The Real Sustainability Challenges
A manifesto for politicizing sustainability from the Radboud Centre for Sustainability Challenges
Meeting the Sustainability Moment
At this moment we need unifying concepts like sustainability more than ever. Yet, its use is dangerously perched on the precipice of banality at best, and corporate capture at worst.1
We are a group of scholars across the biophysical sciences, social sciences, and the humanities working to build a common language of sustainability in order to implement actionable changes to our teaching and research. We were spurred to action when our home institution, Radboud University, installed a plan that would mandate sustainability curriculum across all student education. We welcome the commitment, as the purpose and shape of education in a world increasingly threatened by ecological disruption and social unrest is in need of critical reflection. At the same time, it seems like a new sustainability program or course of study emerges every day. If sustainability is taken as more of a marketing strategy than political or ethical stance, then perhaps that is not something we would feel comfortable championing.
We offer this manifesto as a wake up call for those of us within universities who invoke sustainability at the core of their work or their studies. This work encourages serious reflection on the use of sustainability rhetoric, and develops viable pathways for politicizing its use. Despite shortcomings, the vision of sustainability is powerful. Whoever successfully claims they preach the true meaning of sustainability will have the power to shape policy and social action. This is terrain worth struggling for.
In the great hall of the Elinor Ostrom Building where some of us teach, a looming banner with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is arranged so it is the first thing one sees when entering the space. Its presence suggests a consensus of where we are and where we ought to focus our energies. While organizing sustainability around a set of targets may be a useful prioritization exercise, we argue these goals must be paired with a set of political questions.
Figuring out how to invoke values of sustainability without propping up the status quo is the challenge we now face, the real sustainability challenge we must overcome to meet the social and environmental moment.
The Manifesto in brief
Sustainability has always been a fraught concept, wrapped up in power relations and cultural values of how the world should be;
Researchers and educators are frequently embedded in sustainability claims without a deep scrutiny of their politics;
We ought to reclaim the utility of the sustainability concept through critical reflection of its history and use;
We propose a process for politicizing sustainability—an engagement with the value conflicts often hidden in dominant sustainability discussions;
By asking critical questions about ecological, epistemic and social justice, the representation of the more-than-human, and transformative pedagogy, we offer a framework for sharpening the meaning of sustainability.
The trouble with sustainability
Sustainability never was a pure, let alone innocent concept. It has been institutionalized in the SDGs, through a series of international and cross-sector negotiations hosted by the United Nations. Sustainable development emerged as a diplomatic compromise, forged under the diverging interests of the post-Cold War transition in the 1980s and 90s. Rather than a scientific consensus, the definition of the so-called Brundtland report, which holds that current ways of life should not jeopardize future human life on earth, places human economies above all else, thus introducing concealed tensions at its outset.
The notion that development should be a key pillar of sustainability created a costly blindspot, where action towards environmental sensitivity or human flourishing could not challenge logics of growth.2 It took decades of unwinding to reach the point today, where the SDGs–be it hunger, biodiversity loss, or climate emissions–pinpoint several planetary emergencies at once. Although, the virtue of growth persists in SDG 8: “Decent work and economic growth.” For whom? At what costs? Despite such ongoing debates,3 the thorny issue of who gets to set the agenda for sustainability has remained.
Perhaps because of unresolved issues caused by the implicit values behind the goals, sustainability terminology has become flattened. In policy but also academia, even holistic frameworks like the SDGs are on the verge of becoming a tick-box exercise for organizations to prove their public legitimacy rather than informing and encouraging transformative practices. Even more critically, sustainability has become yet another business fad that usually omits alternative values like sufficiency, subsistence, care and empathy, only to push for more efficiency gains, while disregarding the ever-present danger of rebound effects.4
Overall, sustainability must be considered as a cultural artifact.5 A concept shrouded in science, yes, but ultimately a conjuring of certain actors, in certain geographies, and pursuing goals based on select values.6 Sustainability could therefore mean anything, which also means we have a chance to reflect on the version of sustainability we need.
