The Spirit of Sustainability
Almost 30 years ago, the United Nations issued “Our Common Future” in search of a sustainable development path; however, little has changed in our society since then. The question is: have we gone too far away from nature? Have we undermined that we are part of nature? The present chapter will discuss that sustainability is not a trade, but a philosophy of life where spirituality plays an important role. Organizations and academia have utilized the triple bottom line as part of a sustainability balanced scorecard; however, sustainable development is predicted by interconnectedness and a worldview requiring a spiritually evolving experience that appreciates nature for its intrinsic value where humans are part of nature. The triple bottom line is expanded into a quadruple bottom line to integrate the spiritual realm as part of an effort to develop quality education for sustainability.
KeywordsTriple bottom line Spirituality Transformative learning Critical pedagogy
The world may be on the brink of catastrophe, and many humans still are oblivious to the reality of climate change. We still believe that in the last minute, something will happen to save us because humans are special. This reminds me of the 2008 American science fiction film “The Day The Earth Stood Still” I think this is a perfect example of human exemptionalism. In the movie, an alien came to destroy humans because humankind was a threat to the well-being of the Universe. But before starting the destruction the alien went to consult with another alien that came to Earth before and stayed for many years on a mission to try to understand humankind. That alien knew that humans would never change, but he still would rather stay and die together with humans because during this time on Earth he learned that there is something special about humans that is worth dying for. After the alien started the destruction process of humans in order to proceed with his mission to save the Universe, he saw the love of a woman for a child, then he decided to give humanity another chance. Another indication of human exemptionalism is that God is on our side. Humans are above the natural world and allowed to manipulate animal, vegetative, and mineral systems at their disposal. In fact, this disconnectedness of humans and the natural world may be the root cause of the human exemptionalism. We have forgotten that we humans are guests in this planet and at any moment if we go extinct, like many other species did in the past, the planet Earth will continue its existence. We need to realize that it is not the world that is on the brink of catastrophe, but human race. Based on evidence from radiometric age-dating of meteorite material, the age of the Earth is approximately 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (Hedman 2007). In contrast, humans have only been around a few hundred thousand years, and further considering that civilization as we know it is about 6000 years, how can humans articulate that they are superior to nature and that nature is at their disposal?
We can argue that the conditions for human extinction have not been met yet, but we should be concerned that unsustainable human activity and exploitation of the natural world is compromising both natural ecosystems and human survival. Human extinction is quite plausible according to expert Nick Bostrom (2009); however, he argues that the current century or next centuries will be critical for humanity life expectancy due to technological powers and artificial superintelligence. Bostrom emphasizes the need of a clear and realistic understanding of the future in order to make sound decisions based on accurate scenarios of the future of humanity. However, the understanding of the future can be augmented based on the lessons learned from the past, and in this case environmental literacy is a crucial tool.
One of the most relevant contributions of environmental sociology is its critique of human exemptionalism, the belief that places humans outside the limits of the natural world (Catton and Dunlap 1978). As pointed out by Williams (2007), when sociologists address environmental problems, it is often assumed that humans have the ability to stand above the natural world and from an unrestricted view to rationally manage problems created by society. By placing human consciousness outside of nature, we fail to understand that consciousness is bounded by constraints that may or may not be overcome, but must be accepted in order to solve anthropogenic environmental problems. Williams claims in his endnotes, “One implication of conceiving human consciousness as limited is that we indeed may not be able to solve the problems we create.” Even though this may be true, assuming that humans have the capacity for rationality, does not mean that we exercise or use this capacity. The question is why sustainability initiatives have not been more effective, as any rational analysis of the consequences of humans’ behavior toward the environment would indicate the ludicrousness and foolishness of our actions. Beaver dams change the landscape dramatically like human dams but the difference is that they create many habitats for plants and other animals unlike humans that destroy habitat for the sake of their own species. We should expect humans to be rational, or at least to learn to behave, following the example of the symbiotic relationship between the beaver and its environment. It seems that humans are disconnected from nature, destitute from the symbiosisness that is found in nature as if humans were not part from the natural world. The beaver is often referred to as nature’s own engineer. The beaver’s ability to transform its environment to suit itself, and at the same time improve the habitat for fish species by improving water quality, reducing erosion, and reducing seasonal fluctuations in flow, is an example of nature interconnectedness. Humans need to learn to behave with an interconnected approach to the environment and do no harm. Therefore, better understanding of sustainable development may require strategies to educate society, possibly by exploring a worldview of appreciation for the natural world.
The definition of sustainability is by itself a challenge because of the diverse number of perspectives and interests as a consequence of the lack of a quality education strategy for sustainable development that takes into consideration attitudes toward sustainability with an intrinsic appreciation for nature. Both academia and businesses have been implementing a multitude of programs depending on their background and interests; however, they do not seem to focus on nature as an asset, and the outcome has been failure. In fact, many businesses have utilized the term sustainability as a buzz word to expand their profits and self-interest, this has been identified as green washing for public relations purposes, tainting any genuine effort toward sustainability. In order to provide genuine sustainable development, a closer look at the sustainability movement will be entertained in this study with perspectives from academia and business environments. The educational contributions of Socrates, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire provide compelling tools for transformative learning that may be utilized in quality education for sustainable development. This study explores the under-examined factors that may lead to pro-environmental behavior with the purpose to impact quality education for sustainability and recommendations for the design of appropriate curriculum.
Developing a responsible personal worldview is central to sustainable development, but achieving quality education to promote transformative learning for sustainability is thus far poorly understood. Most programs involving the education for sustainable development rely on changing behaviors rather than attitudes. The emphasis is on the scientific and utilitarian aspect of sustainability with negligible importance on the spiritual realm, emphasizing the intrinsic value of nature. Campuses that have introduced sustainability projects have included building sustainable gardens and implementing energy-efficient upgrades with little or no focus on educating for genuine sustainable development by exploring students’ values and beliefs. Even though green technology adoption may be the right thing to do, most schools are not targeting the root cause of the environmental crisis that fundamentally is human attitude. Instead, they are just providing palliative measures for a materialist perspective maintaining the status quo of the economic system. The lack of understanding is based on the fact that sustainability is not a trade that can be taught independently from the student philosophy and worldview, sustainability is in fact a philosophy of life.
