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Building new foundations: the future of education from a degrowth perspective

  • Special Feature: Original Article
  • The politics of making and un-making (sustainable) futures
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  • volume 14pages 931–941 (2019)
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Considering education in the context of making and unmaking sustainable futures, a growing relevance is attributed to the role of shared beliefs or mental infrastructures which shape the way people perceive crises and solutions. The currently dominant capitalist economic paradigm is seen as one such powerful belief that generates imaginaries which cannot accommodate sustainable futures. At the same time, in educational practice, social movements, and academic discussion, the perspective of degrowth has gained attention as an approach which challenges this paradigm. In this article, we address the role of education in processes of socioecological transformation in the context of degrowth. We do this from a perspective of practice, linking our experiences in non-formal education to academic discussions on education and sustainability. The aim of this article is to contribute to a pedagogy of degrowth as one path within a complex search for ways to imagine and support sustainable futures, which address root causes of the current crises. Analysing these crises as crises of conviviality, resulting from imperial modes of living and producing, we sketch the framework for sustainable futures marked by world relations of interconnectedness and solidarity. Relating a theory of transformative learning to a critical-emancipatory understanding of education, we propose two interlinked aspects for pedagogy of degrowth: creating spaces for reflection and emphasizing the political in educational settings. We discuss our practical experience as learning facilitators in non-formal educational contexts. As a cross-cutting challenge, we will touch upon the role of strengthening psychological resources in education for a degrowth society.

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  1. We have adopted this term from Prádanos (2018). Referring to Cornelius Castoriadis, he describes ‘imaginaries’ as “social significations which recreate meaning and thus reproduce themselves […] ignoring, avoiding, dispossessing, disciplining, or even criminalizing whatever or whomever does not fit within its pre-determined framework” (Prádanos 2018, 11–12).

  2. For an overview of the different approaches and proposals in the context of degrowth, see Jackson (2017), Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (2017) and Schmelzer and Vetter (2019).

  3. The Humboldtian notion of Bildung (education) holds that one main aspect of it is transformation in the way people relate to themselves and to the world. In our expanded view of education, we now also talk about transformation of collectively shared beliefs shaping our societies instead of just the individual and his or her unique relations to the rest of the world and the things in it.

  4. The UNESCO Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development is clear on that question: ESD “achieves its purpose by transforming society. ESD is about shaping a better tomorrow for all” (UNESCO 2014). As this describes the goal of education rather than the way to achieve it, we do not go into to this approach any deeper.

  5. We are aware that trying to pluralize perspectives from a position that is “White and academic” is difficult. We want to be transparent about this. The debate about sustainable futures cannot be separated from people’s positions in terms of social status or privileges and associated forms of discrimination.

  6. Consequently, we will not go into depth about societal transformation theory and learning. The reader will find more relevant literature in the footnotes.

  7. We will also relate to the experiences of actors in the field of ESD, with who we are in close contact, and to political education, to broaden the practical background that we refer to.

  8. Getzin and Singer-Brodowski (2016) argue that ESD is too much influenced and instrumentalized by economic interest and thus a pedagogy of degrowth cannot be developed within this frame. We see this point, but our position is less hardened. We see it as a crossover between ESD and political education, pointing out that both fields can learn or inform reciprocally.

  9. Brand and Wissen (2017) describe the modes of living of the Global North as imperial; they are based on access to cheap labour and resources from the Global South as well as protection of this exclusive access.

  10. Cf. Biesecker’s concept of “Vorsorgendes Wirtschaften” (Biesecker and von Winterfeld 2014).

  11. Cf. Plumwood (2002), Descola (2011), Göpel (2016), Muraca (2007), Sanders (2016), Brand and Wissen (2017).

  12. Andreotti et al. (2018) have also stressed the importance of learning processes beyond a cognitive rational level.

  13. The Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (WBGU) is an advisory council to the German Federal Government and a main actor in the German sustainability debate.

  14. This notion of education also underlies the Frankfurt Declaration for a critical-emancipatory political education (2015) which claims, that to support a more balanced public debate on sustainable futures, an important task of education is to “display excluded and underprivileged positions” (Eis et al. 2015).

  15. In the German-speaking countries, a similar debate is occurring, influenced by Koller (2010) and Peukert (2015), the latter placing a stronger emphasis on collective and political perspectives.

  16. In their comparative study on political dimensions in ESD, Håkansson et al. (2017) raise the question of whether we must deal with learners’ personal commitments in order to discuss or to manage the experience of antagonistic conflict in the context of building sustainable futures.

  17. Harald Welzer states that our historically developed mental infrastructures are so deeply internalized that we can hardly access them through cognitive reflection. Rather, we can become aware of and change them by experiencing examples where different relations to the world are realized (Welzer 2011). See Amsler and Facer (2017) for more detailed discussion on hope in the context of learning for sustainable futures.

  18. In this context, Prádanos (2016) discusses the challenge of dealing with privileged learners and points out the necessity of learning to listen.

  19. See Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie, FairBidung (2014) Beyond Growth! Methods for Educational Settings on Economic Growth, Limits to Growth and Alternatives.

  20. Here, we refer to Eric Olin Wright’s (2010) concept of Real Utopias which focusses on establishing alternatives in the cracks of the dominant economic and societal system. For the relevance of dealing with power relations in the context of ESD, see also Håkansson et al. (2017).

  21. See in particular Håkansson et al. (2017), a study dealing with the political dimension of ESD, focussing on conflict.

  22. Related to this is the relevance of socio-political engagement for progressive educators. Up to now, there has been very little exchange over challenges, good practices, strategic orientation, or political requirements. To change the conditions of educational practice and to become more visible, we believe that it is necessary to build and strengthen the image and identity of progressive educators through an associated movement. In our work, for instance, we organize bigger events like conferences with larger teams of organizers—groups of as many as 50 people. With these larger events, actors develop projects jointly; this kind of engagement supports the forming of a common bond.


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Correspondence to Nadine Kaufmann.

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Kaufmann, N., Sanders, C. & Wortmann, J. Building new foundations: the future of education from a degrowth perspective. Sustain Sci 14, 931–941 (2019).

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