Sustainability Literacy

sustainability_literacy

Sustainability education is essential today. It is required at all levels but more so in schools, colleges and at the institutions with higher learning. We also need continuing education programs on sustainability for professionals, regulators and bankers.

In India, we are not yet focusing on sustainability education.

But let us first start with the basics. Everyone should be sustainability literate.

What does Sustainability Literacy means? I asked my Professor Friend

“Well there is no formal universally accepted definition” he said. The Sustainability Literacy Test (SuLitest) defines “Sustainability Literacy” as the knowledge, skills and mindsets that help compel an individual to become deeply committed to building a sustainable future and allow him or her to make informed and effective decisions to this end”.

(Hearing this kind of definition, I thought I was attending some UN Conference)

Then Professor said with a smirk “Dr Modak, don’t you think we need to focus on the basic literacy first? According to me this Sustainability Literacy is a luxury and all humbug. A 1990 study estimated that it would take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy from the present 74.4%. We better work on achieving this target”

“But then we are simply missing the boat. What is the use of making people literate – as by 2060, if we don’t change our lifestyles the warming of the planet will cross 4 0C. I said in despair “I expect Sustainability Literacy will help us to bring in the behavioral change and at least delay the global warming”

What is definition of literacy? I asked the Professor

Professor said that the National Literacy Mission defines literacy as acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and the ability to apply them to one’s day-to-day life. The achievement of functional literacy includes (i) awareness of the causes of deprivation and the ability to move towards amelioration of their condition by participating in the process of development, (ii) acquiring skills to improve economic status and general well-being, and (iii) imbibing values such as national integration, conservation of environment, women’s equality, observance of small family norms. So, we do include aspects such as conservation of environment”. He lit his cigar.

“Oh” I said. I did not know that the National Literacy Mission addressed environmental perspective in the very definition of literacy. “Not many may know” I muttered to myself.

“I hope that those who implement the Mission know this environmental perspective” I said. I must have sounded sarcastic or unsure but the Professor continued.

So we are fine when it comes to inclusion of environmental aspects in the definition of literacy. To move on however I suggest that we focus on the English Language Literacy” He said this rather emphatically.

English language literacy in India is “estimated” around 10%. But the people who speak, read and write it well enough to be considered acceptable in England and USA are probably only about 2 percent of the population. The rest (8 %) can merely understand simple English and speak broken English with an amazing variety of accents. We need to escalate this percentage to at least 50% by 2060. Remember Dr Modak, much of the sustainability related seminars we hold, reports we write and read are essentially in English. 90% of India’s population that is not English literate and so will never get involved in Sustainability.

“Well Professor – I don’t buy this argument. If this was the case, then the Americans would not have led this planet to a situation so unsustainable – and they wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump as their President.” This was now my turn to checkmate the Professor. Professor smiled.

OK, let us look at the global initiative on Sustainability Literacy. Professor said. The Natural Step has launched a program on Sustainability Literacy at 2 levels complemented by E-learning

Under the efforts to reach Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have Sustainability Literacy Test (SULITEST) of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI)

The Sustainability Literacy test (SULITEST) is an online multiple choice question assessment. It assesses, in 30 minutes, the minimum level of knowledge in economic, social and environmental responsibility, applicable all over the world, in any kind of higher education institution (HEI), in any country, for students from any kind of tertiary-level course (bachelors, masters, MBAs, PhD).

All the questions in this assessment will ensure that future graduates have basic knowledge on sustainable development and both individual and organizational sustainability and responsibility. For this purpose, the scope of this assessment covers 2 types of questions: Questions on challenges facing society and the planet i.e. general knowledge on social, environmental and economic issues, basic understanding of the earth e.g. water and carbon cycles, greenhouse effect, etc. And questions on the organization’s responsibility in general and on corporate responsibility i.e. questions on practices for integrating social responsibility throughout an organization and questions on the responsibility of individuals as employees and citizens.

The target by 2030 is that 200,000 tests get carried out per year, out of which 50,000 are done by professionals.

There is now a Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: A Multimedia version edited by Poppy Villiers-Stuart and Arran Stibbe. This two-part Handbook has several interesting topics. You can browse this Handbook online resource by chapters from the paperback, additional chapters as well as Video interviews.

