Educating For A Better Today: Climate Change In Context – ‘The Importance of Sustainability Education’ by Ewan Tennant

Why is sustainability education important? Let’s talk about the obvious first; preserving the future, reducing resource consumption in light of increasing population demands and catastrophic climate change. Climate change is arguably the single greatest challenge faced by humankind thus far. It is a complex and wicked problem that affects the whole world like few have before [1,2]. As such it needs a very new type of solution, a new form of societal education.

Ewan Tennant
Ewan Tennant


When we talk about imminent climate change we mean the extinction of species that lack the ability to adapt, and a change in climate that will render the Earth no longer habitable for a large human population. Catastrophes like this have happened before in human evolution, see the Toba extinction some 75,000 years ago, where the human population was reduced to just 10,000 – 30,000 individuals [3].


However the current threat of climate change is an extinction accelerated by anthropogenic factors. Our emissions and rampant resource use have far outstripped the planets capacity to regenerate, this year the Earth overshoot day came forward an astonishing 6 days [4]. For first time in human history we possess the existing capability to dictate the future of the planet, to ensure our long-term survival on Earth.


Can we trust to large organisations, governments and corporations to save us from this threat? They have been failing us for decades. Though perhaps a new trend of engagement will be set following the COP21 Paris agreement [5], large corporations and governments have started to take action. The use of big data is often considered the saving grace in the climate change movement [6].


Analysing patterns and trends to build accurate future predictions can allow for advanced long term planning. Data is also widely used in marketing to reveal associations in human behaviour. But this in itself does not address the root cause of our climate problems, merely the symptoms. We need to look closely at the influence our current society has on the human mindset, and how much it dictates the way we build mental impressions of things.


The apathy syndrome is what I call the current mindset possessed by many that leads them to thinking their actions are insignificant. While we are are only truly aware of the attitudes of those closest to, many people are lost in a sea of despair when personal impact on climate change is considered. Some people ‘do their bit’ but without a mechanism to address large scale problems this breeds a mindset of apathy. The actions of these are also affected by the lack of recognition in popular culture, giving the impression that the larger group is not taking action; this is known as crowd psychology [7].


The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, an influential study by Gustave Le Bon, states that crowd psychology develops due to individual responsibility being diluted by the actions of the many. What is the solution to this? Greater engagement with the wider population. We need to find a means for everyone, of all skill levels to make a valuable contribution to the climate solution. By giving people reliable information, a positive message and a mechanism where they can enact real change in their sphere of influence, an increased pressure on governing bodies and our economies will inherently follow.


US and UK

How to Effect Widespread Sentiment Change?

Let’s look at a modern day example, media influence and the rise of Xenophobia in the US and the UK in recent years. This includes the selection of stories published in papers and on television that are shown to that demographic. But also includes the coverage of negative stories shown in social media.


Importantly the precise targeting of specific ‘types’ of story to individuals most likely to respond to them [8]. This is big data in action. In both cases it normalises the behaviour, in this case negative behaviour, to create a social pressure that spreads in the population. Inability to recognise this is a failing of modern media.


If this could be applied to sustainability awareness and education then a change would rapidly become prevalent. But is social engineering on this scale ever justified? Even when considering the future of the human race, where do we draw the line. Maybe we should begin to teach the effects of big data and this new age of ‘psychological warfare’, releasing the secret value held in the data economy that is not transferred to the wider population [8].


Alternatively, though perhaps much more intensive, a people orientated approach could be used. This could involve incentivised engagement campaigns, i.e. partnering a large corporation with climate engagement workshops to give perks to attendees. E.g. a free subscription to Amazon prime if you attend X number of sessions or perform X amount of community work.


Teaching adults, in communities that have been previously isolated from the climate change movement, simple techniques to spread awareness and motivation is a step in the direction towards the engagement of everyone. A side benefit from this would be subconsciously linking the concept of how our actions today affect the world in the future, thus creating a population that is more self-aware, but also feels empowered because they have taken action into their own hands to see a result.