What’s clear is sustainability has not matured in lockstep with the degree of social and environmental problems it was designed to solve. Instead, alternative domains of complexity were continually subsumed into the umbrella of sustainability. Scholars began to speak of social sustainability, sustainable finance, and sustainable economies. A concept that means everything is in danger of meaning nothing and is rendered insufficient to understand the deeper drivers of environmental problems.
Worse still, there is emerging evidence of sustainability’s use as a tool to upholding a deleterious status quo. In 2021, Shell walked back commitments to a plan to reduce fossil fuel production, deploying a rhetoric of economic sustainability to legitimize the preservation of shareholder value.7 An increasingly strong decolonial critique notes how sustainability implies maintenance of dominant imperial powers and exploitative relations of material and knowledge production. A vocal ecomodernist sustainability vision demands environmental impact reduction without any challenge to current standards of living or reconciliation for past (environmental) injustices.8 And, at a time when moving past human exceptionalism is needed more than ever, sustainability upholds a strong anthropocentric tradition evidenced by the exclusion of animal interests in the SDGs.9
Thus, the demand for durable sustainability practices to resolve problems in the climate and in the environment is matched by an equal critical drumbeat that frames the dominant vision of sustainability as weak, inconsistent, harmful, and ultimately futile.10 It is thus problematic that more and more universities and scholarly practices invoke sustainability as a consensus pillar of their mission statements and programs of work without critical reflection.
The task at hand for the diverse sustainability community, and specifically for researchers, is to grow with the challenges of their time. This means that many established ideas of sustainability, and their unintended consequences need critical attention not unapologetic fanfare. While some may argue that sustainability is a concept worthy of guiding the policies and practices to rescue the planet from its many problems, we see sustainability itself is in need of rescuing.
We are certain that sustainability, despite its critiques, is useful in creating new norms about what is unsustainable.11 However, if sustainability is to become a valuable transformative force, much more than a definitional roadmap, we desperately need a set of epistemological and practical foundations that make sustainability worthy of its invocation.
This is a call to politicize sustainability: A strategy for directly reflecting on where we are and where we ought to go that contrasts with the seemingly singular and authoritative vision of the future that is the SDGs.
Sustainability is still useful to bring people together to envision change
Given the troubled history of sustainability there are three options for scholars, teachers and learners who find themselves invoking sustainability in their job titles, course descriptions or degree titles.
The ‘do nothing’ approach is the current dominant trajectory, where the complexity of building a new world is hidden underneath the amenable umbrella of sustainability. Resolving such problems of “sustainability for what?” and “sustainability for who?” are just too charged to engage with properly. In fact, if environmental and social transformation is the goal, the amorphous language of sustainability is an asset because it allows for normal adversaries to work together under a shorthand broad enough to welcome disparate worldviews. Who would disagree with reaching zero hunger?
Strong critics, especially those with lived experience or research with sustainable development, call for alternative masterframes, or concepts that center anti-oppression, define new ways of relating with the earth, and link ecological challenges with political struggle. Concepts such as the Buen Vivir, conviviality, degrowth, food sovereignty, panarchy, environmental justice, rights of nature, survivance, animals rights and liberation theology all destabilize sustainability’s grip on the one guiding arrow for change. For many, sustainability is a trap – an inclusive term that is actually predatory – leading to rule by ecological metrics, a hierarchy of growth, and distant technocrats.
Sustainability, we argue, has its core power in conjuring a vision of what it is not. People know (either through studying the literature, running the experiments, or by feeling it in their bones) that things are amiss. The promise of moving towards a state that is not the current one thus has a powerful and broad appeal. Such a seductive allure is urgently needed. The environmental and social problems of today need a positive call to act, a vision of a positive future rather than a chastisement of “human nature”. The immediate downside of this tactic is by allowing all to claim sustainability, the meaning gets blunted. Worse, in the vacuum caused by the “buzzless buzzword” of the concept, actors with a strong politics behind their vision of environmental change can quickly seize resources and social legitimacy by invoking their flavor of sustainability.12
Politicizing sustainability does not require new methodological techniques or party allegiances. The only thing sustainability thinking needs to reach its transformative potential is a commitment to digging for the root challenges of environmental and social problems. At the core of any mainstream sustainability issue, researchers must confront the underlying planetary and social relations that drive the puzzles we claim we are solving through research and teaching.
