“After Sustainability” – education for noble savages

I came across John Foster’s blog post, introducing his recent book “After Sustainability”, first through resilience.org. Lancaster University being where he teaches, and near where I live, we met up for a rich conversation, and he kindly lent me a copy of the book. Very interesting reading it is, too! So here I am writing a kind of review, for the Cetis blog, because I do think that the kind of thinking he is championing has implications for educational technology. I add more of my views towards the end.

The message of the book’s nicely chosen title should be clear enough. The idea of “sustainability” has, in many parts of society, taken over the mainstream from ideas of growth and development. It’s easy to criticise the idea of limitless growth, so there have always been its critics. This book focuses criticism around the word “progress”, which I see as neatly ambivalent between growth and development: could it even be too ambivalent to base a clear argument on? Could there still be development, of our consciousness at least, even while in material terms we head for “degrowth”?

I remember an excellent history teacher at school pointing out that popular culture has swung, over centuries, between, on the one hand, looking back to a “golden age” which we might strive to work back towards, and on the other hand, something more like “we’ve never had it so good”, and presumably, with more “progress”, it will get better and better. I wonder whether (as I guess my teacher believed) the truth might be more ambivalent than that. Perhaps, with one pair of spectacles, one may see progress; but with another, at the same time, decline and fall. T. S. Eliot seems to be saying something very similar, in his “Four Quartets”. And again, compare the long history of the idea of the “noble savage”.

The main thrust of the book’s argument is well made and well received. It does seem clear that many people are clinging on to implausible optimism in the face of the mounting evidence of climate change: change at a level that will lead to severe, if not catastrophic consequences. Foster is asking us to acknowledge that: to stop the denial, and shift our hopes across to something deeper and more realistic. To explore this territory, he probes the philosophical foundations of why it is so hard to look behind the self, into the darkness. Even the concept of “resilience”, which is so well represented in the vanguard of environmental thinking these days, is really quite problematic. If one prepares in detail to be resilient to one kind of predicted shock, the risk is that one may be even less well prepared for other unexpected shocks. Can we imagine a good, general purpose, cybernetic resilience, perhaps, even in the face of what happened to Beer’s experiments with Allende in Chile?

Foster puts more of his personal view in the third and final part of the book, corresponding to his use of the term “retrieval”. (This is where the book extract in his blog post is taken from.) “Retrieval […] means learning from environmental tragedy to recognise the essential human wholeness that contemporary progressive civilisation denies and thwarts.” It is both a practical and philosophical task. I won’t go into the philosophical side here, though it seems to make sense within the philosophical tradition. And I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “retrieval”, which to most people in IT will conjure up “information retrieval” — surely not the intended connotation! I would personally prefer simply “recovery”, which I take in Eliot’s sense: “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” (That was around 1940.)

But the main point of contact with educational technology, to me, comes along with Foster’s pointing to the constructs: predictable ↔ unpredictable; and planned ↔ wild. Indeed, in Chapter 8, “Towards a toolkit”, the book has a section headed “Education in transition: knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of retrieval?” He is pointing out that it is all very well training people in the kinds of skills that are likely to be useful in a “transition” economy, but also that we need wider, more general “education that empowers us to make sense of some things as intrinsically valuable, and so to create for ourselves any ends we have.”

So we see here a different take on the debates in my two areas of specialism: e-portfolios, and skills and competence. If e-portfolios are merely glorified electronic CVs, showing incumbent employers the things that they have said they want, then they are surely doing us a disservice. But the other, strong trend in e-portfolio practice is rather the opposite, towards reflection — towards critical thinking, not towards conformity to past predictions.

And in the areas of defining needed skills and competence, I see a parallel debate going on. It is relatively easy to take what is past and current practice, and to analyse the skills and competence needed to perform in those current roles in current contexts. A narrow portfolio based on a reductionist approach to skills is, according to the view I share, going nowhere fast. But, despite the challenge of grasping, let alone doing something better, I believe it is perfectly possible to conceive of a structure of higher level skills that should indeed be the basis of any transition — to retrieval, recovery, or however you want to put your vision of what realistic hope there may be in our very uncertain future.

I think I take a rather different tack to Foster here. Where he is talking about “wildness”, about what comes across to me as more tribal, intuitive loyalties perhaps based on place, I would rather emphasise the necessary skills in living and working with each other as equals. I think this is more of a different “take” than a real disagreement. There are many of these skills, and among them a set to do with finding consensus, that are equally in place in the standardization community where I have been working for several years now. To my mind, tribal loyalties can be fickle and conflicted, and while they are held together by instinctive bonds of kinship, they are more prone to loss of trust when hierarchical forms of control lead to large inequalities of power, and opposing interests, reminiscent of class interests.

What I look for includes education for collaboration; for consensus; for peer governance; for the resilience gained through using everyone’s intelligence together. The richness and variety available from properly peer-to-peer processes is, it seems to me, much more likely to be able to cope with the unexpected. Even the darkness within ourselves is less dark to others, if we can trust them in a spirit of mutual respect. Foster uses the interesting term “existential resilience”, and that relates in me to what develops over time with other people, through trusting relationships that allow vulnerability. It takes an exceptional individual to have that existential resilience alone.

One of the ways we can back up discussion of, and education about, personal resilience is to appeal to theories such as George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory. To quote a useful current piece from Wikipedia:

Transitional periods in a person’s life occur when he or she encounters a situation that changes his or her naive theory (or system of construction) of the way the world is ordered. They can create anxiety, hostility, and/or guilt and can also be opportunities to change one’s constructs and the way one views the world.

Vulnerability could be a useful term to indicate the mental state of someone who is going beyond anxiety, hostility and guilt to change their personal construct system to cope better with a changed world. This again looks close to Rob Hopkins’ working definition of resilience from 2011 in transitionculture.org:

“The capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity”

So, today I’ll conclude by putting the “Cetis” question again, how can we use technology to support, enable, enhance, facilitate (etc.) education that has enduring relevance after sustainability? I hope I’ve given some leads above as to the ground from which answers might be explored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>