Rethinking education as a cultural ecology

A learning country

With education being “ […] a primary institution towards affecting social and ecological change for the better” (Kahn, 2003), educating for sustainability requires vast personal and collective paradigm shifts – completely new individual and global ways of being and doing.

In 2015 UNESCO published ‘‘Rethinking Education:Towards a Global Common Good’, which presented an educational landscape reflecting a world undergoing radical transformation with regard to methods, content and spaces of learning. UNESCO saw the increased availability of, and access to, diverse sources of knowledge as expanding new opportunities for learning.  These opprtunities were less structured and more innovative, affecting the classroom, pedagogy, teacher authority and learning processes. In scale, the transformation of the learning landscape underway in the first decade of the new millennium was likened to the historical transition from the traditional pre-industrial ‘learning on the job’ educational model to the ‘school as a mass production educational factory focused on passing written examinations’. Regarding the traditional pre-industrial learning model, most of what people learned came through the activities of their daily lives and work, with the apprentice system having pride of place. In contrast, the model of mass education born of the industrial revolution factory output model equated learning – almost exclusively – with schooling.

In September 2018 the Learned Society of Wales held its third international meeting in Cambridge entitled ‘The Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’.  With respect to the role of education in attaining sustainable prosperity, an historical timeline for Wales was set out by Jane Davidson, a former Member of the Welsh Assembly Government, who had held the ministerial posts in education and environment.  As education minister she took the first steps towards education for living sustainably in a government paper. ‘The Learning Country; A Paving Document’. This was published in 2001, two years after the inception of the devolved National Assembly for Wales.  At that time Wales’ economic profile was summarised as:

  • GDP per head in Wales was some 20 per cent below the UK average;
  • the proportion of working age people whose highest qualification is NVQ level 4 or equivalent, or above, was some 23 per cent compared to 25 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • in 1999 Welsh hourly earnings were 12 per cent below the UK figure;
  • 19 per cent of the population had no qualifications, compared to 16 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • rates of economic inactivity were at 25 per cent in Wales compared to 21 per cent across the UK.

Davidson was cocerned with the political question,  Would such a culture of low skills, low qualifications, low creativity, low expectation, and low enterprise survive in the face of European and international competition?  The 2001 paving paper pointed to the plain fact that training and education are equally and intimately related to successful community development, social inclusion, wealth creation and personal fulfilment. The belief was that “… there is a close synergy between the measures necessary to sustain learning and creativity, and achieving the benefits of economic growth, community enrichment and a wonderful quality of life for individuals”. Thus, the Davidson paper presented a vision for the future where innovation in the arts, sciences and technology would stimulate and promote Wales as a vigorous learning country.  

Therefore, at the turn of the last century the Assembly Government was proposing a cultural prescription to implant a genuine momentum to lifelong learning for all.   The aim was to unlock everyone’s capacity to acquire the confidence to be adaptable and enterprising; and to make the most of the dynamic cultural and linguistic inheritance in Wales; all with due regard to the Assembly’s consistent commitment for the betterment of its population by:

  • realising sustainability;
  • tackling social disadvantage – especially in the most deprived communities;
  • promoting equality of opportunity; and
  • sustaining an environment that celebrates diversity and makes genuine progress towards realising the benefits of bilingualism.

In this respect the government was committed, more generally, to boosting the participation of children and young people across a range of dimensions in community life. The outcome was seen as the promotion of individuals’ attainment and development whilst also giving them the legal entitlement to design the services that affect them directly. This new ‘community for participation’ was to be supplemented with a new information resource’ branded Canllaw On-Line, to meet government aspirations for a confident, characterful, and holistic schooling system in Wales. This was seen as a system of cultural ecology in which schools could develop, and make the most of their varied strengths and origins in partnership with the community they served.   The focus of cultural ecology is the interchange between human and natural systems. It provides provocative insights into the nature of human relatedness with and impact on the natural world and a window through which the concept of sustainability may be configured. The educational dimension was seen to be a much closer relationship between schools and the communities, where schools would act as a community resource – not just in school hours but out of hours and in vacations as well. Schools were seen as being integral to community capacity building – providing a base for delivering, not just education and training (with links to FE and HE institutions), but also a range of other services like family support, health and enterprise promotion. The aim was to root schools in a wide community/environment context; where they were capable of taking genuine pride in their achievements, and able to ensure they were  publicly recognised. Schools were seen- quite as much as other providers – as being more and more concerned with enabling people to learn how to learn, as well as being dedicated to transmitting knowledge, skills and understanding. Information technology was seen as a vital resource for achieving this. Here, the Assembly Government was breaking with the past by regarding the disposition to learn, and the .confidence to do so, as being vitally important local social currencies for the future. Secondary schools, in particular, were going to be encouraged to progressively move away from rigid timetables, and even classroom based teaching, to very much more flexible modes of provision tailored to the needs of the individual learner and supported by ever strengthening distance learning and computer networking to spread ideas and achievements.