We believe that the “do nothing” option is untenable for the demands of ecological and social justice. Not only is doing nothing potentially harmful, it will lead to increased capture of sustainability by entrenched interests and uphold the status quo. Some actors who take this approach will retreat into a stance of “It’s only science,” but this position is unsound. Calling out the do-nothing strategy is an imperative of all actors working in the sustainability field. The second option is welcome for scholars, teachers and learners who see their project more closely aligned with, as some authors call it, “The global tapestry of alternatives”.13 In fact, many calls to move past sustainability are techniques of destabilizing its power. We ought to learn from some of these alternative master frames that suggest values, methods and mobilizing discourse for diversifying what a sustainable world might look like.
We believe that the third option, politicize sustainability, has unique strategic importance for those embedded in universities and possesses transformative potential. Because sustainability is mainstreamed across levers of power in society, redefining the work of sustainability can force those with power to either double down on their commitments, or reveal their preferred alternative. Thus, the potential for a politicized sustainability to play an important role in societal transformation, must be pursued.
But how to consistently practice this searching for root drivers of sustainability issues? We propose a framework for sharpening the tools of sustainability rather than to let them rust. Through debating the values of the authors from our various epistemological positions, we call for politicizing sustainability across five domains. In each domain we reveal how sustainability thinking is overly weighted towards one locus of political thought. Revealing and reflecting on sustainability's place through these domains allows us to debate their rebalancing.
By highlighting these domains of sustainability thinking, we are able to arrive not at a new definition for sustainability, but a set of guiding questions that those who deploy its use to make change ought to ask. The domains we highlight create a framework for cracking down on lazy claims to sustainability and hold others, and each other, to account when we place sustainability into our teaching, research proposals and job titles.
Domains of Politicizing Sustainability
Modern societies have inherited a dualistic approach to knowledge. Knowledge and politics are seen as distinct domains, while in practice they co-construct each other. The pursuit of seemingly objective knowledge has always been tied to political interests of the day that set research agendas, moral compasses, and administrative budgets. This division of knowledge and politics fosters the emergence of non-sustainable societies which forms close, centralized ties between academic and political institutions, and in the same movement may exclude cultural, geographic and epistemic alternatives at the fringes of hierarchy. The convention of “speaking truth to power” is still present in environmental politics, for example when leaders in business and politics call for more research before initiating effective action. In actuality, the artificial division between science and policy allows for research to be de-politicized by presenting science as an independent venture of finding new facts. One example is geo-engineering, where it’s clear that scientific research in modifying solar radiation cannot be untangled from democratic scrutiny.
The dualistic model has often been challenged by environmental movements and sustainability scholars across the globe. Critics of solar geo-engineering have challenged the way that exclusively scientific knowledge would be taken on board when weighing the risks of large scale adoption. With rising sustainability challenges and the urgent need to take action, even activists currently often call policy makers to simply “Follow the Science”. Although the science of non-sustainable developments speaks a clear language and calls for transformative actions, it can never be innocent. Actually scientific advances have played a key role in defining and exploiting so-called “natural resources” in a destructive way.
Concurrently, alternative views on knowledge and power have emerged, parts of which actually have been established at the fringes of the dominant policy regimes, and partly even business regimes. The role of scientific uncertainty has increasingly been acknowledged in European Policy, for example, where the so-called precautionary principle holds that necessary action to address environmental hazards ought to be taken even when there is no clear scientific consensus. These and other achievements underpin today`s state-of-the art in transdisciplinary sustainability research, and rest upon a late 20th century critique of the dualistic model of speaking truth-to-power. The humanities have contributed key concepts such as epistemic injustice to point to the way that certain contributions are not only excluded, but cannot be heard in the context of dominant discourses of sustainability. Interdisciplinary fields such as action research have developed ways for non-academic groups to contribute critical knowledge to the otherwise rigid procedures of scientific research.
Actions for our community
Solving the complexity of the polycrisis requires a creative mindset that asks for artists as much as for engineers. As the Centre for Sustainability Challenges at Radboud University, we therefore take up the challenge of decentering scientific knowledge and its role in the path towards more sustainable societies. We want to invite practitioners to speak back to academia, make room for indigenous knowledge within our own institutional contexts and strengthen the reflexive and societal responsivity of (future) scientists through research and teaching.
