Sustainability and Education by Bob Cranwell

I should say, if you have an interest in this area of our development, that this is a wholly opinionated piece with few references, relying mainly on experience, observations and memory. Some of this turned out be entirely contrary to my own view at the time and thus I had some thinking to do. Hard thinking is something missing in modern life, sadly; but since we are actually talking about areas which require an entire shift from convention, this is only fair to point out.

Bob Cranwell


If you’re looking for a cohesive academic style article, you may be piqued – I have a tendency to throw in ideas as they come to me, hence the various diversions. There will, I hope be resonance among many, some discord and ridicule, all anticipated with an equable disposition.


This, I hope will be the beginning of discussions about discrete or holistic views, to which I look forward.


So; whaddya think ?



The above entries are taken from a grand old dictionary published in 1897. I like to flip through it from time to time as there are many words which no longer have a meaning in modern usage or, that meaning has changed, sometimes by 180°, such as the meaning of ‘sophisticated’, which is amusingly contrary.


I wanted to be clear about the areas I wish to address, but as you see, in 1897 the term and concept of sustainability did not exist. Of course not, it was a time when the earth’s resources were seen as virtually infinite, to all practical purposes, and ‘man’s’ dominion over the earth was unquestioned. Sustainability represents an existential challenge to the interpretations of those far off days.


Educate, on the other hand has the same origins as ever, but today perhaps, is more closely aligned to teaching or instruction, rather than the wider, more rounded education afforded to the better off of those days.


I propose initially to look at aspects of both separately, and then look at what ways we may know of, and those unknown unknowns we need to explore far further.



We do need to be crystal clear. In the final analysis, sustainability cannot work, but by then we’ll have become subsumed in a glowing scorched planet. In my mind it cannot work because it is the same as looking for perpetual motion, and directly contradicts what we know about the laws of the universe. In the interim, though, it is definitely worth a shot at improving both our own lives on this planet, and the planet’s continuing capacity to absorb our presence. Until, at some stage we may miraculously develop the capacity to ensure no energy is lost in any activity.


Overall, at present, I feel we concentrate rather more on making our lives easier, as it is an immediate benefit, one we can see and feel. Part fill the kettle, then use excess boiled water to top up a flask and save power next time you need a cuppa; having solar panels reduces your electricity bills, but it has taken a few years until we now see solar panels almost as part of every retiree’s spending when their lump sum comes through, to reduce bills in future, and maybe a few pounds back too !


Using a bike for more journeys improves your health, reduces congestion, reduces pollution and our carbon footprint and saves you money. Cutting down on heating by dressing as if we live in a cool maritime temperate climate, saves money. In this sense, we are treating sustainability as an add-on.
It is true, though, that we do undertake things that cost us money, too, legislating to leave fallow strips around field crops loses the farmer money so we repay them from taxation, as we acknowledge and try to compensate for the pressure on lost habitat and resources for our wildlife (mainly the nice ones, though). We might press for urban tramways to help improve transport, reducing traffic and concomitant pollution.


These are in the short term costing money and convenience, but the longer view is plausible, if only we can short circuit the psychological dependence on travelling exactly when you want and where, although this clearly results in a much higher cost to us and to society.


We look at major resources like water, and acknowledge that climatic patterns are changing, populations growing and our usage of safe water is increasing. We look at alternative supplies and resilience for the time when calamities strike, to soften the blows. In the meantime, hosepipe bans remain politically toxic even during periods of localised drought, as does metering of all supplies.


But, in all sorts of ways, we prefer a reversion to the tried and tested – as shown here by Åsne Seierstad

Distraction number 1

Åsne Seierstad
Åsne Seierstad

Åsne Seierstad, in ‘With their backs to the World’ quotes journalist Bojana Lekic, trying to explain a reversion to the ‘old guard’ in an election in Serbia (it could be anywhere). Some people are fond of harking back to earlier times ‘in the twelfth century we used utensils of gold while the Brits ate with their hands’.


“If people won’t vote it’s because the candidates aren’t compelling enough. It’s never the fault of the voters. Ordinary people don’t like political intrigues; they think politicians are only out to further their own agendas, not to improve anyone else’s lot. So they fall back on the tried and true: the myths, the epics, the heroic poetry, the greatness of (insert country), – and yes, the gold utensils”


An example of how we get stuck.