Schooling for a global economic downturn

The core of all political sustainability programmes rely on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place: ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 calls for  “at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries” and “higher levels of economic productivity” across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of these supposedly sustainable goals. They call for both less and more at the same time. A new education system is needed to resolve the contradiction, which demonstrates how it is entirely possible to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter such as human happiness, well-being, education, health and longevity. Consider the fact that Europe has higher human development indicators than the US in most categories, despite 40% less GDP per capita and 60% less emissions per capita.

Despite the fine words about living sustainably, now, in Wales and elsewhere, the old schooling model focused on endless economic growth continues to associate learning essentially with classroom teaching to pass time-limited examinations.  In fact much learning, even in traditional educational settings, takes place at home and elsewhere. The physical space defined by the classroom is still the main locus of learning and is a central feature of formal education systems at all levels of learning.  In this respect, UNESCO has questioned the future of this 19th century schooling model in the digital age, bearing in mind the opportunities offered by e-learning, mobile-phone learning and other digital technologies. Also the current industrial model of schooling was designed to meet the production needs of unending year on year economic growth. This began to increase personal wellbeing over a century ago but since then, modes of learning and knowledge about Earth’s limits to support year on year increases in incomes have changed dramatically.  Sources of information have changed, as have the ways in which we exchange and interact with them. Furthermore, curricula have been slow to change and remain remarkably similar to what they have been for the past two centuries. In fact a high degree of prescription and detail in the national curriculum, allied to increasingly powerful accountability mechanisms, has tended to create a culture within which the creative role of the school has become diminished and the professional contribution of the workforce underdeveloped. In particular, the essential features of a national curriculum for the UK, devised in 1988, reflect a world that was yet to see the World Wide Web and the advances in technology and globalisation that have transformed the way we live and work.   

And yet, schooling remains as important as ever. It is the first step in institutionalized learning and socialization beyond the family, and it is an essential component of social learning: learning to be and learning to live together. Learning should not be merely an individual process. As a social experience, it requires learning with and through others – through discussion and debate with peers teachers, business leaders and politicians. In this connection, the transformation of the educational landscape in the contemporary world has seen growing recognition of the importance and relevance of learning outside formal institutions. There is a move from traditional educational institutions towards mixed, diverse and complex learning landscapes in which formal, non-formal and informal learning occur through a variety of educational institutions and third-party providers. Therefore, what is need is a more fluid approach to learning as a continuum, in which schooling and formal education institutions interact more closely with other less formalized educational experiences from early childhood throughout life. The changes in the spaces, times and relations in which learning takes place favour a network of learning spaces where non-formal and informal spaces of learning will interact with and complement formal educational institutions.  Above all we should no longer school young people for the review, but to battle for a sustainable future. This was the message of Davidson in 2018 when she said we must move away from the stressful process of ‘learning to test’.

It wasn’t until 2014 that serious effort was made to apply the 2001 pavement prescription to establish a new Wales curriculum.  Professor Graham Donaldson, was commissioned by the Welsh Government to consider new assessment and curriculum arrangements. His report champions six “areas of learning and experience” as the basis for a  curriculum, which would transcend all learning from the age of 3 through to 16. It is scheduled to come into operation in 2021.

The main points from the Donaldson Report are it:

  • incorporates all learners aged three to 16, from Foundation Phase to Key Stage 4 (GCSE)  
  • bids to develop: ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives; enterprising creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work; ethical informed citizens of Wales and the world; and healthy, confident individuals ready to live fulfilling lives as valued members of society
  • replaces existing key stages with “progression steps”, relating broadly to expectations at ages five, eight, 11, 14 and 16
  • follows progression steps to provide reference points for teachers and parents, while providing a “road map” for pupils according to their individual needs
  • is organised into six “areas of learning and experience”: expressive arts; health and wellbeing; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; maths and numeracy; and science and technology
  • introduces three “cross-curriculum responsibilities” – literacy, numeracy and digital competence – that would be expected of all teachers
  • maintains teacher assessment, which remains the “main vehicle for assessment before qualifications”
  • recommends that teaching of the Welsh language remains compulsory up to the age of 16, but there should be a new expectation that learners gain “transactional competence” by the end of their studies
  • recommends Welsh-medium schools should act as hubs for the Welsh language, supporting teachers and practitioners in English-medium schools
  • recommends all teaching and learning should be directed to achieving the four curriculum purposes
  • recommends external, standardised testing to provide important benchmarking information – but its frequency should be “kept to a minimum” in view of its impact on the curriculum and teaching and learning
  • recommends a programme of professional learning to be developed to ensure that the implications of the review for the skills and knowledge of teachers are fully met
  • Recommends a Wales’ national school categorisation system to be .adjusted to reflect the recommendations of the review