In this ground-breaking book, leading sustainability educators are joined by literary critics, permaculturalists, ecologists, artists, journalists, engineers, mathematicians and philosophers in a deep reflection on the skills people need to survive and thrive in the challenging conditions of the 21st century. Responding to the threats of climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, economic uncertainty and energy insecurity demands the utmost in creativity, ingenuity and new ways of thinking in order to reinvent both self and society. The book covers a wide range of skills and attributes from technology appraisal to ecological intelligence, and includes active learning exercises to help develop those skills.

“This sounds rather too sophisticated or elevated – whom are we making sustaibility literate – those already converted or an uneducated slum dweller or a farmer?” I wasn’t happy with the topics covered in the Handbook. Perhaps, for India, we will need to address the rural and urban segments separately for introducing Sustainability Literacy capturing their lifestyles

Professor lit his second cigar and took a deep puff

I think we need to think differently. You should read paper by Dr. John J. Kineman, University of Colorado, USA and Dr. Deepak Anand, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, India – titled Roots of Sustainability in Ancient India 

In this paper, the Authors quote and interpret as follows

“Most ancient cultures have grown in the lap of Nature with reverence for nature in which all of its elements, mountains, rivers, forests, animals, etc., may be considered sacred. The Hindu scriptures like the Upanishads, Srimad Bhagavatam, Puranas, Vedas, and Bhagavad Geeta have also expressed the sacredness of various aspects of the environment and its conservation. Ancient texts like Kautilya’s Arthasastra have an immense amount of information on environment, natural resource management and prevention of pollution. The realization of this fundamental and ultimate Truth is that there is unity of all life and existence and the goal of human life is to merge one’s little self in the Divine to experience this unity.

The Vedas are the primary sources of not only moral enhancement for the economic progress but also guide to address ecology to achieve a true sustainability. The Vedas view human perfection and happiness from integrated perspectives, which embraces both material and spiritual values in individual and harmonious unity. The Vedas provide guidance to enlighten the inner human soul in order to preserve moral values, true purpose of life and care for Nature.”

I thought the Professor was right. We in India already had sustainability embedded in our culture – we need to revisit, unfold and recommunicate.

Integration of sustainability concepts with spirituality – anchored with the culture will make us understand the true Sustainability Literacy. Sustainability Literacy explained in the Handbooks or assessed through on-line tests is not going help– all we will get there is just the “information” but not the “messages and realization” that will bring in the behavioral change.

So are you Sustainability Literate in this perspective?

Professor asked me this question, extinguished his cigar and left.

 


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3 thoughts on “Sustainability Literacy

  1. We have great culture, traditions, understanding etc. We take pride in citing the same when we wish to display our knowledge. Just wondering. All of us had subject civics in primary and secondary curriculum. How “unlearning” happens when we cross teen age? Will sustainability literacy follow same fate as Civics Literacy?

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  2. In this context I want to remind that our country has educated illiterates and literate unesducated. Not my original .Borrowed from Sri Sriprakasha. I was pleasantly surprised as
    Judge at Municipal school competition for display of exhibits covering environmental practices from rural areas which in itself depicted sustainability.

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  3. Hi Prasad It’s a good entry into an important topic. I learnt about some initiatives I was not aware of. It is a good read. And it is good input for me in the workshops and summer schools we are now planning for 2017

    Just one comment on a philosophical matter.

    I don’t buy your Professors’ belief that ancient cultures necessarily had a sustainability outlook. There are enough examples of ancient cultures that disappeared because they abused their environment. Mayas in Mexico, Sumarians in the Middle East, the folk on Easter island, among others. The history books are full of lost cultures.

    In the same way, I don’t buy the supposed wisdom of current small landowners and farmers. Many abuse their land. Even in ‘modern’ countries, many still do, as in Europe (e.g. soil compaction), Australia (salination from over-irrigation), USA and Africa (‘mining’ limited supplies of groundwater). I saw the results of the disastrous traditional farming practices in Madagascar. Fishermen are among the worst stewards of their limited natural resources. The Maories killed off major species after they arrived in New Zealand. The Malagasys killed off their megafauna after they arrived there.

    Traditional practices can be viable when the population is low and very spread out. For dense populations it’s a myth. They destroy themselves without application of modern knowledge. Could India survive without synthetic fertilisers?

    Sustainability education is essential for our survival, but the signs are not good. People want consumerism,and professionals want careers. Maybe your links will help shift the balance a little. We still have work to do.

    Thanks again for raising this.

    Fritz

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