The fierce urgency of now - Navigating paradoxes in sustainability education

Date 20 May 2020 09:00 - 21 May 2020 17:00
Venue Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent

Today we face multiple challenges – social, economic and environmental – and a growing sense of urgency to act to address these. This was powerfully emphasised recently by Greta Thunberg when speaking at the World Economic Forum.

“I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you act as if the house is on fire, because it is." (2019)

Her words sit against a background of extensive evidence provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reports, which emphasise the need for radical and immediate change to avert environmental crisis. Those working within the context of higher education, are faced with the paradoxical challenge of addressing the urgent global crisis using the “the slow way[s]…” of education (Biesta, 2013:3)

A second challenge relates to the extent to which it is possible (or even desirable) to accept structural and systemic boundaries or whether as Biesta (2015) and others argue, educators have a “duty to resist.” Universities themselves need to change; to push back against “dominant ideologies” of neoliberalism which increasingly drive professional practice (Barnett, 2018:1). This raises questions about the extent to which drivers such as employability, quality, student experience and ranking offer useful opportunities to embed sustainability within university systems and structures or whether they need to be resisted.

These two challenges can be understood as paradoxes (fast/slow; alignment/resistance), which those working in sustainability in higher education must constantly navigate. We must act quickly in an environment that is slow to respond; we must challenge and change the very structures we are working within. We propose a model in the form of a compass focused on these paradoxes. Its aim is to guide decision-making and identify when a particular type of response might be most appropriate. We argue that within the context of global crisis, professional wisdom is an increasingly essential virtue if universities are to be effective leaders in sustainability.

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