The Humanities working group has already developed a statement outlining how this Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE) promotes the four purposes:

‘Through exploring big ideas about the Humanities, pupils will study the past and present, and by imagining possible futures, will learn about people, place, time and beliefs. In detail pupils will:

•understand historical, geographical, political, economic and societal concepts.

•explore their environment to further develop their sense of place and wellbeing.

•engage in learning experiences about rights, values, ethics, beliefs, religion, philosophy and spirituality.

•consider, explore and make informed choices regarding sustainability and the impact of their actions.

•positively contribute to their community and critically engage with local, national and global issues to become a responsible citizen of Wales and the wider world.

This is the area of the new curriculum where the 2001 paving document can become a route to education for sustainability, stressing systems thinking across traditional subject areas and using the community served by the school as an outdoor laboratory.  It has potential to provide rich opportunities for learning beyond the school walls, for example through exploring the local environment and learning from the experience of people, organisations and businesses and political governance in the community. Children and young people will also gain the knowledge and skills to understand and contribute to the communities in which they live and engage with societal issues.  However, the invisible elephant in the classroom is the unaddressed question. How can Jane Davidson’s vision of a wonderful life for all be realised through education that engages students with a future economy committed to zero economic growth?

Humanity’s average ecological footprint is 2.7 global hectares (gha) per person in an economy targetted to grow unendingly year on year.  To sustain the current population on Earth of 7 billion people requires 18.9 billion gha (2.7 gha x 7 billion people), which is higher than the 13.4 billion global hectares of biologically productive land and water on Earth.  This is a fact demonstrating that humanity’s demands have already exceeded the regenerative capacity of the planet. If the escalation of this demand continues at this rate, by 2030, with an estimated global population of 10 billion people, two Earths will be needed to satisfy humanity’s yearly demands.

Currently, over 80% of the world population lives in countries that use more resources than their own ecosystems can renew. The core capitalist countries (EU, USA and Japan), are ecological big debtors.  In the survey of the Global Footprint Network, the Japanese consume seven times more than their country can provide; four Italys are needed to supply Italian demands for a good life. Education for a bright future should begin with the indisputable fact that humanity pursuing endless growth consumes more natural resources than the planet can ever replenish.

Education for One-planet Wales

Debate about zero economic growth in Wales was started in 2008 with the publication of ‘One Wales: One Planet The Sustainable Development Scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government’.  In his introduction the government’s First Minister said:

“I want a Wales fit for generations to come … What motivates me is doing my very best to ensure a brighter, sustainable future for [my grandchildren and their grandchildren] and every other child growing up in Wales today … [Therefore], top of the list … of our priorities which will continue to improve the quality of life for people today and in the future … is sustainability”’

Sustainable scale is the key characteristic of a steady state economy. Scale is simply a measure of the size of one object relative to another. In this case, concern is with the size of the human economy relative to the ecosystems that serve it. Sustainability is achieved when the human economy fits within the capacity provided by Earth’s ecosystems. Economic activity degrades ecosystems, interfering with natural processes that are critical to various life support services. In the past, the amount of economic activity was small enough that the degree of interference with ecosystems was negligible. The unprecedented growth of economic activity, however, has significantly shifted the balance with potentially disastrous consequences. This is why getting the scale of the economy right (technically the point at which the marginal costs of growth equal the marginal benefits) is the highest priority for a steady state economy.

Finding the Goldilocks scale of the economy, the size that’s not too small and not too large, but just right, is no easy feat. In cases where the benefits of growth outweigh the costs (for example, where people are not consuming enough to meet their needs), growth or redistribution of resources may be required. In cases where the size of the economy has surpassed the carrying capacity of the ecosystems that contain it (a condition known as overshoot), degrowth may be required before establishing a steady state economy that can be maintained over the long term. Adjusting the scale of the economy through accurate measurement of benefits and costs, through trial and error, through regulation of markets, and through political will to achieve sustainability is the great political challenge of our times.

