

One approach to outreaching the learning from programmes is to involve individuals who are seen as ‘influential’ amongst their peers and who have agency to implement their learning in their wider spheres of influence [13].

Another possibility is to provide training for individuals who have an interest in facilitating experiential programmes themselves [14].  

Some experiential activities are readily adaptable for use in other contexts; for instance, in youth groups, university campuses, social clubs, places of worship, prisons, or indeed any other group settings in which issues of sustainability are being considered. Whilst these activities will have a lesser impact than participation in a full programme, they still offer a valuable experiential means of exploring issues of sustainability.

Funding of Programmes:

It is envisaged that a proportion of the costs of running programmes will be raised by fees. The adventurous nature of the programmes will attract some participants to fund their own places on it. In other cases, programme fees will be sought from sponsoring organisations (e.g. staff training and development or corporate social responsibility budgets).

To maximise opportunities for participants to attend from the widest range of population groups, fees will also need to be subsidised by grants and donations. Raised funds will also be required to run and evaluate an initial series of pilot programmes.


It is hoped to pilot this approach to sustainability in partnership with one or more interested organisations who can bring a wide knowledge and experience of sustainability education to establishing programmes and provide independent evaluation of the efficacy of the approach.

Comments and criticism cordially invited…


[1] Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C., & Pidgeon, N.F.  (2001) Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experienceNature Climate Change

[2] Office for National Statistics (2001) Consumer Trends Briefing Quarter 1 2011 (pdf)

[3] Crompton, T., & Kasser, T., (2009), Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (pdf), Green Books

[4] Barrett, J., & Greenaway, R (1995), Why Adventure: The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in Young People’s Personal and Social Development, Foundation for Outdoor Adventure

[5] Murray, P. (2011), The Sustainable Self, Earthscan

[6] See, for instance: Whitmarsh, L. (2011) Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change; and: Jackson, T., (2004) Consuming Paradise: Unsustainable consumption in cultural and social-psychological context (pdf), in Hubacek, K., Inaba, A., and Stagl, S. (2004) Driving Forces of and Barriers to Sustainable Consumption, Proceedings of an International Workshop, Leeds, 5-6 March 2004

[7] See also, for instance: Oliver, L.P., (1987) Study Circles: Coming Together For Personal Growth and Social Change, Seven Locks Press

[8] See, for instance: Butcher, J., in Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 October 2007, Keep the green moral agenda off campus

[9] See, for instance: Stibbe, A. (ed) (2009) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Green Books; and WWF Scotland, (2005) Linking Thinking: new perspectives on thinking and learning for sustainability

[10] Barrett, J., & Greenaway, R. (1995) Why Adventure: The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in Young People’s Personal and Social Development, Foundation for Outdoor Adventure

[11] See, for instance: WWF, (2010) The Ecology of Experience: Six months on from the Natural Change Project (pdf), WWF report; and: Hine, R., Pretty, J., and Barton, J., (2009) Social, Psychological and Cultural Benefits of Large Natural Habitat and Wilderness Experiences (pdf), University of Essex

[12] Center for Ecoliteracy website

[13] See, for instance: WWF, (2010) Natural Change: Psychology and Sustainability (pdf), WWF Report

[14] See, for instance: Carbon Conversations facilitation and training, and: Transition Network Train the Trainers


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