I know of a village in Northeast Scotland where there have been problems with the water supply as long as I can remember. First there is an insufficient supply year round, as summer groundwater levels are too low. Heathland, created by human activity, with watercourses gouging through peat and then over rock does not encourage the longer term storage of groundwater. Small reservoirs would be anathema to local landowners.


Few trees are planted other than fast growing, shallow rooted species which are limited in wildlife due to acidity, limited diversity, low light levels, lack of groundcover, and also underused as a human resource as they are too uniform and dense to move through easily, or with any sense of pleasure.


If fewer grazing animals were present some of the original woodland might be helped to return, giving us a wider range of habitat, deeper roots, allowing flood resilience and groundwater storage, a variety of material resources for different purposes, greater aesthetic quality and nicer places to be surrounded by.


However, the sheep remain because it is cheap to graze them on such otherwise ‘useless’ land; the deer and grouse must flourish, even beyond the lands carrying capacity, to allow for a tiny minority to pleasure themselves in the destruction of the excess of creatures. More predators would help keep the grazer numbers down and allow natural reforestation, but the powerful lobbies get their way, by frightening locals about wolf attacks, vermin, job losses in the countryside – and anyway – what else is it good for ?


The village has had so much money spent on improving the volume available and the quality of water that, frankly it would have been cheaper to give each household a giant panda. The option of piping up from a major treatment works downstream raises issues of cost – laying and maintaining the pipe is expensive but not as expensive as the continuing cost of re-pumping water (1 cubic metre equals 1 tonne) to near its origin in the hills. I suggested putting in a shared supply of untreated but filtered water in the road, (for example) which would be used for washing cars, fitting a hosepipe for garden watering etc.



Premises would remain connected to the mains potable water but meters would be installed, reducing demand considerably on the treated water supply. The suggestion had barely passed my lips when it was shot down by a Senior Scientist, part of the Public Health Team, emphatically asserting that the media uproar would be so great that it would be impossible.


So, here we are with a small village self sufficient in winter, but dramatically lacking in water resources during the summer months when half the village housing stock is full of visiting holidaymakers. We therefore often end up fetching water in by the tankerload to enable folk to wash their cars with drinking water better than people buy when they are abroad.


This sounds like a very foolish thing to do, but it is the result of flawed thinking on the part of everyone concerned. It is the responsibility of the local government and water authorities to explain the problem as clearly as possible and for the inhabitants to accept that if they live in a place which simply does not have the resources they may have come to expect in less remote areas, then compromises must be sought.


So how to get around the dichotomy faced by humanity in a way which will be effective, capable of being sustained for long periods, and most of all, politically acceptable ?


As you might be expecting, this boils down to a shortcoming of education, firstly in being able to appreciate the issues involved, and secondly to exercise their choice (as some see, a God-given ability), that to live in any particular location has to involve a level of compromise on their part. Everybody simply cannot have everything, now.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


This, of course is the political football it has always been, but we are missing a great deal in assuming education merely refers to the period of formal instruction in schools. Many people seem to think education stops at the school gates, but of course it continues until we expire, whether knowingly or not. I am concentrating on the lifelong aspect of education here. Something fundamental to our formal education systems, proliferated the world over, is that competition has taken precedence over the values of co-operation, except perhaps in team sports.


Why this may be has been explored endlessly (see ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – Robert M Pirsig for a lengthy analysis of competing early philosophies of learning), and has resulted in a more or less antipathetic response from those who determine our investment and direction in education. In real life, of course, the prime example of co-operation and compromise is in families, relationships etc. Most employers value people who are able to work collaboratively, and not build little empires. Yet we have relatively little direct encouragement of this way working.


Distraction number 2

Education – in particular female education – beyond the read and write stage impacts on the viability of sustainable practice because it has a direct correlation to the birth rate


One of the great issues surrounding education is what does it do ? I worked as a Student Union rep in the early 80’s and found the single most strident criticism of higher education from external examiners was that they found far too much evidence of teaching students what to think, rather than how to think. One particular area, that of teaching what used to be called ‘mencap’ (training teachers going into education for people with esp learning difficulties), came under fierce criticism because degree level students were expected to copy down the lectures written on the blackboard.


