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There's been quite a lot of publicity recently about bias and prejudice in our universities, mainly in connection with attempts to impose a boycott of all things Israeli. You'd think, wouldn't you, that more than 60 years after the Holocaust we might finally be free of anti-Semitism? Especially in our universities, which should by their very nature be the home of rational, liberal thought.
But a recent article on spiked online by Jim Butcher reveals an equally sinister trend. The three 'Rs' are making a comeback in our universities. But far from meaning 'reading, writing and arithmetic', they now stand for 'reducing, reusing and recycling'. In place of old-fashioned literacy, we have a new goal for education: sustainability literacy.
Advocates of "sustainability literacy" are vague about content, preferring to accentuate the need for people to be 'aware' of the agenda and act on it in all aspects of their lives. The Centre for Sustainable Futures at Plymouth University, for example, aims for students to 'leave with the values and skills and knowledge to drive the sustainability agenda forward in their personal and professional lives'. The vice-chancellor of Bradford University hopes that sustainability literacy will bring about 'pro-sustainability behavioural change' amongst students. His enthusiasm may have something to do with the fact that as announced in its press release on 5th June, Bradford University has secured millions of pounds worth of backing for a scheme that aims to "embed environmental sustainability across its curriculum and into its student learning and living experience".
Butcher wrote "A quick look at the 'learning outcomes' often quoted for sustainability literacy confirms an emphasis on changing moral attitudes and behaviour rather than improving education. These outcomes comprise increased caring about the future of society and intergenerational equality, empowerment of students and a heightened belief that they can make a difference, and increased personal willingness to participate in solving societal and environmental problems.
Elsewhere, discussions on promoting sustainability literacy feature references to 'raising awareness', 'changing value bases' and even 'winning hearts and minds'. As such, the promotion of sustainability literacy calls into question the character of education on offer in the modern university. Should universities see it as their aim to bring about 'behavioural change' through 'changing value bases'? Shouldn't students, based on their exposure to ideas, decide such things for themselves?
Sustainability literacy moves seamlessly from 'awareness' to prescribing action. For example, the HEA subject centre for history, classics and archaeology expresses a view central to sustainability literacy, that 'education about sustainable development should go hand in hand with education for sustainable development'. Leaving aside what sustainable development has to do with classics, why not simply educate rather than advocate? The overt promotion of sustainability (whatever it might be taken to mean) as the holy grail will only discourage students from raising doubts and differences of opinion because sustainability will be seen as the official line of the university."

The 1992 United Nations Summit on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) is widely regarded as the moment when sustainable development become orthodoxy. But well before this point, many disciplines had sought to engage with environmental problems. For example, within economics, most often criticised for its 'narrow' approach to resource use, 'ecological economics' was pioneered in the 1970s, as a way to factor the environment into economic calculations. The concept of 'natural capital' enabled nature to acquire a value through its non-use, a magnificent piece of double-think since anything you don't use and never intend to use can only have an amenity value difficult to factor in to any kind of economic thinking. That's not to say you ought to use it, merely that if you don't use it, you shouldn't try to justify that decision on economic grounds unless you place a disproportionate value on tourism.
Many people would automatically think of universities as places where we can argue the toss over issues such as nuclear power, GM food, anti-globalisation protests, the merits of cheap flights, and even the efficacy of sustainable development itself. But in our new politically correct world, those who disagree are naysayers who need to be shown the error of their ways (as opposed to people with ideas to be argued against). One discussion document from the University of Hertfordshire (crumbs, Hertfordshire's got a university now?) refers, not untypically, to the need for 'carrots and sticks' to get backsliders into line. Other words for "carrots and sticks" are "bribes and threats". Is that healthy for a university? What about those dissenting voices, that minority of academics (and students) who feel, and are prepared to argue, that the concept of sustainability is problematic, or who feel it represents a backward step rather than progress? What about respected academics who see 'consumerism' (frequently cited as a key area for behavioural change by advocates of sustainability literacy) as a good thing, or who do not think that industrial carbon emissions are a significant factor in climate change? One university's documentation argues that such naysayers should be obliged to attend a workshop to "self-review" their own "core standards". Plainly in that university at least, freedom of thought among academics is going the same way as freedom of speech in society at large - down the drain.
There is hope, however, and it lies in the woolly-minded thinking of the eco-nazis themselves. Funded by the government through the DfES, The Sustainability Integration Group (SIGnet) is a network of bodies that fund, plan and regulate the post-school sector, aiming to push sustainability literacy into all parts of the curriculum. Partners in SIGnet include the Association of Colleges, the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, the Committee of University Chairmen, the Department for Education and Skills itself, the Higher Education Academy, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Learning and Skills Council, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Standing Conference of Principals, the Scottish Funding Council, the Sector Skills Development Agency, the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee and Universities UK.
There will now be a short pause for a good snigger.
There, that's better! The core method of SIGnet is a series of "implementation surgeries" to "support senior management as they implement their sustainability strategies. The surgeries are complemented by individual work programmes with each partner organisation."
Hard to understand? Well, yes, but that won't surprise anyone who has worked in education in recent years. Schools and colleges are sinking beneath a tide of just such fluffy, meaningless drivel. Oh, the "surgeries" will take place, no doubt. There'll be meetings, and committees, and strategies, and policies galore. But what will it all achieve?
If past performance is anything to go by, not much. They'll create quite a few jobs for themselves, run up some major hotel and car-travel expenses, and produce loads of paper - how very sustainable! But luckily for us, it'll have about as much effect on real life as most other education reforms, i.e. none at all.
And why, one wonders, should the government - because that's who's at the back of this, when push comes to shove - why should the government and other governments in the Western World be so keen to convince, persuade or bully us into believing in all this sustainable develo-bollox?
Well, "sustainable development" means, essentially, no development at all in poor countries that need it most. It's why hundreds of thousands of poor Africans still die of malaria or sleeping sickness because we don't approve of them using DDT. The single most beneficial thing we could give Africa would probably be reliable, ubiquitous electricity supplies - but that would mean encouraging them to mine and burn their vast coal and oil reserves, thus following our own historical pattern of industrial development.
But this would never do, would it? Not because of the (supposed) effect on (the alleged) Global Warming, but because of where it would lead. The last thing Western governments want is an industrialised Africa with its teeming millions of cheap, undemanding labour. It's bad enough that India and China are rapidly modernising and will soon outstrip the rest of the world in economic clout.
Don't want these bloody Africans getting in on the act as well.


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