Sustainable Minds

The next step in human evolution must take environmental learning from schools to the realities of society.

A RADICAL TRANSFORMATION of education would develop an ecologically literate society – one that understands the principles of ecological systems and uses them to design human systems.

A RADICAL TRANSFORMATION of education would develop an ecologically literate society – one that understands the principles of ecological systems and uses them to design human systems.

Human evolution has always depended on the ability of communities and groups to learn. In prehistoric times, bands of early hominids survived by learning how to work together to find food. The Agricultural Revolution was only possible because hunter-gatherers shared information about how to cultivate seeds and domesticate animals. These and many other advances depended on collaborative learning. In our time, we need to develop an entire learning society so humankind can take the next step in its evolution and learn how to live sustainably on the Earth.

Previous advances, while bringing many gains, have led to an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions that threatens our well-being, and perhaps our very survival. Created by Western culture’s addiction to economic growth and consumerism, the crisis comprises many interconnected facets, including climate change, the depletion of natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, and increasing pollution and toxic wastes. Unless our species can take the next step and learn to think and act sustainably, the future appears grim.

If learners are to gain the sustainability literacy skills necessary for life in the 21st century, there will need to be a fundamental reform of the education system. Today’s schools, colleges and universities serve the needs of industrial society, fostering consumerism, competition and individualism. They prepare students to become willing cogs in a vast dysfunctional economic machine. Their approach to learning emphasizes theories over ethics, detachment over relationship, and immediate answers over thoughtful inquiry. Based on a worldview that asserts the superiority of our species above all others, mainstream education perpetuates the patterns of thinking and behaving that cause the ecological crisis.

Sustainability Literacy in a Nutshell
Traditional education is too often reduced to job training. Sustainability literacy, on the other hand, focuses on the practical skills that students will need to survive and adapt in a world that is rapidly changing due to climate change, dwindling energy resources and ecosystem degradation.

Among those who have called for a radical transformation of education are David Orr and Fritjof Capra. They have suggested that the purpose of education is to develop an ecologically literate society – one that understands the principles of ecological systems and uses them to design sustainable human systems. David Orr 1992 book Ecological Literacy developed this idea and laid out an entire educational agenda based on the belief that all education is environmental education. At about the same time, New England educators and environmentalists Laurie Lane-Zucker, John Elder and David Sobel coined the phrase “place-based education, which holds that the best learning happens when it is grounded in familiar local communities and ecosystems. In 1999, Ed Sullivan went to the other end of the spatial scale and advocated a cosmological approach to education. In his book, Transformative Learning, he suggested that education should be based on the “universe story,” the grand narrative of the cosmos originally developed by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry.

Ecological literacy, place-based education and a cosmological approach to education are excellent suggestions. But they do not fully recognize that the transition to sustainability will require creating a learning society where people gain sustainability literacy skills together. Just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” it will take human society as a whole to learn how to live lightly on the Earth. No one person or group of people has all the answers. We need the knowledge of Indigenous peoples, the expertise of people who work on the land, the curiosity of children and the wisdom of elders. We need artists, scientists, poets, engineers, spiritual leaders and film stars. In short, we need everyone’s creativity and ingenuity. Only by listening to each other and sharing what we know will humankind be capable of evolving truly sustainable societies.

If learning is a social phenomenon, education cannot be limited to schools, colleges and universities. It becomes a lifelong active learning process that can occur anywhere, any time, with anyone, no matter how young or old. Learning is not a segregated set of activities, conducted at specific times of the day, in specific places, and at a specific stage of life. Instead, it is integrated into the fabric of everyday living. As singer and actress Eartha Kitt once said, “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

The idea of a learning society was first proposed by American educational philosopher Robert Hutchins. In a 1968 book called The Learning Society, he advocated a society whose primary goals were continuous learning, active citizenship and social well-being. According to Hutchins, “The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.” His idea of a learning society was based on the belief that education should improve society by helping learners understand, participate in, and change the world around them. But the thought that a learning society should produce engaged citizens with the capacity to lead social change has all but disappeared from public discourse.

