22 SES 03 D, Learning and Sustainability
The Anthropocene: ‘The Anthropocene’ can be explained as “…a proposed epoch that [began] when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems... It is the term approved by the International Commission on Stratigraphy to describe the geological age we are now living in, one in which human agency is affecting the planet more than any other force” (Watts, 2017). As an area of study, it has a logical disciplinary home, having been addressed widely in geology (Gibbard and Walker, 2014). However, it is gaining broader currency and has been the subject of discussion in other fields and disciplines, especially social science disciplines (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2017; Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, 2007). Issues relevant to the anthropocene are also addressed in recent, popular texts including Harari (2015). In most accounts, study of the anthropocene involves examining how the relationship between humans and the planet has changed geologically, and what can be done to monitor the balance. There are various theories concerning the anthropocene and its origins (Crutzen, 2002; Lewis and Maslin, 2015), it being linked to several geological timescales. Others have questioned the term, or at least attempts to interpret it as an epoch with a defined start (Gibbard and Walker, 2014). Social scientists have been involved in discussing and critiquing aspects of the anthropocene (Barnett and Campbell, 2010; Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2017).
Sustainability: Sustainability and teaching of sustainability issues represent more familiar discussions in higher education policy and research. Nevertheless, two areas of questioning constantly recur: first, what is sustainability; second, should students be taught it as part of their curricula, and if so how? Brew and Cahir (2013) argue that sustainability is a much-overused term, adopted differentially by governments, institutions and individuals. Reid, Petocz and Taylor (2009) discuss different interpretations: sustainability represents a journey; sustainability is an educational endeavour; sustainability is about types of work system. For others, such as Perrault and Clark (2017), sustainability is a list of behaviours that encompass what it means to ‘be sustainable’. Wals and Jickling (2002) are amongst those who address complications of understanding sustainability, suggesting “Sustainability is as complex as life itself. The concept of sustainability is related to the social, economic, cultural, ethical and spiritual domain of our existence. It differs over time and space…” (p. 227). One account that is established is the ‘three-pillar model’ which presents sustainability as an intersection of economic, social and environmental issues (Brundtland Report, 1987).
Variation in understandings of sustainability do not provide the best starting point for considering its inclusion in teaching, yet there have been many discipline-specific innovations (Barlett and Chase, 2013; Johnston, 2013). There are, however, different views as to how sustainability-based curriculum change should be implemented. For example, several authors have discussed holistic integration (Hopkinson, Hughes and Layer, 2008); others offer more piecemeal approaches (Stubbs and Schapper, 2011). Notably, studies demonstrate that students want sustainability better represented in their institutions and curricula (Drayson, et al, 2013). This would suggest that whilst contested, sustainability will remain an important area in higher education in Europe and internationally.
Bringing together the anthropocene and sustainability / research focus: How, if at all, can the relatively new study of the anthropocene help us develop sustainability teaching in higher education? Does it offer clearer explanations or directions? The purpose of this paper is to explore further the anthropocene and examine whether it would represent an alternative starting point for addressing certain sustainability related issues in higher education. The anthropocene has attracted European and international research interest and it warrants further exploration and discussion in the context of the teaching of sustainability.
This is a desk-based, explorative study, featuring a two-tier approach: (1). A focused review of academic and other sources on the anthropocene and on sustainability, drawing on sources and papers from the field of higher education research and from the discipline of geology. In addition, the paper draws on a range of other sources including non-disciplinary specific books (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2017), media coverage (Watts, 2017), and teaching materials at the institution at which I work (where the anthropocene is being taught and researched). (2). Previous literature reviews and empirical studies undertaken by the author about sustainability in higher education and in university curricula: In these earlier studies (which I have presented at previous ECER conferences and published in various journals and in a book chapter) I have paid a great deal of attention to two underlying concerns in sustainability: what it is and includes, and how, if at all, it should be included in higher education curricula. For example, interpretations of sustainability range from relatively narrow and limiting (a focus on ‘keeping things going’, or on specific, practical environmental issues) to broader based interpretations (such as the ‘three-pillar’ model of sustainability, which incorporates social, environmental, and economic issues). I will draw on results of my previous studies which have considered (separately) educational developers’ and sociologists’ conceptions of sustainability and its relevance to higher education teaching. The literature reviews and outcomes of these previous projects each offer perspectives about the problematized nature of sustainability, and the main challenges facing those trying to develop sustainability teaching and policy. My project will, subsequently, include a consideration of the potential value of the anthropocene in addressing these challenges. There has been a proliferation of research about sustainability in higher education, leading to the publication of a wide range of books, case studies and articles and I will synthesise and discuss key studies within the aforementioned themes, in relation to the scope and focus of this paper. The research process was also informed by sources including Foss and Waters (2007), who provide incremental steps for undertaking literature-based research. The project is expected to lead to a second, empirical strand, involving semi-structured interviews with geologists, social scientists, and teachers of sustainability in other disciplines.