It beggars belief. Formal education has its place for sure, but as a process it can have wildly varying outcomes, depending on the individuals involved, but by and large the principal products are stratification, elitism and envy. Societal problems thus engendered also face financial strictures in a world of limited budgets, resulting in a selective attitude of “teach where necessary, educate where possible”.


One major hurdle in education these days has come about as a result of our ballooning technological environment. A host of competing sources flood into the periphery of thought. Television, an earlier bogeyman has indeed changed minds – the screen and sound together leave scant opportunity for interpretive thought, not to mention conversation.


Radio is of course far better in this respect, however we have moved into far more difficult problem areas now. Advertising, programme production and competing sources of information like Google, Wikipedia, social media all play a part in forming values and presenting information in distorted fashions, suitable to their ends.


Distraction number 3

Witness; reports I have heard, though doubtless worth checking, indicate that children, even very young ones – under 3 years old, already recognise large numbers of brand logos. What values are passed on with those images ?


We are conditioned by a huge range of influences to accept viewpoints that may be at odds with any sort of objective reality. Insurance driven Health and Safety regulation, for example breeds a suspicion of e.g. foodstuffs means we are less inclined to eat blackberries from the bush rather than from a package filled with nitrogen to keep the shelf life longer. Picking mushrooms, plums and apples are almost unheard of in Britain nowadays, in a mass disaffection of sorts.



We strongly prefer sterile packaging and accept the government social engineering via nudges to change behaviours. There is a further facet to disaffection once we enter the workplace and wider society. This alienation from the processes as a result of de-skilling society, specialisation and hierarchical access to knowledge is damaging to individuals and to society in general. (The issues and processes were brilliantly explored by Philip  Slater in “The pursuit of Loneliness, the breakdown of American Culture).


A wider view is essential to any real appreciation of where we have been and how we got here; in any field it is essential to forming ideas about where to go next in resolving issues. Far too many of our children leave school without functional literacy, and remain so through most of their lives. Their options for information are therefore lessened, patently a bad thing all round.


However, a great many of those who have benefited from our formal and informal education systems have done so with a leaning toward specialisation, toward division between arts and sciences, and all of life’s experiences are finely graded through the context of the world as it operates now.


How do we incorporate sustainability into education ?

(Ideologues and visionaries, please form an orderly queue.)

From what has gone before, it will be clear that to anyone that we have gone astray somewhat in the way we present, absorb and make use of information. Huge and important ideas are entirely by-passed because they have been politically sidelined in ages and decades past by more self interested elements in human society, brushing under the intellectual carpet the things they find less palatable, or indeed, profitable.


It is certainly heartening that the rise of social media has made it more difficult for monopolies on information which find it much more hard to keep it to themselves, notwithstanding the deluge of trivia. It holds great possibilities for collaborative endeavours stretching across multinational networks, and delving into seams of expertise formerly far less accessible.


But there is real hope out there, and there are real advances in communication and understanding resulting in a host of popular pressures to change the ways in which we do things. An example.


When I was younger, even less, 30 years ago, things like solar panels, small windmills on houses, (not only on boats), and a single wind turbine, (let alone a hillside of them); – these were entirely the domain of dingbats, who wanted to live in daub and wattle houses and home educate their kids, – harder work than it needed to be, and on a diet that was often as wholesome as it was unpalatable.


If you drove past such a place you’d slow and shake your head in bafflement, not merely at the choice of technology, but the philosophy which lay behind it. They were of course, missing the point. As with many things in life, our attitude pre-selects what is any good. That’s come about latterly as power has cost so much more, making solar and wind a reasonable investment.


It’s all about becoming aware that possibilities exist, judging if they are practicable for us individually, but also taking into much greater account the wellbeing of wider society. Compromises and co-operation exist in families, despite obvious tensions, we all get through by mucking in and tolerating or taking best advantage of differences for mutual benefit.


There is much more to be explored in just how we will be able to incorporate sustainability into our human activities, but at root it involves a paradigm shift, a change of focus on what matters, from the short to the long-term, from the me to the we, and yes, it will involve many of us giving up aspects of our lives to which we have become accustomed.


