Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Transformative Responses to Sustainability

  • Arto O. SalonenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_501-1

Changing Social Structure and Cultural Patterns

Our planet is as closed a system as a spaceship (Boulding 1966). A systemic entity, such as a planet, society, city, person, language, car, or telephone, is formed of the components it consists of and interactions between these components. A system maintains its existence through the interaction of its components (Bertalanffy 1968; Bunge 1979; Mingers 2006).

In a new geologic era – the era of Anthropocene – the spaceship Earth is in human hands (Crutzen 2002) because the human pursuit of the good life permanently changes the socio-ecological system on which our everyday life is fully dependent (Figueres et al. 2017; Ripple et al. 2017; Steffen et al. 2015). 1300 scientists from 95 countries concluded in 2005: “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).

The question is what will intelligent, forward-thinking, and ethical human beings do who have better than ever access to data, solid historical evidence, and rich knowledge about future trends? If we really want to start seriously addressing complex social and environmental challenges, we need to think in terms of systems, and we must overcome the reductionist perspective and adopt a transformative orientation (Senge 1990):

From an early age we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions: we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. (Senge 1990, p. 3)

Transformative responses refer to social change. Social change is the alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time (Harper and Leicht 2016, p. 5). The role of innovation and technological progress has often been emphasized in social change. Scholars in sustainability science and behavioral economics have also underlined the relevance of an ethical framework in the transforming process.

Great changes are possible. Humankind has already managed to stop global ozone depletion. We have almost doubled our life spans in a short period. Moreover, we have created a universal educational system and medical care. We also know what to do next. United Nations Agenda 2030 is a roadmap to human dignity by 2030. It is intended to end poverty, transform all lives, and protect the planet (UNEP 2014; United Nations 2014, 2015). The needed transforming process is dependent on both social structures and the behavioral changes of citizens.

Consumption habits in the wealthiest countries are the key to sustainability. The consumption of the world’s most prosperous fifth (1.4 billion people) accounts for more than 80% of the use of natural resources and emitted pollution. This is 60 times more than the poorest fifth in the world. Therefore, even relatively small behavioral changes of citizens living in affluent welfare societies can effectively reduce the use of natural resources and combat climate change on a global level (Munasinghe 2014, p. 260).

Does higher education only reproduce the dominant way of living or does it offer transformative responses to society? This is a crucial question because universities can be a major contributor to unsustainability if they only reproduce the dominant mainstream culture (Orr 2004; Wals 2010). The main challenge for education is what do we need more and what less to have a good life?

A Transformative Higher Education Institution and Social Change

Transformative learning challenges the core assumptions and values that we as a society hold (Mezirow 1978; Cranton 2006; Howlett et al. 2016). Transformation in higher education refers to “a process of questioning and redefining one’s frames of reference, experiences and assumptions to generate new meanings and new visions of future” (Leal Filho et al. 2018, p. 289). Sustainability promoting universities embrace pedagogies that educate students to become critical and reflective thinkers and practitioners (Howlett et al. 2016, pp. 316–317). Therefore transformative learning can even entail changes of worldviews (Sipos et al. 2008).

Transformative orientations lead to a holistic worldview (Laininen 2018). A holistic worldview together with systems thinking is a key driver of sustainability. This is a reason why transformative higher education institutions are interdisciplinary institutions. In practical terms, the interdisciplinarity approach means that transformative responses to sustainability is not possible without considering the interconnectedness of psychological, social, economic, and natural systems, for example, like this:
  1. (a)

    According to the psychological evidence, we know that, in overdeveloping countries, mass consumption leads to anxiety. Increased opportunities to spend more cause an inability to enjoy things obtained with money.

  2. (b)

    According to the philosophical evidence, we know that after meeting basic human needs (water, food, clothes, shelter, energy, healthcare, and education), it is difficult to increase well-being by focusing mainly on material things.

  3. (c)

    According to the economic evidence, we know that more sharing, cooperatives, and local economies are possible.