Since continuous growth and sustainable scale are incompatible, growth cannot be relied upon to alleviate poverty, as has been done (ineffectively) in the past. If the pie isn’t getting any bigger, we need to cut and distribute the pieces in a fair way. In addition, poor people who have trouble meeting basic needs tend not to care about sustainability, and excessively rich people tend to consume unsustainable quantities of resources without constrainf. Fair distribution of wealth, therefore, locally. nationally and globally, is a critical element of sustainability and the steady state economy

The route delineated in One Wales One Planet to a brighter future is embedded in a vision where Wales:

  • lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that its ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and the population is resilient to the impacts of climate change;
  • has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably;
  • has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change;
  • has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health;
  • is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

Clearly the Welsh government is imagining a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, to live within Earth’s sustainability limits, resources how used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.  Currently, wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. In general, the more social progress that a country achieves through economic growth, the more Earth’s biophysical limits are transgressed.

On February 21, 1994 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco, Dr. David Pimentel presented some statistics indicating the insufficiency of world resources to sustain a rapidly-expanding human population in relative prosperity.  His report indicated that even if humans succeed in using rapidly diminishing resources more efficiently, the planet can sustain a “quality” standard of living for only two billion people while still maintaining environmental integrity. The report concluded;

“For Americans to continue to enjoy a high standard of living and for Society to be self-sustaining in renewable energy and food and forestry products, given U.S. land, water, and biological resources, the optimum U.S. population is about 200 million.”  

In 2018 the U.S. population was 327 million, about 4% of the world’s population.

It is well known that Americans consume far more natural resources and live much less sustainably than people from any other large country of the world.   For example, it has been calculated that a child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil and the average American will drain as many resources as 35 villagers of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.  Wales is not far behind the U.S in its global demands.

If everyone in the world were to consume the same as the average Welsh citizen, just over 2.5 planets would be required. The most recent figure available for Wales’ ecological footprint is 4.4 global hectares per person,  more than double the average earthshare. The earthshare is the average amount of global resources available per person. To calculate earthshare, the total available bioproductive land and sea area of the planet is divided equally among the current global population. It is estimated that the present average earthshare is 1.88 global hectares per person. If everyone lived within their earthshare, we would be ecologically sustainable at a global level.  

The government’s aspiration is to to reduce Wales’ ecological footprint to the global average availability of resources within the lifetime of a generation. To achieve this goal our use of carbon-based energy, has to be radically reduced by 80-90% resulting in a similar reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions. It would support the government’s aspiration to make annual 3% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and its ambitions to make all new buildings zero carbon buildings; and move to producing as much electricity needed from renewable sources by 2025. There would have to be a radically different approach to waste management, moving towards becoming a zero waste nation. By this, is meant a society where focused on eliminating waste.  Waste that can’t be eliminated would be recycled in “closed loop” systems that achieve the best reduction in ecological and carbon footprints. The stated goal is to achieve 70% recycling across all sectors, and diverting waste from landfill by 2025.

Other changes envisaged for the future in Wales are:

  • to organise the way people live and work so they can travel less by car wherever possible, and can live and work in ways which have a much stronger connection with our local economies and communities.
  • have a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing its use of natural resources, reusing sites and buildings and reducing its contribution to climate change.
  • source more of our food locally and in season, within a natural environment where ecosystems are managed sustainably.
  • do all of the above in ways which make Wales a fairer society, reducing the gap between rich and poor, building on our commitments to tackling child and fuel poverty.

This One Wales One Planet vision led to the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015.  The Act makes the public bodies listed in the Act think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined-up approach.  This new law will mean that, for the first time, public bodies listed in the Act must do what they do in a sustainable way. Public bodies need to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.

It will expect them to:

  • work together better
  • involve people reflecting the diversity of our communities
  • look to the long term as well as focusing on now
  • take action to try and stop problems getting worse – or even stop them happening in the first place.

The Act establishes a statutory Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose role is to act as a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales, and to support the public bodies listed in the Act to work towards achieving the well-being goals.

The Act also establishes Public Services Boards (PSBs) for each local authority area in

Wales. Each PSB must improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of its area by working to achieve the well-being goals.

Yet, all future economic policies are still geared towards growth. Few of us believe we will ever “run out of stuff”. If we do run out of things, a more efficient alternative will be invented to take its place (such as the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy). The march has to be ever upwards. Negative growth and recessions are bad.  What is not followed through is the inevitability that we will have less to spend.