Sustainable Development Implementation
History of Sustainable Development
As human population started to increase, the landscape of the planet shifted from a nomadic life style to a settled lifestyle with one place to cultivate the land and domesticate animals (Mebratu 1998). This transition was from a position of interdependence with the natural environment to an attitude of taming nature through science and technology to benefit humankind. Part of this process led to a devaluation of the natural world, assuming a perspective of human exemptionalism. However, beside the environmental degradation, it can be stated that ecological factors have been a major driving force behind social transformations affecting the planet and human life. It is true that the standard of living in the developing world has increased, but still the majority of people in developing countries are impoverished. Natural environment breakdown, such as habitat loss and degradation, is affecting 85% of all threatened species and indicates we are close to our limits (Brown et al. 1995). Additionally, Gottlieb (1996) discussed that as a consequence of the continuous growth of technology and the concentration of power, fuelled by religious and political ideologies, this has led to an increase in the belief that humankind is apart from the natural world.
At the other end to the concept of Limits to Growth, there are the deniers of climate change who argue that resource constraints can be overcome with little effort provided market-oriented policies. After the 1972 Stockholm Conference, there was a scientific consensus that the damage of human activities on the environment was unsustainable (Erkins and Jacob 1995). As a result, the term sustainable development was coined and the definition was framed by the report of WCED in 1987, Our Common Future.
We call for a common endeavor and for new norms of behavior at all levels and in the interests of all. The changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations that the report urges will depend on vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation. To this end, we appeal to “citizens” groups, to non-governmental organizations, to educational institutions, and to the scientific community. They have all played indispensable roles in the creation of public awareness and political change in the past. They will play a crucial part in putting the world onto sustainable development paths, in laying the groundwork for our common future (Brundtland 1987).
This implies that sustainable development shall be implemented by a change of attitudes and behaviors through education, and it is, in essence, the responsibility of humanity, including individual citizens as well as organizations. Education is the key to sustainable development as long as it incorporates the development of critical thinking skills allowing people to make appropriate decisions. At this point, my question is how much weight will be given to the development of critical thinking of the public at large in order to avoid decision-making biases and manipulation of third party interests. It is true that debate and public participation is mentioned as a form of bringing awareness, but if the education process does not simultaneously include critical thinking development, the amount of information and effort will be useless. There is no question on the root-causes of unsustainability and accountability of our attitudes inherently in our educational programs for sustainable development that currently is focused on profiteering and consumerism tainted by a green façade. In addition, the education effort has to involve a mindset of transformation considering that sustainability is not a trade but mostly a worldview. Otherwise, the current general public understanding of environmental issues will allow the definition of sustainability to be manipulated based on rationalization of convenience and self-interest.
Unfortunately, so far the concept of sustainability was vastly utilized by organizations to capitalize on the goodwill of customers that were genuinely interested in helping to save the environment. The term “green washing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986 as a response to the behavior of some organizations in dressing up as environmentally friendly, portraying a green image of their products and practices, when in fact they have the sole motivation of profiting off the good faith of consumers. This was of great concern to me because these actions would not protect the natural environment. In fact, they would make things worse, by enhancing consumerism and escalating an irresponsible utilization of natural resources. Furthermore, green washing is unethical and allows businesses to mislead well-intentioned consumers who honestly want to help preserve nature, not for economic reasons, but based on a genuine sense of nature’s intrinsic value..
Critical Analysis of Sustainable Development Implementation
The Influence of United Nations
The influence of major organizations and preconceived ideas on people’s attitudes plays an important role. Although almost 30 years ago, the United Nations issued “Our Common Future” in search of a sustainable development path; little has changed in our society since then in terms of genuine sustainability activities that actually have made any impact in the health of the planet because attitude change is not implicit in the current process of sustainable development. We are still debilitating ecosystems and pushing away other species that have the same right to inhabit the planet. We are still endorsing the attitude that nature was created for humans despite the fact that humans are part of nature and depend on the balance provided in the natural world to survive. Sustainability is still taught in schools from the perspective of a trade and application of technology that may reduce harm to the environment instead of promoting a worldview transformation based on spirituality and appreciation for nature, based on the premise that technology alone eventually will resolve all environmental challenges. This belief that human ingenuity will prevail any challenge because the human race is special is inaccurate and detrimental to a genuine sustainable development implementation.
Moreover, business organizations have utilized the triple bottom line as part of the sustainability balanced scorecard; however, sustainable development is predicted by interconnectedness and a worldview that appreciate nature for its intrinsic value where humans are part of nature. As currently described, the triple bottom line epitomizes the profit oriented view of sustainability. All three dimensions, namely, the environment, economic, and social justice are representing the perpetuation of the establishment fueled by consumerism and profiteering. The environment to represent the proper management and conservation of natural resources to maintain business growth, the economic aspect to ensure profit for the organization, and social justice to reduce poverty provide equity, access to social resources, and well-being with the hidden main objective of increasing the customer base and dependency of goods provided by corporations. The environment dimension should be viewed as a natural asset instead of a resource. In fact, the triple bottom line lacks a dimension representing spirituality and consequently should expand from triple into a quadruple bottom line to integrate the spiritual realm and more appropriately describe sustainability.
The Failure to Achieve Sustainable Development
Sustainable development has not been achieved yet, considering the complexity of our society from the political and economic activities. Most decisions toward sustainability are made with emphasis on economics and politics with little or no concern to the natural world from its intrinsic value, and for the most part the natural world is regarded as a resource instead of an asset. As a consequence of human exemptionalism, Pratarelli (2016) argues that unsustainable human activities and extensive exploitation of the environment is of concern since both global ecosystems and human security have already began to deteriorate. Pratarelli reminds us to consider that the state of global ecosystem with increasing threats of climate change whether attributed more or less to excessive human economic activity may support the assumption that the failure to achieve sustainability may be in our genes. Humans are wired to respond to short-term problems. If we want to try to understand why human behave unsustainably, we must account for the survival-based instinct to prosper in the short-term. LeBlanc claims that humans do not have a conservation ethic to keep them in ecological balance. “Literature addressing conservationist behavior among the worlds’ remaining indigenous people reveals that the behavioral pattern of living sustainably is rare and not an inherently human behavior” (LeBlanc and Register 2003). LeBlanc concludes that the fundamental cause of warfare is correlated with the area’s number of people, other living organisms, or crops that a region can support without environmental degradation. Because warfare and violent conflict have always existed throughout human history, humans have never lived in ecological balance with nature. The problem is that in the past, the population was relatively less than our current trend and ecological imbalances were localized and did not have a detrimental global impact. It is relevant to consider Bostrom (2009) claim that our capacity to learn from experience is not useful for predicting the future. From his perspective, predictability is a matter of degree, and different aspects of the future are predictable with varying degrees of reliability and precision.