So how can we revive Hutchins’ original idea and develop a learning society to assist humankind’s evolution toward sustainability? How can we help learners of all kinds gain the sustainability literacy skills they will need to survive and thrive in the 21st century while building a more sustainable world? A good start may be to explore how a learning society can support ecological literacy, place-based education and a cosmological approach to learning. Let me suggest six strategies:

Creating Learning Communities
First developed in higher education, there are now many examples of collaborations for learning, including spiritual, professional, online and neighbourhood communities. World Cafés, for example, can bring a diverse range of participants together to share perspectives on sustainability issues. Involvement in practical shared tasks, such as creating community gardens or building a transition town, can further stimulate active learning.

Learning from Experience 
Books and experts can be helpful but our own lived experience is a powerful teacher. John Dewey, the father of experiential education, claimed that learning from experience can equip students to become better citizens. By developing knowledge based on their own experiences of the world, they become responsible and engaged members of society. This form of active learning is obviously very different from conventional educational practices, which deliver a predetermined body of information to passive learners. Experience does not just have to be personal, however. It is also possible to learn from the historical, place-based experience of living sustainably in local communities, which is passed on through the generations.

Fostering a New Cultural Worldview
A learning society for sustainability could foster the development of a new cultural worldview – one that is based on respect for the Earth and the great diversity of life on which humans depend. With its presumption of human superiority, the dominant Western worldview assumes humankind has the inherent right to over-exploit other species and exhaust the planet’s resources. Developing values and beliefs consistent with sustainability will require a shared understanding of the destructive consequences of this worldview, as well as a widely-held desire to create a respectful, long-term relationship with the Earth.

Thinking Systemically
Based on the belief that the parts of a system can best be understood in the context of their relationships with each other, systemic thinking emphasizes patterns, trends and feedback loops. Within a learning society, systemic thinking would focus on understanding the interactions between human and ecological systems, and restructuring human systems to be more sustainable. Without systemic thinking, society will continue to apply ineffective band-aid solutions that do little to resolve underlying problems.

Embracing Diversity
A learning society would embrace diversity – not only different cultures and ethnicities, but also different ideas, beliefs and ways of knowing. We can learn from people who do not think like us because they challenge our assumptions, beliefs and expectations. We can learn from the wisdom of peoples and communities around the world that have proved their sustainability over hundreds or thousands of years. In the same way that the health of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity, the sustainability of human systems depends on cultural diversity and a diversity of ideas and practices.

Whole Person Learning 
A learning society could foster the development of whole person learning, which enables students to grow as authentic human beings and develops their personhood. This is very different from contemporary education, which focuses on the intellect while ignoring ethical values, emotions, embodied experience and the grounded experience of place. Contemporary education leaves learners with few practical skills for sensitive engagement with those around them, for interacting with their local environment, or for navigating the complex world. We need a learning society that engages and integrates peoples’ hearts, minds, hands and spirits.

These six strategies are a beginning, but there is not much time. The task of developing a learning society to facilitate humankind’s evolution toward sustainability is urgent. While governments are urging us toward another, even more intensified Industrial Revolution through their skills agendas, we must step back, look at the larger picture, and ask what skills it will take for people to be able to contribute to thriving, flourishing and, above all, sustainable societies.

Let us hope that the urgency of the global situation catalyzes the creation of a learning society where people­ can gain sustainability literacy skills and dramatically enhance Homo sapiens’ ability both to survive and evolve.

Originally published in Resurgence magazine, this essay was adapted with permission, from the concluding chapter, “A Learning Society,” in The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Arran Stibbe, ed., Chelsea Green, 2009. A multimedia version of the book is available at

Kate Davies is a contributing editor with Alternatives Journal and teaches at the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University in Seattle.