The Welsh Youth Parliament

When the National Assembly was established in 1999, one of its first acts was to set up a dedicated Education and Youth Engagement Service.  The Assembly wanted to give children and young people in Wales a fun and engaging way to learn about the National Assembly.

Since 2000, the Assembly’s Education and Youth Engagement team has worked with tens of thousands of children and young people across Wales.

A range of educational programmes take place in the National Assembly’s education centre, Siambr Hywel.  They help learners understand the National Assembly’s work and how they can get involved to influence what happens in their local area.  The Education and Youth Engagement team offer activities and opportunities to discuss political issues in schools and colleges across Wales. The National Assembly also focuses attention on young people outside of the school environment, to make sure everyone is included.

To make sure young people in Wales can express their opinions and are listened to, the National Assembly signed up to a Youth Engagement Charter in 2014.

The Charter sets out the National Assembly’s commitment to make sure it listens to, respects and acts on what young people from across Wales say.  It included a commitment to make it easier for young people to find out about the National Assembly and what it does, to take part in debates and to find out how their contributions make a difference.

Since the National Assembly made its commitment, many young people and professionals (backed by the Campaign for a Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales) told the National Assembly they would like to establish a Welsh Youth Parliament.  Assembly Members agreed.

In October 2016, during a meeting of the whole Assembly, it was decided that a youth parliament should be set up.  The National Assembly consulted over 5,000 young people in Wales to help decide what the Welsh Youth Parliament’s aim, membership, and work should be.

A world for future generations

“The fellowship between man and man which has been the principle of development, social and moral […], is the ideal of goodness entirely human”.

This citation of the Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, known under the male pseudonym George Eliot, reflects an early definition of a humanism.   

The concept of humanism marks one of mankind’s most influential philosophical strands of thought and a crucial turning point within the history and the development of human civilization following a theme of human goodness.  The Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) defined humanism in his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, written in Florence in 1486:

“God the Father, (…) taking man (…), set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: ‘we have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer’.”

The genius of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is an illustration of humanity’s endless ability to understand the environment. Inventor, architect, painter and civil engineer, Leonardo took an interest in all things, from medicine to biology. His note-books show an insatiable curiosity, an interest in the different movements of water, reflections on the atmosphere, observations of nature and the gestures or changes in humour of his contemporaries. He refreshed the Lombard portrait tradition, revolutionized painting and never ceased throughout his life to build bridges between disciplines, as equal and as diverse products of the never-ending creativity of human spirit. Through his travels in Italy and France, through his works – the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper – he is a model of what human beings can accomplish, by dint of work and imagination.

As an intellectual and ethical stance, humanism stresses the significance and the normative value of human goodness both with respect to individuality, community and overall society. As such, the concept of humanism involves a critical reflection of the constitution of society and of the manner in which social interactions between human beings proceed. Regarding its origins within the framework of the era of European Enlightenment, humanism was cast as a moral rationale.  The aim was to address fundamental questions relating to humanity and human nature. These relationships facilitated humankind’s ordered progress in science and technology. Rooted in the notion of a free and resourceful human existence, humanism evolved into the grand movement of human spiritual and creative liberation, which enabled an unparalleled acceleration of European economic growth and social change. In line with humanist ethics, material growth was understood as a collective good, which was to serve all participants of a community and meant to enable the socio-economic progress of society. Thus, although the exact definition of humanism has historically fluctuated in accordance with successive and diverse strands of intellectual thought, the underlying concept rests on the universal ideas of human emancipation, independence, social justice and the promotion of  general well being.

Economic growth has been defended for its contributions to human well being and increasing standards of living. Yet, it is evident that the current level of  economic growth requires to be supported by an increasing use of Earth’s natural resources that exceeds the capacity of the planet to yield them. It has been clear for a long time that we cannot continue to consume water, burn fuel and emit carbon dioxide at ever increasing rates. We are at a point in history where economic growth and monetary prosperity have to be replaced with a global cultural, spiritual, and political value shift to adopt a steady state economy.   The objective is to move towards simplicity,and sufficiency in a sharing, community, with a deep respect for the natural world, driven by a non-monetary definition of prosperity. Humanism is the obvious educational framework to carry us along this path.

Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainabile Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018 defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

…morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainble virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, adnabod in Welsh (recognise or know someone).  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as neighbour in a true humanism”.