The next step is of course tackling large scale physical problems, the effects of which are perhaps not present where the cause is occurring. This relies on driven individuals with wide-scale thinking to drive a movement towards a solution – Innovators and entrepreneurs. These independent people will be inherently driven to take risky decisions and push away from the social norm. Creating environments that are a fertile breeding ground for ideas and nurture critical thinking can direct people towards positive social solutions.


The European Commission published the Effects and impact of entrepreneurship programmes in higher education [9], showing the positive effect it has had in the education sector. In Scotland for instance there is a mindset within start-up that you cannot be an entrepreneur unless you are delivering something that adds benefit to your society. This is because innovators and social entrepreneurs are given substantial support from both public and private sector bodies, i.e. doing ‘good’ work is incentivised.


Many of the greatest innovators in human history have taken risky decisions, gone against the popular opinion, and in turn advanced humankind significantly. This is innovation. But we do not need everyone to become great innovators and leaders. Derek Sivers’ ‘First follower theory’ explains the importance and value of the first follower in creating a movement [10,11]. While it is brave to be the figurehead standing up against the crowd, the unsung hero is the first follower to stand up and risk social or financial jeopardy by joining the now-leader, thus creating a social movement.


Financial risk can be offset by a number of means, but the Royal Society of the Arts: The case for universal basic income proposal is promisingly gaining much traction [12], it provides a safety net for people wishing to leave unsatisfying work to retrain and find gainful employment. Nurturing the leader-follower relationship and creating equality in a movement is vital, it fosters engagement. This could be achieved by taking popular focus off the leader and giving more attention to those supporting the movement.


The Blue Marble photograph of Earth, taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972
The Blue Marble photograph of Earth, taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972

The Individual Effect

So we have a alternative and indirect mechanism to impact sustainability; 1) Greater awareness on the role of data in social change, 2) application of this using people to shift towards incentivised work spreading awareness of wider climate and lifestyle issues & 3) an increased focus on entrepreneurial training with greater attention applied to the followers rather than the figurehead. But what could be accomplished by this? A shift of multiple generations away from apathy towards greater appreciation of problems and appreciation of solutions in both society and the environment.


You have laid the foundations for a positive social movement of long term thinking and future planning that will have immediate ramifications on quality of life. Critical thinking is taught at higher education, but has limited structure elsewhere in society. Jeevan Vasagar for instance states that countries which teach problem solving on the syllabus are more successful than those which don’t [13]. If it is explicitly encouraged in the wider population then will people can look more objectively at world events and the cause-effect relationship associated with them.


A knock-on effect of these implementations which could be significant is the effect on social risk taking of the individual. Creating pioneers, leaders and empowering people to stand up and follow them will result in a population that are more likely to go out on a limb. To take a chance to achieve something that will deliver greater life satisfaction.


My passion for the environment was incubated from a young age by a powerful connection to the natural world which was inspired by the beauty around me in the Lake District In my youth this translated into a desire to work with animals in conservation or zoology. Yet as I gained awareness of the nature of the climate issue, and the anthropogenic causes behind it, my energies were channelled towards a more human approach. One focused on engagement and involvement of people from all walks of life, an integrated solution to climate change. This is the driving goal of Aspen, the Asia-Scotland Partnership for the Environment [14].


I am of the belief that we have the solution at our fingertips already, but we lack the capacity to implement it. An integrated approach to sustainability requires involvement from private, government and educational sectors that are not constrained by borders. Many developing nations are in a dangerous position, they are least equipped with the capacity, regulation and education needed to solve climate change, yet are on the front lines of the impacts. Taking India for example, they have a huge population of skilled workers, much bigger than that of perhaps Europe, never mind Scotland.


The problem is not a lack of skills, but the fact that this huge number of skilled workers is still not enough, and importantly is not applied to the needs efficiently. That’s why I started Aspen. An organisation working to rebalance the divide between the producers of solutions and those who need them most urgently. We work closely with stakeholders and ‘doers’ on the ground to help deliver needs-driven solutions.


The world needs to unite in a consolidated effort to tackle climate change. Ultimately, taking steps to safeguard our future could enhance the world today.