  4. (d)

    According to the evidence from social sciences, we understand that the chances of having a good life are threatened by increasing inequality.

  5. (e)

    According to the ecological evidence, it is not clear that future generations will have the same or better possibilities in their life as we enjoy.

Sustainable universities serve as a model of dignity and environmental stewardship (Sterling et al. 2013). This challenges the strategy, the management, and organizational culture of the higher education institution (Table 1). In the end, institutions could be forerunners in transformative responses to sustainability in society. In order to reach this level, collaboration, networking, and a strong impact on society are emphasized. The impact includes both local and global dimensions – planetary well-being. The institution is dynamic and forward looking. Trust and commitment hold people together there (Cameron and Quinn 2011).
Table 1

Comparing higher education institutions: reproducing the dominant society to offering transformative responses to a society


Higher education institution reproduces the dominant mainstreaming society

Higher education institution offers transformative responses to a society


Thinking in silos and disciplines are emphasized. Institution maintains the dominant way of thinking in a society

Institution offers transformative responses to a society. Interdisciplinary approach is emphasized


Management is based on control of individuals and their performance. Procedures and rules govern what people do

Management is based on common values and cohesion. Collaboration, networking, and strong impact to planetary Well-being are emphasized

Organizational culture

Institution is hierarchical. Activities are based only on local laws. Formal rules and policies hold people together. Stability is emphasized

Institution is dynamic and forward looking. Individual initiative and freedom are encouraged. Trust and commitment hold people together

By identifying connections and interactions between different things and phenomena, we can end up with decisions and policies both building sustainability in society and enhancing the well-being of citizens. This calls for holistic and empowering approaches to research, learning, and teaching, which reject the traditional cultural dualism and segregation. This demands educators to focus more on critical thinking, systems thinking, and enriching communication. What we also need is developing of higher-order skills such as logical thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, inferring, deducting, inducting, and thinking hypothetically. Most of all, this means that we need to think in terms of systems.

Systems Thinking as a Driver of Transformative Responses

Systematically thinking people perceive the world as a systemic whole. Everything is connected. Some connections are distant and weak, others are immediate and strong, but the essential idea is that the connections and interactions guide the way people see the world. The worldview of these people replaces an atomistic worldview in which a system can be understood by the sum of its parts. Instead, everything is a part of a larger whole and the connections between components are nonlinear. This approach generates goal-oriented activities where the importance of the goal is emphasized, but the details remain in the background (De Rosnay 1979).

Systems thinking may help us to question our paradigms and worldviews. Without systems thinking, it is difficult to understand that there can be no society without a well-functioning nature. It is also evident that without a society there can be no societal functions, including an economy. The solid base of society is built on human rights, social justice, and dignity. The good life on the finite planet Earth with population growth is not possible without a robust economy. Without an efficient economy, it is not possible to fulfil the basic needs of people. However, no economy is possible in the absence of thriving natural ecosystems and people (Giddings et al. 2002; Hediger 1999; Ott 2003; Salonen and Konkka 2015; Max-Neef 2010). Thus, economy has no intrinsic value but is an instrument for human well-being. The human being is fully dependent on thriving ecosystems and the sustainable use of natural resources such as fertile soil, crop pollination, water purification, disease control, and climate control.

A systems approach is a powerful tool for creating transformative policies and strategies in society. A holistic, systemic, and integrative interpretation of the reality around us will not only help our everyday choices but will also help us to see bigger picture in responsible decision-making. This approach helps to reveal connections between parts that make a larger whole. It offers a way of seeing that there is a citizen in a house, the house is located in a town, the town is in a society, and the society is part of Earth. The systems approach may help, for instance, to recognize that it is economically questionable to have extremely low prices for unhealthy food. Diseases linked to overweight increase the burden on the health sector in society. They cause more premature deaths than malnutrition in our world (Lim et al. 2012). Instead, healthy diets save resources and improve the quality of life. For example, locally produced organic plant-based food has multiple benefits for citizens, society, and the planet because it supports local farmers and entrepreneurs, promotes public health, maintains biodiversity, and helps establish global food security (Salonen et al. 2014; Helne and Salonen 2016).