Dobson and Bell (2006) discuss the relationship of self-interest and sustainable behavior when people are subject to a penalty-reward program to encourage environmentally sustainable behavior. In order to illustrate this scenario, Dobson shares the example of the Plastic Bag Environmental Levy (PBEL), implemented by the government of Ireland to encourage people to use reusable bags and to change attitudes toward litter and pollution. Dobson points out that it makes more sense that if our attitudes toward waste and pollutants change, our behavior will change, more likely than the vice-versa. However, the question remains: were people that changed their behavior motivated mostly by reward rather than by intrinsic attitudes? The answer remains unknown. Dobson says we do not know, as the subject matter is still to be investigated. It is important to consider that changing people’s attitude to litter and pollute is much harder to assess, and to our knowledge no specific follow-up research on this issue has been done.
Further, Dobson stresses that every government should pay attention and seek to regulate and influence changing attitudes as well as behavior, since both are key to achieving objective sustainability. He admits, however, that this is easier said than done. If we want to focus on the sustainable development of an organization, it can be said that the level of commitment shall be similarly pursued from changes in both behaviors and attitudes. In this context – Andrew Dobson’s claim that sustainable development is not possible without individual and organizational changes – it seems worth noting that monitoring top management and members of an organization may be valuable predictors of their level of sustainable development (Dobson and Bell 2006). In addition to the fact that change within individuals and the organization are prerequisites for sustainable development, it is more pertinent to secure changes in attitudes than just the behaviors (Dobson and Bell 2006). In this respect, the emphasis on designing an appropriate education program for sustainability to change attitudes becomes relevant. Additionally, the development of a metric system to evaluate the attitude of members in an organization, as well as the behavior specifically related to sustainability, is crucial to determining the main factors of sustainable development that will contribute to a successful implementation strategy.
The Triple Bottom Line
Considering that what one measure is what one will pay attention to and control, the triple bottom line has an important role. Initially, the idea led to some success in light of corporate social responsibility agendas, remediation of climate change issues, and fair trade; however, it soon became clear that the transfer of production and social impact in countries such as China, India, and Brazil was devastating due to cheap labor, environmental costs, and natural resources exploitation. The main problem of the triple bottom line is that even though measuring profit is relatively easy, measuring the planet and people’s performance is not as straightforward. What would be the cost of a forest? What is the cost of oil spillage or the cost of forcing children to work and depriving them of education? What is the cost associated with species extinction? How much is a plant species worth in terms of it genetic code and potential societal benefits, keeping in mind that nature’s engineering took millions of years to develop? Those are immeasurable in terms of monetary value (Hindle 2008).
Opposite of the idea of utilizing an aggregation of different indicators, including economic, social, and environmental aspects, it seems that sustainable development cannot be truly pursued if the economic aspect is included, because the essence of sustainability cannot be monetized or subordinated to the logic of markets. We cannot consider sustainability as a commodity, but instead we should perceive sustainable development as a human responsibility to ensure that every species in the planet has access and the right to resources as needed for their survival, just as water is a human right under international law (United Nations 2014). The fact that optimizing a fabrication process is going to reduce costs should not be the emphasis, but rather reducing the carbon dioxide emissions and consequently benefiting society in terms of health and conserving biodiversity.
This is highly visible and manifested in the act that we consume in our current economy 1.5-planet resources in a 1-planet world. The second divide is the social divide. It is manifested in the fact that 2.5 billion people live below the poverty line. But then there is a third divide, an inner or consciousness or spiritual divide, which has to do with me being disconnected to my own true sources of creativity and self (Zoeteman 2012, p. 321).
According to Scharmer, the spiritual aspect is disconnected from our behavior and consequently not often discussed by sustainable development stakeholders. The spiritual perspective, intertwined with nature, is part of the knowledge of indigenous people. Consequently, indigenous knowledge participation in the educational process of sustainability will help narrow the gap between spirituality and the natural world engrained by Western culture. A transformative education for sustainability is necessary in order to explicitly consider the spiritual dimension because Western culture is largely selfish and individualistic, resulting in anthropocentrism in contrast to eco-centrism. Additionally, technology solutions such as the proliferation of residential solar panel is not enough to remediate the environmental crisis. The challenging aspect of the environmental crisis is related to subjective topics such as control of population growth, attitude, behavior, and the ability to make technology utilization choices. I do not believe that modern science and technology should be banned in order to solve our problems, but I would like to emphasize that technology, as well as the economic system by itself, is not alone to blame for the current environmental crisis, as they are simply tools for humanity. We can only blame ourselves for the selflessness and lack of awareness. From my perspective, the economic system and environmental status quo are the result of peoples’ lack of awareness and unfamiliarity of critical thinking, which could otherwise enable conditions that make sense based on solid information in any economic system utilized, because ultimately it is the people’s actions of poor choices that lead to unsustainable activities.
I believe that what is missing most are places and infrastructures that facilitate collective sense making. With infrastructure, I refer to places where people can come together, and then experience and make sense of the situation around them. These are basically places where systems can see itself. Sense making in society, but it is not a collective process. Making this shift in awareness is not a matter of developing new habits; it requires breaking through existing patterns of behavior. It requires the capacity and the experience of walking in the shoes of other stakeholder, and then making sense of this experience, sharing these stories, coming up with a system analysis, making sense of the larger situation that you face as an ecosystem together (Scharmer 2009).