There are various types of humanism.  Classical humanism, which is associated with the European Renaissance, emphasized aesthetics, liberty, and the study of the “humanities” (literature, art, philosophy, and classical languages of Greek and Latin). Secular humanism emphasizes human potential and self-fulfillment to the point of excluding a need for God; it is a naturalistic philosophy based on reason, science, and end-justifies-the-means thinking. Christian humanism teaches that liberty, individual conscience, and intellectual freedom are compatible with Christian principles and that the Bible itself promotes human fulfillment—based on God’s salvation in Christ and subject to God’s sovereign control of the universe.

The natural economy of gender is an outstanding barrier to human fulfillment that can only be resolved globally  through the application of secular humanism to ellicit changes in the complex social system of household partneships.  For example, a heterosexual community can be analyzed biologically as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. Societies will therefore define gender roles as if women are sellers and men buyers of sex. Societies will endow female sexuality, but not male sexuality, with value (as in virginity, fidelity, chastity). The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple’s decisions may be influenced by market conditions. Economic principles suggest that the price of sex will depend on supply and demand, competition among sellers, variations in product, collusion among sellers, and other factors. Research findings show gender asymmetries (reflecting the complementary economic roles) in prostitution, courtship, infidelity and divorce, female competition, the sexual revolution and changing norms, unequal status between partners, cultural suppression of female sexuality, abusive relationships, rape, and sexual attitudes.

A few weeks after Willliams made the above contribution to the Cambridge conference he co-signed with 93 academics the following open letter to the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible. We must take action’.  It is against this warning of environmental disaster that Williams’ prescription for a prosperous future should be set.

The letter reads:

We the undersigned represent diverse academic disciplines, and the views expressed here are those of the signatories and not their organisations. While our academic perspectives and expertise may differ, we are united on one point: we will not tolerate the failure of this or any other government to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis. The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.

Our government is complicit in ignoring the precautionary principle, and in failing to acknowledge that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is non-viable. Instead, the government irresponsibly promotes rampant consumerism and free-market fundamentalism, and allows greenhouse gas emissions to rise. Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humans have used up more resources from nature than the planet can renew in the entire year) falls ever earlier each year (1 August in 2018).

When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The “social contract” has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.

We therefore declare our support for Extinction Rebellion, launching on 31 October 2018. We fully stand behind the demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens. We call for a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.

There are two sides of the debate about the future of economic growth.  A conventional neoclassical economist would probably tell you that there have always been measurable increases in the efficiency of using resources, income, and quality of life improvements under past conditions of year on year economic growth. If the economy continues to grow, so their theory goes, ecological limits will be overcome thanks to technological solutions and a structural shift towards a post-industrial knowledge economy.  This ideal trajectory is called ‘decoupling growth from material input’ or ‘dematerialization,’ because each unit of GDP requires fewer and fewer material inputs. Some theorists, call this view ‘techno-optimism,’ which is the crux of the growth debate.

Many other economists – and an increasing number of thinkers across the arts and sciences – would suggest that the impossibility of endless economic growth is the proverbial invisible elephant in political debating chambers’.  According to H L Evans (2009:),

“…education, if it is to play a role in developing sustainable ways of being human in the world, cannot continue its traditional functions in a society headed for global catastrophe. It cannot simply aim to help individuals achieve lucrative careers in a world where continued enslavement of nature and economic and cultural colonisation of peoples serve as the inputs for economic growth”.

The cultural change needs to be substantial and faster than anything we have witnessed in the past through historic educational discourses and world development  trajectories. The humanistic sustainability education approach has delivered positive creative milestones on the revolutionary road of transforming homo economicus into homo sustineo. In so doing it is creating a new world of common sense, liberation and democracy in which nature is treasured and the well being of present and future generations is safeguarded.

Nevertheless, the economy’s aggregate material footprint, especially in high income regions, continues to climb despite technological innovation and efficiency gains.  Deleterious environmental changes march in lock-step with growth in GDP. Moreover, growth doesn’t necessarily improve well being, and the gains aren’t shared equitably with those who could benefit from them the most, especially in the world’s poorest regions. This in turn means that we should do what many economists would consider the unthinkable: actually produce and consume less, strive for a more fulfilling and less materialistic life, and tailor policies to address specific ecological, social, and financial challenges. This multilateral scenario would require that world leadership is needed to foster social and technological innovation without growth and guide transition to a steady state economy (SSE).  