Thinking and action on, and solution towards, sustainable development and sustainability have mainly focused on human development and wellbeing - it has remained highly anthropocentric. Non-human needs and rights have largely been neglected. Nature and non-human animals are seen and framed as ‘natural resources’, the ‘environment’ of humans, ‘commons’ or ‘food’, and not as stakeholders themselves. The definition of sustainable development by Brundlandt is focused on future human generations. The intrinsic value of nature and the wellbeing of non-human animals are ignored. The SDGs, our current global operationalization of the concept of sustainable development, also excludes the health, welfare and rights of non-human animals. Even Raworth’s doughnut economy only focused solely on human wellbeing, and sees the planetary boundaries in an instrumental manner, and current discussions on alternative sustainable economic systems (e.g. degrowth, the wellbeing economy) are also mostly focused on human wellbeing.
Other schools of thought move beyond such prioritization of human over non-human wellbeing. However, each of them only provides parts of the way forward. Indigenous thought, including e.g. Buen Vivir, and related movements for rights of nature provide different perspectives on human - non-human relations. They, however, do not pay specific attention to the rights of individual animals. Animal rights perspectives, on the other hand, make the case for the rights of the individual animal, but ignore broader human - non-human relationships. These perspectives combined provide the needed broadening of the sustainability discourse to include principles of ecocentrism, compassion and justice.14
Actions for our community
We need to be aware of anthropocentric biases in discussions on sustainable development or sustainability, adapt the language used (e.g. avoid concepts like ‘natural resources’ or the ‘commons’), and find ways to include non-humans in discussions and decision-making processes on sustainability. Cultural imaginaries in climate fiction, for example, can be sources of inspiration as well as a way to find new words and design other pathways into the future.
We have inherited an economic system that is damaging for the environment, for humans and non-humans, and that relies on unbalanced power relationships. The way our economy is organized is tightly coupled with resource use and this ecological damage. The non-reproducibility of certain ‘natural resources’, pollution, and the decline of biodiversity are at the heart of the accumulation regimes of capitalist societies and make this model of economic development, by definition, non-reproducible for other societies on the planet.
These problems are exacerbated by how we frame them in our academic debate. Many academic disciplines portray themselves as objective and are reluctant to engage in questions of how society should be organized sustainably to avoid being seen as normative. For example, while economic thought has had a powerful impact on the current situation, aspects of power and injustice are largely absent in mainstream economics. Such a view contributes to masking important issues of ecological and social justice. Because the pursuit of knowledge is a political act, researchers should study the fraught histories of their fields and conceive of themselves as political actors.
Many scholars have embraced the SDGs, but they are often presented as targets, where ostensibly reaching those targets is equated with the state of sustainability. This has created an over-emphasis on outcomes rather than process. Rather than treating the current formulation as a fixed set of goals, we need to acknowledge that any vision for a sustainable future always emerges out of particular values contests between worldviews, myths, and ideologies. In such value contests, it is those with power to define what ought to be and to devote resources towards its creation. For those peoples and multi-species communities outside of the winning agenda, their visions are rendered invisible or less relevant. In some contexts what is fair might not be sustainable. In others, sustainability might only be achieved through a prior process of justice and reconciliation. We therefore need to keep asking “sustainability for whom?” and to address how our political economy affects social and environmental justice as an underlying driver.
We need to foster critical thinking about our own disciplines and explicate the hidden values and goals of our academic practices and our environmental solutions. A notion worth challenging is ‘green growth’. If the goal is framed as to ‘foster economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services in which our well-being relies on’,15 the solution is still sought in increasing global trade, innovations and market mechanisms. Such a view is problematic as it can lead to a complete decoupling and rebound effects. It is also problematic as such a naïve framing of assets ignores and potentially perpetuates current ecological and social inequalities. Thus we ought to welcome and actively explore alternative concepts to organize the creation of value where the rules of the market are subsumed in ecology and society and not the other way around.