Scharmer blames leadership decisions based on the larger systemic structure of our economy where political agenda have maximized shareholder value on the fact that many corporations, in part, have joined the sustainability wagon yet failed to follow a true sustainable development.
Mary et al. (2011) also explains the importance to developing a well-rounded and responsible citizen through education by exploring spiritual intelligence (SQ), despite emotional intelligence (EQ) and intellectual intelligence (IQ) in education. The need to instill human values in higher education to promote societal and environmental concerns is becoming recognized as fundamental in promoting change and to helping society embrace sustainability. Critical thinking or inquiry-based learning is an expression of intellectual quotient (IQ) where students have the opportunity to engage reflective practices in real world problems beyond the classroom. While emotional intelligence (EQ) is the capacity to empathize and recognize one’s own feelings and those of others by developing self-awareness, social awareness, and social skills. Further research shows that spiritual intelligence (SQ) addresses problems of meaning and value, by placing our actions and lives in a wider and more meaningful context of passion that drives transformation. The spiritual intelligence will facilitate the dialog between the reason and emotion (Zohar and Marshall 2000). Whereas IQ, EQ, and SQ seem important to promote behavior change, they may be developed through education to instill genuine sustainable development.
Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef has a negative perspective on human beings’ ability to embrace sustainability assuming that people have limitless urges to consume and an obsession for materialistic possessions which produces more poverty and inequalities within society. He also claims that individual human beings are different and have consequently different needs and desires. He has classified fundamental human needs in subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, recreation (including leisure, time to reflect, or idleness), creation, identity, and freedom (Max-Neef 2010). The model of promoting a shift from economic accounting has led and inspired other researchers to see indicators beyond existing metric including Gross Domestic Product (GDP) promoted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN). Max-Neef’s work has led to the creation of Human Development Index (HDI), which reflects many elements of sustainable development.
Attitudes are important indicators because they translate the mental stage of persons; in addition, attitudes are selective in terms of perception and memory interaction, in order to find information that agrees with chosen attitudes and avoid information that does not. Consequently, attitude predicts behavior, and attitude and behavior can be correlated. Attitudes may be classified based on past knowledge and weakly constructed on the spot. The strength of an attitude depends on factors such as attitude certainty, importance, accessibility, and ambivalence. It is crucial to identify strong attitudes because they impact behavior more than weak attitudes and are less susceptible to self-perception and remain stable over time. Attitudes of a person also have implications in utilitarianism, social adjustment, object appraisal, knowledge, value expression, and ego-defense. There are also implicit values that reflect moral behavior and long-term behavior that may serve to reveal attitude factors such as the willingness to invest in innovative technologies, to communicate openly on internal issues, or to engage with opposing actors.
In order to promote interconnectedness and a worldview that appreciate nature for its intrinsic value, it is suggested that the triple bottom line should be expanded into a quadruple bottom line to integrate the spiritual realm. The triple bottom line is not complete without a dimension that involves respect for nature and raise awareness that we are part of nature not above nature. It is true that we have the ability to transform our environment but we should do it by simulating the beaver’s feat to suit itself and benefiting others. Quality education for sustainable development may be the main factor to facilitate and promote change in our attitudes.
Unfortunately, the triple bottom line has been utilized as an education tool in many schools of business. Even though the initial intention to create the triple bottom line concept may have been of good nature, there was definitely an oversight as what is required to have genuine attitude toward sustainability. As we discussed, humans have a tendency to believe that they are above and beyond nature due to cultural influence. This fact has to be accepted as the main factor leading to unsustainability toward materialistic and environmentally detrimental behavior. Humans have a predatory attitude toward the environment that without appropriate education may profoundly affect the natural world.
The Missing Dimension: The Fourth Dimension of the Bottom Line
It is clear that a different mindset toward sustainability is needed, besides those that revolve around technology and regulation. There is a need for a worldview that places humans within nature, instead of outside nature. The introduction of the systems thinking dimension forming the quadruple bottom line will lead to an understanding of interconnectedness and development of spiritual awareness, with regards to sustainability from the perspective of perceiving nature for its intrinsic value within a model of reciprocity. The sustainability education revered by many academic institutions following the triple bottom line for the last 30 years has so far proven to be inadequate. The need for a spiritual dimension within sustainability is slowly becoming recognized by other academics. During the 2015 International Conference for Sustainability Leadership in Croatia, I had the opportunity to interact with and learn of other researchers that were coming to the same conclusion that there is a need for the spiritual component in the education of sustainability
Sustainability is a complex and cross-disciplinary concept of personal and social transformation that involves both materialistic and spiritual components. The difficulty is that each individual has a tendency to perceive sustainability from their own perspective, based on their life experiences, professional training, and worldviews. It has to be understood that sustainability deals with living and nonliving things, and as such, if it involves living things, the spiritual component needs to be included. Consequently, a holistic education is crucial. Kopina et al. (2015) points out the importance of justice and equity between humans and other species in the discussion – ecological justice – based on a position of deep ecology and the recognition that all living things have rights; a context where entire species of plants and animals are considered to be much more than human property.
Unfortunately, the lack of a holistic approach to education, teamed with a worldview detached from the interconnectedness of all life, is based on maintaining the status quo. From my perspective, these are the main challenges to reaching genuine sustainable development. An example of the misrepresentation of genuine sustainable development is explained by the United Nations, in the document Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN 2015). This document contains distractions from the essence of sustainability – they state that sustainability is about ending of poverty and hunger, promoting sustainable consumption, managing natural resources, and ensuring that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives where social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature. These goals alone will not address the root cause of unsustainability. With a focus on poverty, violence, or economic development, little or almost nothing is mentioned in regards to the intrinsic value of nature or other species. There is no reference to the reality of a limit to growth or how to prevent overpopulation, a direct cause of poverty and lack of education, due to limited resources. A number of studies on attitudes toward sustainability have been undertaken in the last decade, but the focus has mostly been on economic development, including marketing trends and consumers’ attitudes toward sustainability or green products, to provide to businesses guidance on better understanding their markets and optimizing sales. These studies often base the value of their results on the effect of economic indexes such as gross national product (Morel and Kwakye 2012; Harris Interactive Inc 2007). The misuse and multiple interpretations of the term sustainability as well as unanswered ethical questions with emphasis mostly on anthropocentric and economic perspectives has been pointed out by Desjardins (2007) as critical and subject of further investigation. I believe that the impasse on sustainable development is based on human exemptionalism and anthropocentrism as an evidence of a lack of the spiritual dimension within the definition of sustainability as portrayed by Brundtland report and triple bottom line. Consequently, the spiritual dimension should be added to the triple bottom line and emphasized as part of a curriculum strategy.
