Posted by: Jon | 21/12/2011

The firstSTEP handbook

I have been thinking about whether to review the predictions for 2011 that I made – not from personal expertise, I should add, but from paying attention to those who are expert in these things. But, to be honest, I really don’t want to. After the whirlwind of globally consequential events of the past twelve months, a brief glance back at the predictions shows how many not only have come to pass but also are now self-explanatory.

I will get back to them, I expect, because it seems to me that there is much that is good and hopeful emerging from the past year’s turmoil. But, for now, I want to post an introduction to a “sustainability through experience” handbook I am compiling in the hope of making a contribution to the growing world-wide movement for social change.

The handbook will explore ways of overcoming the immense psychosocial barriers that prevent us from confronting the reality of our unsustainable trajectory. Especially, it aims to outreach active engagement with issues of sustainability beyond the ‘already converted’.

The activities it will contain are intended for use “not only in classrooms and work-place training venues, but also by social clubs in community meeting halls, congregations in places of worship, work colleagues in company cafeterias, and family and friends in kitchens and living rooms; in short, any setting where people come together to explore what it means to live sustainably in a resource constrained, climate-changed world.” And many of them “are not intended to take place indoors at all, but out in the natural world where new insights and learning about ecological sustainability can be most profound.”

The concluding summary of chapter 1 is below.


The firstSTEP (Sustainability Through Experience Project) handbook

Chapter 1 Summary and conclusions…

Our modern urban and technology-oriented lives have disconnected us physically, mentally and spiritually from the natural biological systems of our planet. This disconnection has impaired our common comprehension of the urgency of converging human sustainability crises. Through experiential learning opportunities which involve us closely with the natural world, we can improve our understanding of our human lives as operating within, not independently from, the overall ecosystems that make up the biosphere.

Without this ecological understanding, narrow interpretations of sustainability have diverted our attention from the range of social and environmental issues that underlie unsustainability and permitted us to avoid engaging with these. Conventional educational and informational approaches to public engagement and action have proved insufficient to overcome powerful cultural and psychological barriers to social change.

There are many structural barriers to sustainability that are beyond the agency of ordinary people to influence which may only be addressed by political and institutional interventions. But without the active commitment of ordinary people, such interventions are harder for governments and institutional leaders to implement and they are unlikely to become sufficiently emboldened to bring them about.

In our advanced societies, we presently lack direct experiences of the severe consequences of unsustainability that are compelling enough to motivate us to mitigate their causes. Widespread opportunities to learn experientially about sustainability can help to foster such motivation by:

  • providing authentic learning experiences that make abstract issues of sustainability real and relevant to people and actively engage them in learning about their causes and consequences;
  • improving affinity with the natural world through experiences that demonstrate the interdependence of human and natural systems and the ecological impacts of unsustainability, both for people and for the planet;
  • improving understanding of human physical, emotional and spiritual needs and of the need to reconcile these with the ecological needs of the planet;
  • making learning about human and ecological sustainability personally meaningful and communally supportive in ways that inspire committed engagement and action.

No single approach to learning about sustainability, however powerful and affecting, could miraculously make our lives sustainable. When we view our major problems of sustainability against the broad backdrop of human evolution, we can see that some of these are probably now unsolvable. Or, at least, not solvable in ways that could sustain us all. We also come to realise that the planet solves its own problems of sustainability, regardless of our human needs and aspirations.

The purpose of the experiential approaches of this handbook is not to attempt to solve unsolvable problems. Instead it is to discover ways of living with these that can help to remedy their causes and to avert their worst consequences. Many people express deep misgivings about the modern cultural values that have led to gross social inequalities and the degradation of our habitat to the point of no return. Many also feel that these same values have weakened our communal bonds and impaired social and mental well-being. Whilst we cannot hope to ‘fix’ all of our sustainability problems, we can help each other to live with these by re-connecting, both within our communities and with the natural systems of the planet.

Our human future is set to be one of hard challenges. By setting aside our differences and facing these challenges communally, we will make them less hard, both for ourselves and for the other species with whom we share the planet. The chapters, case studies and activities in this handbook aim to inspire many more people to take the first steps away from debilitating personal uncertainties towards the resolve and purpose that comes with collaborative learning and action.


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