Actions for our community
We ought to view sustainability claims equally by the weight of their evidence as well as their impact on the less powerful.16 We should reject the language of “win-wins” because it masks harms done to those who aren't allowed to play the game. We should reject the language of “trade-offs” because we don’t live in a world of equal exchange. In teaching, we need to integrate different sets of knowledge, bring in a diversity of voices, practice critical thinking, and revive questions of power and justice.
In our research, we should challenge implicit growth assumptions and attend to power and justice issues implicated in ecological questions. We can study alternative approaches of value creation and explore participatory forms of collaboration with those whose lives we seek to understand.
North—South (post-European) decolonization of science
Sustainable development promises of social sustainability, a world without hunger or poverty, or world with health, education equal opportunities for all have not been realized. We live on a planet plagued by deep socio-economic and political inequalities and violence, in which the dilemma is how to stay within safe and just planetary boundaries. This question brings to the fore the North and South dichotomy as a first shortcut to think of inequality. Data on poverty, hunger, sanitation, health, education quickly highlight acute regional disparities. However, this dichotomy only partially captures and reflects the “Great Inequality”.17 We must reject a colonial worldview that homogenizes the varied forms and reasons for inequality across geopolitical contexts. Inequality is growing within the North and between countries in the so-called Global South. For example, China, India, Brazil, South Africa cannot be seen in the same category as Burkina Faso or Laos in terms of power and economic weight. Moreover, elites in the South sometimes capture the North-South rhetoric to hide their privileges and to avoid responsibilities. Further still, the call for decolonizing science demands going beyond redressing historical injustices but challenging how we make knowledge and how we view progress.18 We should think of how inequalities are ingrained not only in the global growth-addicted political and economic system but also in our worldviews and knowledge systems and how concentration of material wealth, power and resources are accrued at the expense of other humans and non-humans across geographies and times.
The North-South dichotomy may remain useful for some political and analytical purposes, but it is not sufficient anymore to enable us to respond to the sustainability challenges ahead of us. We should go beyond studying the impacts of agricultural and mineral commodity production and large infrastructure projects in the so-called Global South and to understand the way in which production and consumption modes are structured and how they concentrate power and wealth across geographical divides. As scientists we should look for how these relations of production are institutionalized and manifest through norms, regulations and procedures. Instead of focusing on just the data that define the SDGs, we ought to learn how the drivers of inequality and hunger, and biodiversity loss become crystallized as values and worldviews that trap us into limited views of what constitutes well-being and happiness.
Actions for our community
A way forward is to look for diverse theoretical lenses, traditions, philosophies or knowledge systems such as Buen-Vivir, Ubuntu, Taoism and others.19-23 Such concepts promote dialogues among diverse worldviews, and foster inter and transdisciplinarity in research and in the classroom. Co-production and collaboration are ways in which sciences, arts, philosophies and other ways of knowing and being can dialogue and contribute in defining which are the real sustainability challenges and hopefully help cope with them.
Teaching for knowledge vs teaching for transformation
The time is right: students and scholars are yearning for education and scholarship that meets the political and ecological moment of the day. Yet, present-day education reproduces the status quo and the norms and values upholding it. Education values what we can measure, instead of measuring what we value.24 Higher Education in particular fails to reflect on itself and academic research ignores its own backyard as a subject of critical inquiry. “Academics and researchers are faced with a choice: to be agents of this reproduction or to be advocates and activists for change.”25
Not changing the content, goals, and organization of our teaching and learning will leave our students empty handed and empty headed in the face of the global crises. Not knowing what they will have to deal with and not being able to do the dealing-with is harmful to all of the earth and its inhabitants. All students must be taught the skills and knowledge, and they need to be supported in the development of attitudes and motivation, to engage with today’s challenges, otherwise their curriculum is practically useless.
We are calling for an education that serves the understanding, attitude, motivation, and skills, in other words, the competences, needed to engage with the politics of sustainability. We need to rethink our curricula in light of the political problems posed by sustainability; we need to help our students to develop empathy, critical thinking, future-thinking strategies and transdisciplinary skills as well as the ability to personally deal with the overwhelming challenges we are facing as communities sharing this planet.