Micangeli et al. (2014) describes the importance of higher education in promoting changes in attitude through programs that do not only educate students for green careers but also gives them the tools to be problem solvers and agents of change. This implies a pedagogy specific for sustainability and developing competencies necessary to envisioning change and working with communities. But even though Micangeli has prepared an online questionnaire that listens to students to measure their learning preferences about themes of sustainability, little has been done to measure students’ intrinsic appreciation of nature, and no proposals on how to impart such an appreciation on students has been presented.
In Our Common Journey: A Transition toward Sustainability (1999), the National Research Council acknowledges that anything that needs to be sustained will fall into one of three major areas: nature, life support systems, and community. But the authors make clear that the most common emphasis is on life support systems, where the life first to be supported is human. We recognize here, again, the anthropocentric perspective – it concerns human survival a priority. Furthermore, the emphasis of this human survival priority is based on natural resources; as useful for humans, ecologists call it “ecosystem services.” I find this is a condescending attitude with which to view the natural world and other species. The way we disregard other species, plants, and all living things will result in not only biological species becoming endangered, but also push arguments about what should be sustained away from the natural world and onto human societies – with certain communities and cultures becoming differentiated, discriminated against, and deemed less important to humanity as a whole. As limits of resources worsen, the desensitization and differentiation toward other human beings will become more evident. Differential Human Life Value Perception is not a new concept – the history of humanity is rife with examples of discriminatory behavior based on citizenship and ethnicity. The experiments carried out on Jews in Nazi camps, abuse of African-Americans through The Tuskegee experiment, and exploitation of Guatemalans in The Guatemala Syphilis experiment are a few examples (Aggarwal 2012).
Humans are part of nature – it is presumptions to subjugate the entire natural world to our whims. The National Research Council (NRC) indicates the need to mobilize science and technology for a transition toward sustainability, but also recognizes the importance of other disciplines from natural and social sciences, engineering, and management. We also need to emphasize the importance of basic research, collaboration between industrial sectors, and policy aimed at utilization of technologies around the world. There is collaboration among an extended community of universities, businesses, and government agencies to address a specific set of social problems. But education for NRC does not include an understanding of the intrinsic value of nature or a transformative learning experience. It is mostly a development of science, solidifying the view that human ingenuity will eventually resolve all of humanity’s issues – overpopulation, and abuse of the environment in disregard of limits to growth. Ignoring that there are limits to growth will lead to scenarios similar a 50-lane highway existing in China that resembles a parking lot due to the amount of vehicles.
I think that what the world needs is for us to pay a little attention to it, in order to create paths towards a coexistence that is more sustainable than the present model. I think that it needs us to be more aware of the collective implications of our individual behavior. We have depersonalized life and societies. We have forgotten the individual behind the institutions, companies, parties, behind the system itself. (Escrigas 2008)
The need to promote coexistence between people and the environment is now on many political agendas. This aligns with the principles of eco-pedagogy and the concept of planetary citizenship as inspired by Paulo Freire, to bring humanity into the classroom by community engagement and learning the needs of the people. It is through dialectical thinking that students will learn not just from each other but also the value of a diversity of cultures and approaches, with the objective of effectively impacting political agendas.
Decision-making can be carried out using approaches that have a positive or negative effect on the overall progress of humanity and societies. Higher education therefore plays a decisive and fundamental role with respect to the contents of courses, as well as the values and the abilities that they incorporate (Escrigas 2008).
The need for mutual recognition, understanding and respect between different cultures and for diversity; the ability to deal with the expansion of technology, but to give it a human face and tackle its adverse effects and the ethical questions that it raises etc. All of the professions affect and interact with some of these items, or even with all of them. It is essential to break the hegemony of conformity of thought to be able to advance rapidly in a globalized society. Therefore, we should accept the complexity of reality and the interdependence of all areas of knowledge from a truly interdisciplinary approach to education (Escrigas 2008).
In this context a systems thinking dimension should be included in the triple bottom line, as it is fundamental in the implementation of quality education for sustainable development introducing a spiritual component that teaches inclusiveness and acceptance of different worldviews. If we create a classroom environment where everyone is involved, including members of the community, it will create an inspiring learning opportunity and thereby energize students and community members to work together for a common good. In this situation, the needs and interests of the community in harmony with the natural world will prevail instead of self-interests of the corporate complex.
As Demirel and Oner (2015) claims, usually the emphasis in designing curricula for business schools is based on a very career-oriented education; with little or no effort has been put on the “socialization” process. Considering that business schools should be the place where the fundamental values of the society are imparted to future managers and leaders, it seems that this objective has been overlooked. Learning to work together is the chief approach of eco-pedagogy, with focuses on improving not only as individuals, which is currently the common practice, but also as a collective, cohesive group toward the premise of genuine sustainable development.
Education Perspectives for Quality Sustainability
Eco-pedagogy Approach to Sustainability
To achieve genuine attitude toward sustainability, an education model that promotes a transformative worldview needs to be taken into consideration. Relying of educational philosophers such as Socrates (Jowett 1891), John Dewey, and Paulo Freire to develop instructional strategies of quality education for sustainability.
The Socratic method is fundamentally a school of thought that claims that knowledge can only be achieved by the student (Lam 2011). Instructors are supposed to guide students to answer their own questions on an exercise of dialectical exercise. This instructional philosophy is the basis of critical thinking development and behavior. Sustainability is not a trade and cannot be taught; it has to be earned through the ability to acquire understanding, self-awareness, and intrinsic motivation to appreciation to nature. In this case, the learner has to reach to the realization that sustainable activities are worth by themselves in order to have genuine environmental concern. The decision-making is a complicated and subjective process. Nevertheless, critical thinking is fundamental and a crucial skill for an accurate decision-making process.