Political decision making tends to be based on crises; decisions are not made until catastrophe strikes. Thus, decisions are ad hoc, designed to protect or promote a particular aspect of human well-being instead of examining the problem in a holistic manner. Based on past experience, we expect that leaders will continue to postpone decisions concerning human carrying capacity of the world, maintenance of a standard of living, conservation of resources, and the preservation of the environment, until the situation becomes intolerable, or worse still, irreversible.  Transition aimed at this end point requires a radical change in a global education system that was designed to create Western industrial empires.

Essentially, multisubject teaching was established in the 1904 UK Regulations of the Board of Education that knowledge can, and should, be divided into narrow subjects, and thereby more effectively organised for the benefit of the learner.  This assumption was reinforced in the UK National Curriculum.

The difficulties of escaping from this single subjects constraitlnt are exemplified by the Wales model.   Since 1999, the Welsh educational system developed within the bounds of a separate ministry and the opportunity was missed to integrate One-planet Wales, the Future Generations Act and  the Welsh Youth Parliament seamlessly within a new steady state economy format situated in the humanities. This could have been an integrated lifelong learning pedagogy with a curriculum, framed within cultural ecology, for living sustainably to promote a true multifaith humanism.

In the new Welsh curriculum the Humanities Area seeks to give pupils an understanding of historical, geographical, political, economic and societal factors.  This will provide opportunities to engage in informed discussions about ethics, beliefs, religion and spirituality. It draws on existing subjects, history, geography, business and social studies, as well as religious education.  This is the place to embed secular humanism as a philosophy of life which affirms the universal and unique significance of humanity, universal human rights, objective moral values, optimism concerning the future of the human condition, and meaning and purpose in human life. Davidson’s  2002 paving document, with its emphasis on pupils serving the needs of their community neighbourhood was signposting to a comprehensive humanistic curriculum with a commitment to “self-fashioning”. But it was not followed up.

All the basic elements were there for fostering a humanistic approach to Welsh education based on an engaging environment for the students to ask inquiry-based questions that promote meaningful learning.  The humanistic approach places a great deal of emphasis on students’ choice and control over the course of their education. Students are encouraged to make choices that range from day-to-day activities to periodically setting future life goals. This allows for students to focus on a specific subject of interest for any amount of time they choose, within reason. Humanistic teachers believe it is important for students to be motivated and engaged in the material they are learning, and this happens when the topic is something the students need and want to know.

Being a true (or new) humanist, secular or religious, today means  accepting a collective requirement of the humanities message, which emphasizes the necessarily collective dimension for Individuals to become whole in society, as members of a community. Humanists exist as a community of humanity that binds every individual to all others. Beyond our diversity, we all share one common human culture. Through communication, through language learning and dialogue, through scientific cooperation, we can extend beyond the limits of ourselves, we can broaden our knowledge, discover other customs, with an awareness of the humanity that binds all people of the planet together. New humanism means adapting the strength of an age-old message to the requirements of a global population commited to a steady state economy. This humanist message is that it will no longer will be it possible for governments, of any political persuasion, to take the natural environment for granted. After at least two centuries of unregulated exploitation of nature, this is surely, to all but a few self-interested corporations and their employees, a positive development.  Also, as concern about the environment has grown, new philosophies reevaluating the economic relationship between the social and natural worlds have also emerged. The purpose of a humanistic education today is to question the underlying vision of a prosperity built on continual growth. And to search for alternative visions – in which humans can still flourish and yet reduce their material impact on the environment.

A prosperous society without growth  is concerned not with income growtk and financial wealth, but with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with access to good quality education, and with prospects for decent and rewarding work. Prosperity without growth enables basic individual rights, freedoms and equalities. But it must also deliver the ability for people to participate meaningfully in common projects. Ultimately, prosperity must offer society a credible and inclusive vision of social progress.   IIn summary, there is the education of commodity, the old kind of education that seeks to produce persons who will maintain and increase the economy of profit. And, on the other hand, there is the new, humanistic education of community, the kind that seeks to foster persons who will maintain and preserve the essential characteristics of community. Above all, a humanistic education would be the life long pursute of an ecological balance between society and nature. It would engage students with systems of environmental ethics that call for human beings to understand that we are all part of nature and its limited production in everything we do.


Five Classes for Humanistic Education to Live Sustainably

The context of this appendix is about developing a humanistic education system for growing selfhood in a rapidly changing world. It presents the view that teaching in a humanistic education system is about enabling learners to gather information and transform it creatively into a personal body of knowledge to answer the following three questions about growing as an individual.  

Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others).

What am I going to do (defining career paths to transient jobs that may not even exist yet).

WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes).