But in general, our ‘entitlement’ comes as a cost to others in some way. I say “giving up” but in reality it’s much more like “giving up” smoking – not so much that, as opting for easier breathing, and all the other benefits, rather than avoiding harm. So let us get out and proliferate positive ideas about not having everything our own way, about sharing and not hoarding, about accommodating and not excluding. These are the areas of education which we really do need to get control of.


Hilal Isler
Hilal Isler

Distraction Number 4

One of the elements worth building in to our way of thinking . . . a great little piece by Hilal Isler


We need to seek out change, promote change, espouse change and live it, even if uncomfortable, it is amazing what the human mind and body have been able to do.

Things we have already adapted to:

  • Gravity
  • Ultraviolet light
  • A wide range of foods
  • Various partnerships, lethal and non-lethal with animals
  • Ditto for humans
  • The use of language
  • Realizing that other languages may tell different things.
  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Use of tools
  • Novel sources of energy
  • Medicine in all its forms
  • Various ways of viewing the world, but sticking with just the one, thanks.
  • Culture; firstly as a means of reinforcing our choice in viewing the world, but also of continuing, exhibiting, praising and hopefully proliferating said view.
  • Culture; secondly as a barrier to uncomfortable situations by formalised behaviour, avoiding unnecessary fisticuffs etc.
  • The absorption by existing cultures of views and practices formerly viewed with antipathy, especially if we can make money out of it.
  • The speed and scale that ideas, technologies, abilities, knowledge and ease of communication have grown, and are still increasing at exponential rates.

You can fill in the rest for yourselves.


Some of the impetus for the changes we have already seen in our approach to the world have come about through natural and human disasters; deforestation and erosion, overfishing, extinction of known and loved species in the wild, nuclear accidents, atmospheric lead pollution, flooding and earthquake resilience.


These sorts of things have forced change and the acceptance thereof as a response of self – preservation. Other changes in attitude have been perhaps less dramatic, in one sense at least, but they include a wide range of influences which we now take as normal, whether in entertainment or social interaction with the world.


Change has often come as a result of pressure groups and organisations that sprang up to challenge conventional ideas – e.g. the documentary “Cathy come home !” sparked the founding of Shelter. Famines and refugees from war torn areas jolted public opinion into the creation of Oxfam, BandAid, Comic Relief and so forth. A number of popular programmes on walking, climbing, got people more into experiencing and appreciating the outdoors, whether as an outdoor gym, or seeking more elemental exposures.


People have changed too with the popularity of simple straightforward activities and pleasure like the ever popular Gardeners’ World, encouraging fruit and vegetable gardening as well as manicured box hedges. All these things nudged (the ‘in’ word in govt policies I think) the entire population into the outdoors to experience the soil, weather, seasons, practicalities of growing and doing things upon which in the end, elements of our life depend.


The Good Life
The Good Life

It also came about partly through TV programmes such as “The Good Life”, a mildly satirical sitcom on the ‘clash’ of cultures between neighbours in a leafy suburb, one couple deciding to give homesteading a go, traipsing around in wellies and dungarees, with veg. patch, spinning wool and knitting dreadful sweaters, weaving their own yoghurt (!), chickens, other animals (they soon regarded as pets).


Their neighbours, ineluctably drawn into the homespun world, were caricatures of the home counties set, well bred, educated well enough to know every nuance of ‘the rules’, rather staid, (fully, if not elaborately dressed at all times), but with a hint, to spice up the programme (after wine, naturally), of a bit of hanky panky; or not.


So, right now, we’re struggling to thread a way between truth and bollocks online, which in itself is a task. But we do have good cause to recall that not long ago we also used to believe it was a good idea and justified, to hang a child in public or send them to a penal colony on the other side of the world for stealing a handkerchief; we thought our ears would burst if we travelled as fast as 25mph!


We do want sustainability in our activities and works, we do want things to last lifetimes rather than hardly beyond the life of the packaging. We do want more fulfilling and rewarding lives for ourselves, our kids and their kids too, and we can see plain as day that this way of doing things simply cannot endure.


But we can, and will arrive at a place where we can all feel proud of whatever contribution we are able to make, and justified in whatever benefits we derive, from a better world.


Of course, lots of things we believed way back turned out to be perfectly plausible, too, I have found in my own life; however, “if you tread on a worm, you make it rain” is not one of them. That’s stepping on cracks in the pavement.