John Dewey education model emphasize on the need to learn by doing with interaction with their environment in order to adapt and learn. In this context, the process of instruction is centered in the production of good habits of thinking, meaning that thinking is the method of an educative experience. In essence, education relies in having an experiential situation of continuous activity in which there is intrinsic motivation to pursue further knowledge and stimulate thought. This philosophy led to an interdisciplinary curriculum by connecting multiple subjects and involving community engagement. Students have to be involved in an activity that concerns sustainability. Dewey makes a distinction between what we experience, that is the thing we experience, and the act of experiencing by itself (Dewey 1916). This is the reasoning behind the idea that we can only develop intrinsic appreciation for nature as result of experiencing nature by itself.
Dewey specifies, in the context of his theory of inquiry, that many crucial skills including critical thinking, reasoning, as well as empathy, tolerance for the views of others, creativity, and imagination have the possibility of being properly recognized and developed. Dewey’s education model provides an opportunity for a reflection of the natural world behavior what it is extremely important to the development and understanding of pro-environmental concern. By nature Dewey understands reality as both a biological and a social environment. Nature changes, renews, and grows, so the self also changes and develops. Whenever there are any tensions and disruptions, nature instinctively and automatically tries to overcome them. A human being is a part of its environment, helping to constitute nature itself; as a result, there are constant interactions between human beings and their surroundings. Growth within a social environment happens through the transmission of experience and through communication within a community. Humans live in a community surrounded by the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. Dewey stresses the importance of community to education and the idea of the inseparability of the inquiry process from its social environment (Czujko-Moszyk 2014).
Paulo Freire’s methodology combining learning communities with eco-pedagogy specifically for higher education is an appropriate strategy to enhance nature appreciation through education and develop genuine sustainability. Reflective experiential learning opportunities of different cultures such as indigenous knowledge and worldview of the natural world are important to promote transformation learning opportunities. A central issue of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, based on “World Citizenship,” is that it is directed at elementary and middle schools and involves members of the community in conjunction with students to resolve pertinent real world issues. The expansion of this concept to higher education is unique in nature and could be considered in other institutions as well.
The central thesis in Freire’s work is the proposition, which was often stated with emphatic empiricism, to the effect that critical consciousness is the motor of cultural emancipation... Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education (Freire and Norton1990: 73–74)
While many businesses have genuinely invested in the sustainability cause, others have misused it as a new fad for turning a quick profit, and some have assumed the position that since everyone is doing it, why not? The idea of taking action without adequate analysis and reflection, as Paulo Freire has described in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1981), “action for action’s sake” indicates and reinforces the need for quality education for sustainable development to be a prerequisite for transformation to occur. As Paulo Freire warns that the greatest danger that education faces is becoming a tool to sustain oppression, as the tendency is to harden any idea into a system, through a dominating bureaucracy that annihilates creativity. I believe that sustainability faces similar dangers in respect to becoming a tool of power for organizations that have the potential to affect professional and educational objectives.
Pedagogically, it is important to question why critical pedagogy is important for sustainable development. Sustainability has been tainted by multiple definitions, corrupted by self-interest, pressured from a culture of individualism, and self-centered by the anthropocentrism that abounds in American culture. Consequently, since the susceptibility to transformation is very small, and without drastic innovation and the understanding of the need for transformative learning strategies, curricular intervention is unlikely to happen in any real measure. There is a need to reflect, unlearn, and relearn in order to develop passion, consciousness of freedom of thought, and the ability to develop constructive action – characteristics of critical pedagogy that unfortunately are seldom explored in the current traditional education system. Almost 50 years ago, Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, warned that humans were destroying systems of life in an unsustainable fashion. He said, “the oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time—everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (Freire 1981).
Paulo Freire had a different consciousness of the world, with his pedagogy involving community participation in the learning process includes weekly meetings, in which students and community members participate in an attempt to “read the world” and solve issues that afflict society. This would allow instructors to learn students’ understanding of their own schooling, their community as a whole, healthy activities, and other significant facts necessary to develop sustainable activities. Students are guided to identify unsustainable practices and find solutions within their means. Students are empowered and become committed to their ideas for change. In this context, sustainability is an opportunity to provide quality education to evaluate principles and values and to introduce a culture of responsibility for the environment. The theme of sustainability can be utilized to rebuild the current educational system, which is based on an exemptionalist view of the world (Gadotti 2010). The purpose of eco-pedagogy explores human relationships with the environment from the emotional and conscious level. As Paulo Freire said, “Without a proliferation of sustainable education, Earth will be perceived as nothing more than the space for our sustenance and for technological domination, the object of our research, essays, and sometimes of our contemplation” (Freire 1981).
Transformative Learning for Sustainability
Because humans have a malleable brain we are continuously changing as we are exposed to new experiences independent of age. Notwithstanding people in general can learn and gain ecological literacy toward sustainable development anytime depending on the education program. The question is what factors are important in promoting this mindset change?
Transformative learning factors and core elements
Transformative learning factors
Transformative learning core elements
Individual experiential learning
Opportunity to explore
Curiosity of the unknown
Empathetic relationship between humans and environment
Exposure to indigenous people
(Freshman to senior)
Academic training and knowledge
Freedom of thought
Knowledge as tool of self-conscious and self-awareness
(Liberal arts versus Business)
Critical self-reflective skills
Exposure to interdisciplinary academic content
Systems thinking design
Mainstream gap analysis
Value system and worldview assessment
Ideas shape attitudes of society
Sharing knowledge approach
However, a curriculum adaptation to include sustainability aspects is not enough, as it should be understood that the instructional model and preparedness of the instructors is of extreme importance. Stubbs and Cocklin (2007) points out the importance of allowing students to examine contrasting assumptions underlying different worldviews because it helps them develop critical and reflective thinking skills. The aim is not to convert them to any particular viewpoint but rather to help them understand and articulate more than one side of the sustainability debate by developing reflective thinking skills. It is important to make clear that the sustainability framework is not static; instead, it is a continuum process of evolving understanding, positions, and perceptions that include intertwine interactions between humans and the environment.
