Environment and Sustainability Knowledge: integrating society-economy-environment

Learning Action 1 introduced you to the concept of ESD. As explained, ESD foregrounds the integration of environment, society and economy in order to allow for working towards a better life and future for all. Learning Action 1 introduced the models of weak and strong sustainability. Internationally, ESD is influencing policy development.

In southern Africa, we can also see the influence of new thinking about environment, society and economy in the school curricula. Research in ESD shows that few teachers and vocational instructors fully understand environment and sustainability content, or the relationship that is implied in the SD focus on environment-society-economy. For many teachers and instructors, environment and sustainability knowledge is seen as ‘new knowledge’. It is also rapidly changing and developing as scientists strive to understand environmental issues better and how these relate to economy and society, in order to come up with possible solutions and alternative practices.

For example, 20 years ago little was known about climate change, and even less about alternative energy technologies. Today these are both rapidly developing areas of new knowledge and practice. Thus, environmental topics represent challenging ‘real life’ learning opportunities. Particularly with environmental knowledge, teachers face a triple challenge of teaching learners:

  • what we know (content and concepts – i.e. knowledge is relatively certain);.
  • that what we know can be questioned and changed (i.e. knowledge is contested); and .
  • that not everything is known about these issues (i.e. knowledge is always forming and being produced).

These perspectives on knowledge, especially also knowledge of sustainability issues, pose some challenges for Teacher Education / TVET institutions, as these institutions have traditionally mainly worked with knowledge that is already established and that is certain. We explore how to engage with these challenges further in this Learning Action.

The need for foundational knowledge

Environment and sustainability issues are generally complex, and understanding them requires an overall appreciation of a number of aspects, from personal and cultural to scientific and technical perspectives, as well as a critical understanding of political and economic interests. However, a certain amount of foundational knowledge in key subjects, such as Biology and Geography, is also needed.

Work through the Learning Action 2: Sustainable Development Goals and Critical Issues Course materials  on the need for foundational knowledge and also watch all of the YouTube videos below.

After watching these videos open the forum and share what you have learned about the core concepts of:

  • the Anthropocene,
  • the Earth as a System,
  • key life supporting processes, and
  • how ecosystems function to support the diversity of life.

Explain how each of them is relevant to your subject or your work in the TE/TVET institution, and how you might use these and/or other similar YouTube videos for teaching your students about Earth Systems and how they work.

Environment and sustainability knowledge is contested and uncertain

At school and in many TVET programmes, textbooks generally present information as unquestioned, cut-and-dried facts. However, because environmental and sustainability knowledge (including the cultural aspects of this knowledge) is most often linked to issues means that this knowledge is contested; in other words, people disagree about its validity (truth). For example, despite what many people consider to be convincing evidence that human activities are causing global climate change, some people (and even governments!) believe that the changes we are witnessing are due to natural cycles only. Yet climate change is mainly about the impact of high levels of greenhouse gasses. These are due to anthropogenic (human induced) changes resulting from fossil fuels. This challenge intersects with natural cycles. It is therefore important to establish the ‘best available truth’, and not just support post-truth or false information that is often spread by denialists or because of vested interests. Educators have a responsibility to work with the best available truth in their educational programmes, without being dogmatic or ideological.

Furthermore, in many cases, we do not know enough about an environmental or sustainability issue. Our knowledge is incomplete, and thus uncertain. Most teachers and learners are unaccustomed to working with knowledge that is contested or incomplete. Yet this is an important feature of knowledge in the 21st century, hence we emphasis the idea of ‘best available truth’.

How to address the knowledge challenge:

  • identify environmental knowledge and concepts that teachers and vocational instructors are supposed to teach (and what is missing from this!); 
  • investigate what is known about the topics in terms of content knowledge and key concepts relevant to the curriculum (including for curriculum innovation!); and 
  • investigate what is not known about the topics, and consider how teachers and TVET instructors should teach about incomplete knowledge, and what is ‘absent’ in formal curricula (not all curricula are ‘up to date’!).

Watch the informative and interesting videos below. The five videos below can give you some idea of (a) what is known about a topic, and (b) what is not yet known about a topic (in this case, climate change in Southern Africa). Use these videos to review what is currently included in your TE/TVET subject curricula on climate change in southern Africa, what is missing, and how you can review your curriculum to improve it.

Share your ideas in the forum on the forum topic “Curriculum Review on climate change”.

Adapting to Climate Change in Eastern and Southern Africa:

The Impact of Climate Change in Southern Africa:

Southern Africa Mini Ice Age Agriculture Forecast & South Africa Crop Losses:

Floods and Fires across Southern Africa Raise Alarm Bells on Climate Change:

Johan Rockstrom: Let the Environment Guide our Development: