Keep the green moral agenda off campus

October 19, 2007

'Sustainability literacy' may undermine our tradition of critical inquiry, argues Jim Butcher. Moves are afoot to ensure that all graduates are "sustainability- literate". But what does this mean? Forum for the Future, which has pioneered the agenda, suggests that a sustainability-literate person is someone who understands the need for sustainable development, has the abilities to act in favour of it and can recognise others' decisions and actions that favour it.

Universities' role is held to be to bring about a change in their students' values and behaviour. Elsewhere, advocates of sustainability literacy seek to "change value bases", encourage "pro-sustainability behavioural change" and "empower students to live and work sustainably".

Sustainability literacy is a moral and behavioural agenda rather than an educational one. This is confirmed by the learning outcomes associated with it: increased caring about the future of society and intergenerational equality; empowerment of students and a heightened belief that they can make a difference; and increased personal willingness to participate in solving societal and environmental problems.

From the above it would be hard to discern what, if anything, is to be taught. But looking beyond the calls for a nicer world, it is clear that sustainability literacy involves universities acting as social engineers to promote green thinking: pro-localism, anti-consumerism, anti- genetically modified food and critical of globalisation. This is unsurprising, given that key developers of sustainability literacy include environmentalist organisations such as Schumacher College, a centre for ecological studies in Devon.

Alongside the moralising about behaviour, sustainability literacy carries with it a demand for a new pedagogy. For many of those promoting the agenda, a narrow focus on a discipline cannot do justice to the breadth of the environmental crisis we face.

Yet it is disingenuous to claim that the university curriculum has neglected sustainable development, environmental crises and associated issues. Well before sustainable development became mainstream in the early 1990s, economics, sociology, geography, business studies and many other subjects and disciplines had introduced theories related to the sustainability agenda. The triple bottom line of economy, environment and culture is in evidence across the board in the modern university.

Advocates argue that all subjects, from economics to classics, should embed sustainability literacy in their curricula. But why not simply educate rather than advocate? The promotion of sustainability as the holy grail is likely to lead to differences of opinion, from well-founded to naive, not being raised in the first place. The drive for sustainability literacy may reduce the scope for challenging majority opinions associated with sustainability by giving them the status of the sector's official line.

Ideas, agendas and moral imperatives should stand or fall through open- ended, rigorous inquiry. Universities should remain institutions where people can argue the toss over the relative merits of GM food, globalisation and global warming without any shade of opinion requiring the official backing of the institution or self-appointed guardians of the curriculum.

Yet it is clear that for those driving the process sustainability literacy is about universities taking a clear position on the political issue of development and the environment. Once that is enshrined in a university's public pronouncements or private articles, then the institution has diminished its commitment to academic inquiry. That bodes ill for those who take the environmental crisis to be imminent, or those who believe the planet is robust; the majority who accept that global warming is a product of human industry, or those who doubt it.

Sustainability literacy also poses a threat to academic freedom. One university's deliberations include reference to "carrots and sticks" to get naysayers into line. With regard to rural development in the developing world, a subject I have published on, I often find myself in the camp of the naysayers. What passes for sustainable development here often consists of very little in the way of development at all. Perhaps I should attend a workshop to "self-review" my "core standards" (such a process has been openly argued for in one university's documentation on developing sustainability literacy).

Even if a position is the received wisdom for 99 per cent of academics, there are strong reasons to object to universities taking a moral stance on the views and behaviour that lecturers and graduates should adopt. Universities should teach. They will reflect the prevailing body of knowledge, and they should aim to encourage students to question orthodoxies. They should trust students to act and live as they choose, based upon what they have gleaned of the world through their studies and beyond.

Jim Butcher is a senior lecturer in the faculty of business and science at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. He is the author of Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: A Critical Analysis , Routledge, £75.

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