For sure education has a role to play in changing behaviors and as a driving force to develop a sustainable future. However, in order for a curriculum to be effective, courses have to implement an interdisciplinary program in which interconnectedness is transparent across the curriculum and the theme of sustainability is approached by every course. Activities shall be structured with the intent to instill a vision of values and principles that can help frame a genuine mindset for sustainable development and de-emphasize human exemptionalism.
The role of education in promoting change to resolve environmental and social issues is discussed by Cohen after writing his book in 1995 How many People Can the Earth Support?, where he speculated that giving quality education to all children in the world would contribute to approaches to solving demographic, environmental, economic, and cultural problems risks. He describes that with respect to culture, education has the potential to reduce inequalities in helping resolve conflicts and to increase people’s connection to different cultures. Education includes knowledge of nonhuman entities including living and nonliving components of Earth (Cohen and Malin 2010). Education instills values of care, reciprocity, and justice. The exposure to science and arts help to make good judgments, celebrate multiple perspectives, and understand that small differences can have large effects. The content of sciences and arts has civic implications about human uses of resources both living such as forests and nonliving such as minerals and other physical elements. With respect to population, education has the potential to reduce fertility rates and improve the health and survival of children and adults. With respect to economics, it has the potential to increase the productivity of workers and local capacity to use and develop technology. With respect to environment, it has the potential to improve environmental preservation and disease prevention (Cohen 1995).
Spirituality perceived from the natural world is part of the indigenous people knowledge, and their participation in the educational process of sustainability is of extreme importance to promote change and a transformative learning experience. A transformative education for sustainability will have to include the spiritual dimension because the Western culture is largely selfish and individualistic, resulting in anthropocentrism leading to exemptionalism. This adds to the challenges of successfully implementing sustainable development, emphasizing the need of quality education to help avoid unsustainable activities.
A transformation begins with an experience that contradicts existing attitudes and values including motivation to critically analyze the situation and reconsider their existing frame of reference. Lisa Quinn (2014) indicates that transformative learning may transpire from different sources – not just critical analysis and reasoning, but also through feelings, emotions, and spirituality, as she confirmed in her interview findings. The concept of transformative learning was developed by Mezirow, where learners change their beliefs, attitudes, and feelings by engaging in activities that require critical reflection of the experiences, leading to transformation and a new worldview. This transformation is the result of a life crisis or life transition from a disorienting dilemma or could also result from a series of incremental transformations over a period of time (Mezirow 1991).
The transdisciplinary approach seems a plausible way to bring students closer to nature and issues of sustainability. This approach has been suggested earlier and empirically tested in a classroom setting – Marques fuses systemic thinking from a scientific and spiritual perspective to bring awareness to students in order for them to become advocates of a new society of global citizens and a way of thinking that I consider fundamental to the survival of mankind as the basis of transformative learning (Eugene and Joan 2011). Students not only critically investigated course materials in respect to environmental science and spirituality, but also became facilitators in their own community, assisting in the development of good citizenship and enhancement of civic responsibility. As part of their final project students were asked to present their final findings in a community center. An educational system based on lectures and theoretical approaches is not enough to face today’s complex issues including climate change and sustainable development. It is clear that community interaction as the means to raise awareness of environmental issues is very important in the curriculum design as a basis for bringing real world experiences into the classroom.
The New Curriculum and Pedagogical Framework
It is because we can change people’s mindset that genuine attitudes toward sustainability can be taught given the appropriate learning tools and environment. The key ingredients to promote transformative learning environments are exposure to nature during either childhood or adulthood under special circumstances, as well as exposure to indigenous knowledge presented as major findings by Allevato (2017). In his doctoral dissertation, Allevato (2017) present a pair of studies exploring environmental concern of undergraduate students comparing different majors and year of enrollment as well as green organizations’ personnel. The difference between major indicated that business students in particular have scored lower than liberal arts students what may indicate that a career oriented curriculum for the business school should be avoided in favor of a more transdisciplinary approach. Another important factor was the importance of childhood exposure to the natural world in their attitude toward sustainability. That work also found that even in adulthood an extraordinary event involving exposure to nature may trigger a worldview transformation toward a pro-environmental behavior. These findings have namely fomented the foundation of the new curriculum and instructional model explored by Allevato.
In this context, strategies to enhance nature appreciation through education and develop genuine sustainability are suggested, such as the inclusion of non-career-oriented classes from liberal arts in the traditional business school curriculum; the Socratic method based on argumentative dialectical instructional model to stimulate critical thinking and creating an inquiry mindset of questioning and letting students obtain the answers by themselves; John Dewey’s philosophy of active and engaging students with meaningful and hands on topics; Paulo Freire’s methodology combining learning communities with eco-pedagogy specifically for higher education to bring awareness of issues facing society; aspects of the Finnish communal education system by creating an environment of sharing information and cooperation; and reflective experiential learning opportunities of different cultures with infusion of indigenous knowledge into Western knowledge system to develop a worldview linked to the natural world.
Genuine values and appreciation for nature may be reached as students are exposed to nature and observe the interconnectedness between plants, microorganisms, and nonliving physical elements. Paulo Freire’s educational model based on critical pedagogy applied to sustainability by exposing students to real world issues facing the community is spreading around the world. It was developed by the Paulo Freire Institute in the Municipality of Osasco, São Paulo, and begun in 2006. Based on the principles and values of sustainability, it focuses on the involvement of children and youth in exercising citizenship. This model could be utilized in higher education and in particular at business schools in order to transform exemptionalism into an appreciation for nature.
Antunes and Gadotti (2005) discuss the incorporation of the Earth’s charter into education and eco-pedagogy with the purpose of educating planetary citizens as an ongoing process that does not stop in the classroom, but use the classroom in conjunction with the community as the first step toward life-long behavior of caring and appreciation for nature based on sustainable activities. Classic or traditional pedagogies are anthropocentric by principle. Eco-pedagogy is based upon a point of view that is more comprehensive, from man to planet, evolving from an anthropocentric vision to practicing planetary citizenship, with a new ethical and social point of reference. From a curriculum point of view, eco-pedagogy is a movement to educate and think globally, educate feelings toward nature, teach about the human condition in retrospect to the planet, develop a conscience for planetary inclusiveness, educate for collaboration and sharing, and educate for kindness and peacefulness. The concept of keeping Earth in mind is also shared by Orr (1994).