Actions for our community
Making education sustainable is not only about building multidisciplinary programs, it remains important for students to become experts in their own domain. Instead of merely integrating more sustainability content, education ought to focus on competencies that empower learners to act sustainably. The complexity of the political problems posed by the global crises asks the future change makers we want our students to become to develop empathy, future-thinking strategies, and transdisciplinary skills. Education programs can go much further in multiperspectivity and critical reflection.
University-wide electives are a good way to fulfill the goal of multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. A focus on didactics: we need a different teaching philosophy, we need to see the lecturer as a facilitator and a learner, we need to balance what students need to know and how to learn about it, we need to work on learning by practicing, we need to consider the uncertainty and evolution of knowledge. Finally, we need institutional change to facilitate this shift in education for sustainability. Educators need more flexible structures, we need to be able to have assignments running for longer than a specific course, we need to think of other ways students can learn and be engaged, to receive support in these endeavors.26
Politicizing Our World in Data’s sustainability
A commitment to sustainability calls for a process to sharpen attention on underlying drivers of social and environmental problems, and avoid upholding the status quo. Whenever a sustainability claim is made, a new goal proposed, or a sustainable job title invoked, the above domains provide a process to reveal the hidden assumptions and values that underpin plans for change.
Recently, Hannah Ritchie, the head of research at Our World In Data, gave a speech highlighting a strident vision for sustainability. 27 Ritchie, a data scientist, suggests that we ought not to be nostalgic about a past of low environmental impact, claiming that the world has never been sustainable. In contrast, in Ritchie’s terms, we are on the cusp of perhaps becoming the “first sustainable generation,” given the appropriate investments in technology and evidenced-based priorities.
For Ritchie, past eras of low environmental impact were due to the low standard of living and low population. She thus demands that sustainability must be conceptualized as “a good life for everyone today plus opportunity for future generations.” In this view, the rise in living standards through industrialization has been a boon of progress; it just needs to be extended to all and decoupled from environmental impact.
Ritchie concludes that in order to become the first sustainable generation we need to prioritize a set of actions:
Reduce the cost of low carbon technologies so they become the default everywhere (Electric Vehicles, energy, alternative proteins);
Low carbon technologies should afford a higher quality of life than their alternatives;
Reframe sustainability away from reduction or sacrifice and towards a positive opportunity of abundance and health;
Use data to show what choices are “really” sustainable and reaffirm the story of progress.
The Our World in Data claims regarding sustainability is a classic example of the knowledge/power domain. Choosing which data to focus on and which to exclude drives the types of sustainability policy to pursue. How does the evidence chosen to tell the story of development prioritize certain conclusions about progress and suppress others? What alternative values for sustainability do the data foreclose?
Ritchie’s attention to biodiversity is present in her claim to sustainability, but it is placed behind the priority of a good life for all humans. How has non-human exploitation driven the quality of life gains since the industrial revolution? Is there not a rebalancing needed between human and non-human interests?
The quality of life gains that Ritchie extolls, it can be argued, has come via a continued South to North transfer of wealth and power. When Ritchie invokes that green technologies (like electric vehicles) should be better than their predecessors, who are they better for? Given the supply chains involved in raw materials and automobile industrial practices, what impact on North/South relations of exchange would an intensified EV sector produce? What sorts of cultural values are underpinning Ritchie’s vision of abundance and what alternatives could be invoked?
While Ritchie uses data to tell a story of progress, a parallel story of inequality and suffering could also be told. Ritchie works in global averages, which necessitates the silencing of individual stories of how gains for some have meant losses for others. Who benefits from a world that invests in and regulates towards cheap abundant low carbon energy sources? Would all benefit as Ritchie indicates? What might we learn from past human-environment relations that had low environmental impact?
Teaching for Transformation
Shall we teach that advancing low carbon technological development is the greatest force for sustainability? Should the engineers that are being trained to build next generation energy solutions be equally trained in the political dimensions of technology transfer?
A framework for politicizing sustainability
To meet the real sustainability challenges, our framework politicizes sustainability claims in research and education. As in the case above, the framework doesn’t offer authoritative judgements on sustainability. Rather, it provides a template to challenge authoritative claims. The framework is based on a three part process of challenge questions, normative principles, and examples of praxis. The set of challenge questions are aimed at provoking self reflection for anyone who is embedded in sustainability research, teaching or learning. The framework takes a step further, providing principles for ‘right’ action and examples from research, teaching, and learning that advance a deeper meaning of sustainability.