The central argument to be presented in this paper is that, as an area of study, the anthropocene has value in the context of teaching and researching sustainability in higher education. It has potential benefit for informing and reframing the teaching of sustainability and is a concept worthy of further discussion in higher education itself. This is not to suggest that the anthropocene represents a replacement focus to sustainability, but it does carry a more specific emphasis (for example, in its focus on human agency in disrupting the environment). Its application might enable existing sustainability and ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ (ESD) teaching to be better defined and understood by both educators and students: perhaps sustainability itself can be presented as a more broad-ranging term. Application of the anthropocene in teaching would also offer an opportunity for a ‘fresh start’ in educating about the environment, shifting away from a focus on the blurred, debated and (arguably) compromised notion of sustainability. With its tighter focus on human agency, an examination of the anthropocene might offer us some useful tools to aid our teaching. However, study of the anthropocene has its own limitations and critics too, so, whilst offering an alternative lens for analysis, it will certainly not offer a ‘cure all’ for contemporary debates. Nevertheless, as an area of ongoing interest in geology and other disciplines, it has relevance and currency to discussions about sustainability. On this basis, the paper will offer some recommendations about application of the term to higher education, and these points will be applied carefully to the European context within which sustainability continues to represent a major area of both innovation and tension.
Barlett, P. and Chase, G. (2013). Sustainability in Higher Education; Stories and Strategies for Transformation (Urban and Industrial Environments). Massachusetts, MS, MIT Press. Barnett, J. and Campbell, J., (2010). Climate change and small island states: power, knowledge and the South Pacific, Earthscan. Bonneuil, C. and Fressoz, J. (2017). The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, London, Verso. Brew, A. and Cahir, J. (2013). Achieving sustainability in learning and teaching initiatives. International Journal for Academic Development. doi: 10.1080/1360144X.2013.848360. Bruntland Commission (1987). World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our Common Future, New York. Crutzen, P. (2002). Geology of mankind. Nature, 415, 6867, 23. Drayson, R., Bone, E., Agombar, J. and Kemp, S. (2013). Student attitudes towards and skills for sustainable development. York, Higher Education Academy / National Union of Students. Foss, S. and Waters, W. (2007). Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation. Plymouth, Rowman and Littlefield. Gibbard, P. and Walker, M. (2014). The term ‘Anthropocene’ in the context of formal geological classification. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395, 1, 29-37. Harari, Y. (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, London, Harvill Secker. Hopkinson, P., Hughes, P. and Layer, G. (2008). Sustainable graduates: linking formal, informal and campus curricula to embed education for sustainable development in the student learning experience. Environmental Education Research, 14, 4, 435-454. Johnston, L. (ed.) (2013). Higher Education for Sustainability: Cases, Challenges and Opportunities from Across the Curriculum. Oxon, Routledge. Lewis, S. and Maslin, M.A. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 519, 7542, 171-180. Perrault, E. and Clark, S. (2017). Sustainability in the University Student’s Mind: Are University Endorsements, Financial Support, and Programs Making a Difference? Journal of Geoscience Education, 65, 2, 194-202. Reid, A., Petocz, P. and Taylor, P. (2009). Business Students’ Conceptions of Sustainability. Sustainability, 1, 662-673. DOI: 10.3390/su1030662 Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. and McNeill, J. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36, 8, 614-21. Stubbs, W. and Schapper, J. (2011). Two approaches to curriculum development for educating for sustainability and CSR, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12, 3, 259-268. Wals, A. and Jickling, B. (2002). Sustainability in higher education: From doublethink and news-peak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3, 3, 221-232. Watts, J. (2017). Environment: Why everything else comes second. The Guardian, 15 April, p. 54.
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