There are also three ‘sister’ questions about developing a global community that has to cope with environmental issues surrounding the management of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods.

Who are we?

What are we going to do?

Will we make it?

Young people have never had to ask these questions in past ages.  Sadly, the current education system is not engaging students with these big questions that are ‘burning in their souls’. Answering them requires teaching with a grander purpose of learning in mind i.e. growing each student as a whole individual, in body, mind and spirit.

Answers to these deep questions lies within the following ‘classroom’ framework for a system of humanistic education.

1  In the Steady State Prosperity class students learn that a failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternative futures humanity faces today. The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). The closer the human economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavioural mode of the Earth. That behaviour mode is a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.   None of this means that the earth is static—a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the human economy relative to the total system, the ecosphere. The ecosphere is no longer able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized human economy—much less a growing one. A growing economy produces more of the same stuff; development of a zero growth economy produces a constant amount of different and hopefully better stuff to support a more planet-friendly kind of prosperity.

2 In the Turning Facts and Beliefs into Knowledge class the students begin to learn how selfood is constructed from facts and beliefs and how to critically evaluate claims to knowledge. Students learn to analyse the arguments of others and to construct their own thoughtful arguments in response.

3 In the Creating a World View class students learn what defines a world view. Tradition, education, religion, political structure, economics, gender and historical context all contribute to the construction of an outlook on the world. Moreover, students learn that a world view is a human creation and therefore we are not hapless victims of the world we find ourselves in, but rather everyone is capable of ideation to give shape to it.

4 In the Defining Cultural Ecologies class students will learn that cultural ecology provides an ideational scaffold for a humanistic education system.   The term oekologie was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The word is derived from the Greek οικος (oikos, “household”) and λόγος (logos, “study”); therefore the original definition of “ecology” means the “study of the household [of nature]”  Ecology originally referred to the interrelationships between living creatures and their habitats, but over the years the term has been generalised to mean the set of relationships existing between the features of any complex system and the influence of its surroundings (Table 1).

Table 1 Ecologies of species, art and gender

SpeciesHabitatsBiophysical factors
Works of artSocietiesBeliefs and ideas
Men and womenHome and communityMale dominance

The natural economy of gender is an example of a complex system that stands to benefit greatly from applied humanism.  The classroom objectives are:

  • to gain a basic understanding of the concepts gender, economy and economic agency and how to consider them in their interrelationship;
  • to be aware of power differences characterizing gender relations;
  • to learn how gender identities and relations influence economic outcomes;
  • to be able to argue how gender relations may structure economic institutions;
  • to know how to specify gender-aware economic functions and models.

5 In the Planning for Change class, students consolidate their critical power of argument and realization of their ability to effect change in an exploration of their responsibilities to do so. Humanistic planning is an approach to management theory based on the ideas of human needs and human values.  Students will study ethical theories, identify conflicts in values, analyse ethical issues pertinent to a programme of change and formulate planned solutions to ethical problems. Here the humanistic values of thoughtful reasoning, tolerance and open mindedness are applied to manage practical issues and problems.

6  Educators and facilitators.

Students follow a humanistic curriculum with the guidance of teachers and facilitators.

Teachers are the ones with knowledge and expertise in a particular field. They impart that knowledge through a variety of means to groups of students.

Facilitators build on the knowledge base of individuals to find the answers to questions bothering them.

Both methods of instruction serve a purpose and help individual students build their own personal body of knowledge and articulate it to others in the group.  They communicate through writing, pictures, audio, video, artworks and good deeds.

When a teacher enters a classroom, she/he is a subject expert and takes charge of a group learning environment. The teacher is responsible for creating lesson plans that direct the course of study that a group of students follows. Clear and concise objectives delineate what the group studies on any given day. The teacher is responsible for measuring how much information each student has gathered.  Evaluation is often in the form of tests, but the teacher may use other measurement tools to determine if all the students met the teacher’s objectives for the class as a whole.

Facilitators might not be subject experts like a teacher  They have special training in group dynamics, using processes such as conflict resolution, strategic planning and team building. In any group setting, a facilitator can quickly determine what each member of the group knows so that every person is self directed and has an opportunity to build on that personal knowledge. By asking guiding questions and keeping the group focused, a facilitator helps the group establish a set of ground rules about how the group should function, as well as allowing individuals meet their own learning objectives. A facilitator also helps individuals evaluate what they have learned. Facilitation works best in small groups.  Because humanism is a highly individualised body of knowledge the emphasis is on facilitation.

Comments are closed.