Does the sustainability argument hide a value struggle over the direction of society?
How can disciplines with vastly differing epistemic and value commitments come to common ground on implementation of a deeper meaning of sustainability?
Is a sustainability claim being used to further the status quo?
What are the root causes of environmental problems?
It is increasingly clear that values cannot be extracted from sustainability research, teaching and learning, even in the sciences traditionally thought as neutral.
Sustainability claims should center values contests that drive environmental problems and lift up environmental solutions.
Sustainability work should come with a capacity and willingness to discuss values, and epistemological foundations
Sustainability claims that encourage entrenchment of privileged forms of economic activity should receive high scrutiny.
Research and education priorities must be able to demonstrate a theory of change that links to one of the known root drivers.
Integrate Science and Technology Studies curriculum into sustainability studies
Students write personal reflections on how their life histories shape their idea of what a sustainable world looks like.
Integrate power analyses and philosophy into sustainability assessments
Make cross-session opportunities within specific programs (social sciences/econ; politics/environment; etc) The ‘Project Hieroglyph’ (Finn and Cramer 2014) is an inspirational example of how we may find new pathways towards a sustainable future, by pairing natural and social sciences with humanities and the arts. The scholarly method of Critical Utopian Action Research (CUAR) is one such attempt to find a way out of the maze.
Create institutional dog-guards that oversee the funding of research activities.
Integrate -political and social- economics notions in sciences curriculum to study how unsustainable relationships with nature exploitation/ human labor came into being.
Contest collaboration on research/pedagogical projects that don't support current socio-environmental challenges
How do we take into consideration inequalities between the North and the South without reinforcing dichotomies and dualistic thinking?
How do we create and support new narratives around justice and equity being mindful of contextual diversity and complexity?
Support alternatives views on what counts as knowledge and how power functions.
Decenter scientific knowledge as the best way of knowing.
The call of decolonization goes beyond material redistribution.
Monitor the diversity of authors in courses (required readings) and in research (literature review) and make plans for inclusion.
Call out scientific logics that are historically linked to unsustainable activities.
Include critical theory, including post/de-colonial thought and animal-rights perspectives into curriculum and research.
Teaching for content, teaching for change
Are we teaching sustainability for competence of content or for transformative change?
Are the pedagogical decisions we make leading to unsustainability?
How to redesign education in order to transform our students into changemakers?
Environmental education cannot be viewed separately from the neoliberal system’s offensive against the environment.
Education prepares students for the future; therefore unsustainable education is not education at all.
Thinking in crisis requires to reflexivity and social responsivity of future scientist, critical thinking and cross-themed classes.
Teach about how unsustainable relationship with the environment came into being.
Design a curriculum starting from the skills, attitude and knowledge students will need to encounter the planetary crisis.
Universities ought to build towards a Critical Environmental Education.
Teach about historical actual/current governance gaps, and constraints of political/economic/social systems and why we are not changing.
Whose sustainability is being honored by current sustainability targets or proposals for interventions?
How to avoid reproducing a certain form of economics knowledge that has led to the current pluricrises?
Justice is not merely a moral imperative, but a prerequisite for a sustainable world.
The marginalized face the sharp edge of climate disaster, solutions for change should be representative of those with lived-experience of environmental breakdown.
Calling out the do nothing strategy is an imperative of all actors working in the sustainability field.
Reject a language of tradeoffs and win-wins, because the benefits of sustainability choices are not felt evenly.
Enable researchers and students to understand the social, economic and environmental inequalities/injustices occurring in their area, and to critically engage with ways in which these inequalities might be challenged.
Critically assess targets and action programs, asking about who benefits, who loses, who participates, whose views are reflected.
Human / Non-human
How do we bridge the society-nature (culture-nature) gap?
How not to prioritize human over non-human (inspired among others by Indigenous thought and the animal rights movement)
Intrinsic and relational values of nature needs to be strengthened in sustainability thinking.
Include indigenous thought, animal rights, rights of nature perspectives in curriculum.
Include ecocentrism, compassion and justice as guiding principles, as equal to the SDGs.
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