Connections between different components of human well-being can open a new way of thinking. For example, students who can see greenery out of their classroom windows do better than those who cannot (Matsuoka 2010), and patients are cured faster in a hospital room with a green view (Ulrich 1984). Moreover, people walking from A to B on a tree-lined path alongside a river were systematically happier than those who took the same trip via an underground tunnel system (Nisbet and Zelenski 2011), and those who live in walkable neighborhoods have been found to be significantly more likely to feel that they belong to their community than those in car-dependent suburbs (Leyden 2003).

According to John Dewey, “the conception of education as a social process and function is in vain until we define the ideal of society we have in mind” (Dewey 1916). Next we will envision some transformations towards sustainable society.

Visioning, Policy-Making, and Building a Sustainable Society

A basis of standard of living is accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth is based on economic growth. Economic growth is often pushed by decisions about never ending desires and wants of citizens. A shopper who shops only to meet her or his needs – that are universal ends for the good life – poses danger to economic growth. However, permanent economic growth is not possible because “the economy is a sub-system of a larger and finite system, the biosphere” (Max-Neef 2010, p. 204; also Matutinovic et al. 2016). Planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009) refer to an importance of identifying basic needs of human beings.

In many societies, the amount of money and time spent on meeting the basic needs of citizens have fallen dramatically over the last few decades (Jansson 2011). When it is easy to fulfill the basic needs of everyday life, people tend to focus more on nonmaterial goals in life (Inglehart 1977; Jebb et al. 2018). In Shalom Schwartz’s value theory, such a change in values means shifting from self-enhancement to self-transcendence (Schwartz 1992). According to Abraham Maslow (2011, p. 179) that kind of full humanness occurs as altruism, belonging, and social cohesion. This shift from getting a better and better standard of living to having greater and greater life satisfaction and happiness is linked to the question of sufficiency and ethics. As John Maynard Keynes put it: “when accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals” (Keynes 1932).

The elements of human flourishing are nonmaterial. These elements enhance quality of life and they can increase forever. When citizens shift from the material goals of life (standard of living) towards softer post-material values (quality of life), wide-ranging effects on citizenship, society, and the common future of humankind may appear. This is a strong and fundamental response to sustainability in an affluent society (Table 2). Thus, a fundamental question for policy-making is whether we should focus more on quality of life or on standard of living.
Table 2

Comparing weak responses to strong responses

Weak responses to sustainability

Strong responses to sustainability

Standard of living

Quality of life

Focus on desires and wants

Focus on human needs

Global products and services

Local products and services

Linear economy

Circular economy

Market economy

True costs economy

Fossil energy

Clean energy

Consumer citizenship and individualism

Active citizenship and belonging

Local business maintains connections between producers and consumers. Sharing economy and local business enhance a sense of partnership, cooperation, and belonging. In fact, thriving local economies represent a deep-rooted democracy in which communities have opportunities to decide matters pertaining to their everyday life. Local products and services strengthen the vitality of the area. If money circulates five times or more in its place of origin, it generates a small economic boom (Max-Meef 2010, p. 204). This is a good news to sharing commodities such as tools, clothes, and vehicles. Sale of services may include art galleries and gyms, as well as maintenance, repair, and rental services. Use of services is often less materially and energy intensive than owning commodities. It also supports local labor intensity. Local business is also more transparent and accountable than global markets. Ecological and social responsibility is often stressed when the producer and consumer are near each other (Helne and Salonen 2016). Versatile and inclusive local economies are attractive as they foster trust and confidence that is at the heart of all economic activity (Diener et al. 2009).

From the standpoint of nature, economic growth is a process of transferring natural resources to landfills. Excessive mining is needed because of linear economy. As a result of linear economy, it is estimated that Japanese urban areas contain 16% of the world’s gold and 22% of silver (NIMS 2008). A shift from excessive mining to the circular economy is necessary simply because nonrenewable resources are not renewable.

Nature does not waste anything, but, instead, everything circulates. Material and energy flow forever. This idea is called circular economy. In a society, homes, cities, or soils are not ends but means to the next cycle of consumption. Wastes and emissions are evidence of incorrect product or service design (Salonen and Åhlberg 2012). In fact, there is no need for the term “waste.” The only thing to be eliminated is toxins due to their accumulative and disruptive nature in the liver, kidneys, and central nervous systems of humans and animals. Heavy metals negatively affect growth, reproduction, and the activity of the different organism in the natural ecosystems (Pepper et al. 2011).

Market mechanisms fail to address the accumulation of individual everyday actions into collective social costs. Efficient markets are transparent. There are no hidden costs. In a true cost economy, prices tell the truth. Externalities are included in the prices of commodities and services (Rees 2014, pp. 195–196). For example, each stage in the life cycle of coal – extraction, transport, processing, and combustion – generates a waste stream. Each stage includes hazards for health and the environment. These costs are typically considered externalities, and they are not included in prices. Accounting for the costs of damages doubles or triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated. This makes renewable energy economically competitive (Epstein et al. 2011). The situation is the same with other commodities we use in our everyday life. Switching to clean energy is one of the most effective ways to achieve a sustainable society because methods to produce energy are linked to ecological integrity, safeguarding biodiversity, democracy, nonviolence, and the peaceful coexistence of people. Fossil energy–driven climate change threatens social justice and human dignity (World Bank 2012), which are on the agenda of a socially sustainable society (Hämäläinen and Matikainen 2018, p. 28). Even if we live on a finite planet, raw materials and pollution are rarely taxed. Instead, the majority of government income from business is personnel related (Wintzen 2014, p. 299). In general, from the point of view of the citizen, society, and the planet, it is better to tax depletion and pollution than to tax labor and capital.

Active citizenship has many faces on different levels. In a neighborhood, an active citizen builds bonds between people from different backgrounds. For example, neighborhood gardens involve collaboration, knowledge sharing, and shortening the geographic distance from garden to dinner table. This improves happiness and saves resources simultaneously (Helliwell 2014). The current information society offers incredible possibilities to active citizenship. For example, the #metoo campaign is an example of active citizenship and rapid social awakening on a global level. This awakening refers to healthy and well-functioning society with active citizens that have the capacity to exercise moral judgment and the ability to feel compassion (Rees 2014). Even the emergence of a global civil society is possible through networking, at least on a certain level (Mitrani 2013). On the other hand, the challenge is this: “It is easier and perhaps more plausible to imagine a future of hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable, and authoritarian societies than reformed and effective democracies” (Orr 2014, p. 220).

Holistic transformative responses to sustainability are necessities because on the finite planet resources are limited. However, mainstream thinking and politics often try to maximize the number of products and services by almost any means. If our goal is primarily economic growth, it is tempting to do things that do not directly address the creation of opportunities for a long, healthy, and meaningful life for people. The challenge is this, we accept negative things if the economy just grows. Should we then, as a whole society – private sector, public sector, and civil society together – guarantee long, healthy, and meaningful life in dignity at the lowest possible cost to every citizen without growing the economy bigger than necessary? In sustainable society, economy is for people, and policy-making is for the well-being of citizens.

With transformative responses to sustainable development, higher education builds a society in which citizens have good reason to wake up to a new day. Their living has a rich content and precious purpose. This requires, above all, combining different people’s skills in communities, maximizing citizens’ experience of inclusion in society, and increasing the human ability to repeatedly overcome old habits and routines in everyday life. In doing so, it is possible to maximize life satisfaction and the happiness of citizens.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Social Sciences and Business StudiesUniversity of Eastern FinlandKuopioFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rudi Pretorius
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South AfricaPretoriaSouth Africa