The great ecological issues of our time have to do in one way or another with our failure to see things in their entirety. That failure occurs when minds are taught to think in boxes, and (are) not taught to transcend those boxes or to question overly much how they fit with other boxes (Orr 1993).
David further elaborates that another aspect of the failure becomes transparent in education’s inability to join intellectual with affection and loyalty to the ecologies of particular places, which is to say a failure to bond minds and nature. Professionalized and specialized knowledge is not about loyalty to places or to the Earth, or even our senses, but rather about loyalty to the abstractions of a discipline.
Curricular reorientation cannot be based only on goals which the university sets. “Banking education” is the metaphor used by Paulo Freire to describe traditional education as a process of treating students as empty “containers” or passive recipients of information (Freire 1981). This is not aligned with the demands and goals of a quality education program built around the intrinsic value of nature for sustainability. Consequently, transdisciplinarity and eco-pedagogy is the foundation of transformative learning for quality education for sustainable development.
Conclusion and Recommendations
It is imperative that a new education model be implemented in order to promote change of people worldview that is in agreement with the concept of genuine attitudes toward sustainable development. One aspect of the transformative learning is the adoption of a fourth dimension to the triple bottom line to take into consideration systems thinking aspect of sustainability. This dimension gives the opportunity to explore subdimensions that include spirituality, interconnectedness, self-awareness of our attitudes, value of the natural word by recognizing that humans are part of nature not apart, and the notion of reciprocity to express a balance of mutual exchanges. In summary, our attitude needs to change from “we need natural resources, let’s take care of nature” to “forget about our wants and needs, let’s take care of nature,” because nature is not meant to serve humans and it is an asset, not a resource.
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. (Freire 1981)
Because liberal arts students indeed scored higher on tests aimed at measuring pro-ecological opinions, it is important to compare the different disciplines and requirements for each major and try to find a common ground. Liberal arts students are exposed to a variety of disciplines from a transdisciplinary approach, rather than a career oriented for business. Additionally, sustainability topics or activities are rarely explicitly declared in the course descriptions. An alternative form of intervention, besides designing an entirely new curriculum with a focus on sustainability, would be to implement a different educational model. The approach that would be most effective is the utilization of educator Paulo Freire critical pedagogy and eco-pedagogy approaches, where dialectical thinking and environmental themes are brought to the classroom through engagement with the community providing elements for a transformative learning experience.
An important finding leading to the idea of transformative learning was the fact that early childhood exposure to nature is a pertinent factor in influencing pro-ecological behavior, as well as an opportunity for a unique experience or remarkable event during adulthood that would provide a turning point in someone’s mind to relearn to appreciate nature. As a consequence of the realization that an individual’s worldview is an important factor in determining if they would disclose an anthropocentric or eco-centric view. The triple bottom line does not represent the intrinsic value of nature but is a description of the status quo of unsustainability, a new dimension, the inclusion of systems thinking was proposed. The aim of this new dimenesion is to highlight the spiritual component of sustainability through aspects of interconnectedness (from the environment side) and awareness (from the social side). This inspired the design of the quadruple bottom line, as shown in Fig. 2 to be utilized as an instruction tool of transformative learning.
Since childhood exposure was found to be the main factor in determining pro-environmental concern, with subjects that had more exposure scoring more toward pro-environmental beliefs, contact with nature became a relevant consideration to be implemented in academia. The design of a curriculum for business schools focused on quality education for sustainable development has to include components of exposure to nature. In addition, the fact that even in adulthood the possibility of an event may cause a transformative experience leading to a different worldview toward pro-environmental supports the idea of a curriculum for sustainable development based on transformative pedagogy. Another important finding by Allevato (2017) is that the year of enrollment was a factor on environmental concerns. Indeed, the difference was significant between freshman and senior students, with senior students scoring higher than freshman. This suggests that schooling was somewhat beneficial in fostering pro-environmental concern, but the fact that even the score means for senior students were low demonstrates that improvement is still necessary possibly by emphasizing environmental literacy.
The inclusion of an additional dimension to the triple bottom line, namely, systems thinking, possibly can bring individual spirituality and systems consciousness as a fundamental tool to advert exemptionalism and anthropocentrism by tuning humans into the natural world again, to demonstrate the interconnectedness within nature. The challenges of climate change are in fact a wakeup call for our species to return to appreciate nature again, as we abandoned the interconnectedness with the natural world when we became “civilized.” As population expands and we conquer other species’ habitats and transform environments to accommodate our indulgence, we have turned our minds away from our essence and became subservient to our own predatory domination to nature. If measures are not taken to remediate this unsustainable trend, the devastation will not only eliminate other species, but humans as well. As we are biologically designed for survival and self-preservation, eventually we will turn against each other. Thus, the idea of the quadruple bottom line was presented, which includes the spiritual component.
In this study by no means are all problems of understanding human behavior toward sustainability well posed, let alone solved. I hope I have thrown some light on these problems and possibly a promising intervention through education as a contribution that I, as an instructor at a higher education institution, may be able to do during my career. Sustainability has a transdisciplinary character and cannot be approached from the environmental science and technological perspective alone, but also by the psychological and social sciences perspectives as well. As a last note, environmental knowledge does not translate into sustainable behavior because sustainability involves a change in mindset and worldview in order to affect behavior. Worldviews do not depend on knowledge, but knowledge may depend on worldviews.
In conclusion, transformative learning strategies may be applied in higher education to promote genuine attitudes toward sustainability. The uniqueness of the present study was in the identification of a lack of appreciation for the natural world identified both in business students as well as green organization personnel involved with sustainable development. Another important finding was that early childhood exposure to nature may be a predictor of pro-environmental behavior and behavioral intention. Interestingly enough, adulthood exposure to nature or an event of extreme wonder was also observed in this study, suggesting that transformative learning may occur in higher education. Consequently, contact with nature may provide an opportunity for transformative learning, and should be implemented in curriculum design and educational model in concurrence that common sense tells us that we need nature, nature does not need us.
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