Risks and Opportunities of Learning for Sustainability, IFSR Conversations 2010

Proceedings of the IFSR Conversation 2010, Pernegg, Austria
Discussion Paper (Team 3): Risks and Opportunities of Learning for Sustainability
Victoria Haro
My present research interest and focus regards a reflection on the risks and opportunities that the actual ecology of learning for sustainability presents for the design of learning systems that enable the human species to create a peaceful, abundant future in conscious interdependence and evolution with the rest of nature, and where human creativity and love capacity is maximized.
Four important interconnected risks seem to be present in the actual learning context for sustainability (to which I will refer loosely as the “environmental context”), these are: superficiality, fanaticism, fear, and disregard or undervaluation of the human species.
Superficiality: The emergence of a future like the one described above requires deep transformations of values, institutions and systems (transformation of the why, how, and for what). This requires a good overall level of understanding of the problems and opportunities we face, which in turn requires a culture of deep inquiry and reflection. False consciousness is dangerous, since it does not get the job done, and worse: it obstructs the way by appearing as deep understanding, so that further inquiry and reflection is prevented. The risk of superficiality – what many times is referred to as “New Age”— is often underestimated. New Age is a pervasive culture that has occupied an enormous space in Western culture in general and the environmental context in particular. Communicating profound understanding in a way that differentiates it from New Age is not a trivial task, since New Age has effectively appropriated and turned vacuous a wide range of serious inquiries –from quantum physics to meditation.
The challenge is not only in communicating profound knowledge, but more importantly, in generating it. At the individual level, as Peter Senge proposes, this requires brilliant intuitions that may be converted into succinct, rationally testable propositions16. To generate profound understanding, these rational propositions must then be collectively distilled through scientific process. Several theories and practices have been developed to enhance the emergence of brilliant intuitions and their corresponding translation into propositions. In particular, the perspectives of Integral Theory, Systems Thinking, Reflective Dialogue and Theory U have shed important new light into designing learning systems that attain this, both through individual and collective processes. These perspectives have begun to gain attention and interest in the environmental context. However, it seems that the perception of the role of scientific process as a profound distillation practice could be strengthened. The power of the scientific approach as an antidote for superficiality has been undermined by the extended cultural view that this is the business only of scientists -but the principles of rational argumentation and the invocation of evidence improve any discussion, regardless of the level of expertise at which it is conducted (including no expertise at all). Thus, ‘citizenizing’ this approach seems a key ingredient in offsetting New Age culture.
Indeed, there is no clear way to identify if our knowledge/ experience/consciousness on a subject is superficial except by submitting it to continuous and vigorous testing through individual and collaborative inquiry as well as evidence gathering. This scientific process entails some helpful features which are often misunderstood in regards to their role in the emergence of profound knowledge. For example, this process implies a skeptical attitude whereby all knowledge is held as a hypothesis (not immovable truth) that may be overthrown at any time by new evidence or a better hypothesis. This motivates continuous creativity in searching “out of the box” alternative explanations to phenomena –thereby also continuously fine-tuning initial hypothesis as well as the understanding of what we searched to explain.
On the other hand, evidence is not necessarily technical data that can only be gathered by specialists, but also encompasses experience and information gathered through ‘simple’ (i.e. not expert) ways. What matters is the force that the evidence offered has for sustaining a general proposition. This fine tunes our systemic understanding of the relationships between phenomena. But more importantly, it inhibits the declaration of unfounded (or not carefully thought) propositions. In any case, all evidence may be challenged, since evidence-gathering itself is an important object of inquiry. This motivates a constant attention and improvement of evidence-gathering processes, polishing our tools for identifying possible sources of error.
Finally, scientific thinking is sometimes perceived as opposed to intuitive or experiential processes; but this is not so: as implied in the above referred view of Peter Senge, intuitions, perceptions and experiences are crucial creative inputs in the scientific process. We could say that an integral training in this process would enhance both our capacity for brilliant intuitions and our capacity for traducing them in succinct, testable, rational propositions.
An integral scientific process would also develop our dialogue abilities and procedures, since a true scientific approach welcomes diversity; and intolerance to diversity is the chief barrier for dialogue. Indeed, the very essence of the scientific approach is to promote different and even opposed views, for otherwise skepticism and error-detection cease. The type of dialogue that this approach enables is the very engine of why it acts as an antidote for superficial knowledge, since it implies that no recourse to the faith of an established dogma is accepted as valid, skeptics are always welcome, and no argument is held to be above the test of evidence.
Possible research questions:
• How may learning systems for sustainability (LSS) create an entirely different way of communicating, reflecting and acting that avoids the New Age pitfall while being widely accessible?
• Which learning processes may attain profound understanding given the time and resource constraints from learning communities and individuals?
• How could capacity for ‘integral scientific process’ be built through LSS?
Fanaticism: It seems obvious that dogmatic thought is harmful to our understanding of reality and to our development as humans. However, the environmental movement faces the risk of fanaticism when an uncompromised will to “fight” current tendencies that are perceived to lead to destruction of our and other species takes over rational thought. The risk is that environmentalism will become religious.
Fanaticism is a risk of any movement that is culturally translated as an ideology, and, given its high costs, should not be overlooked or underestimated but rather targeted by design. Philosopher George Santayana usefully defines fanaticism as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim”17. The development of reflective practices and the incorporation of a scientific style in learning experiences help undermine fanaticism by strengthening the role of rationality, but fanaticism may persist and must be addressed explicitly. Moreover, ‘scientific fanaticism’ is also possible. This for example happens when a majority opinion among scientists is elevated into a dogma; when non intellectual experience is deemed invaluable in principle; or when scientific endeavor is constrained by dogma to certain axioms or areas of inquiry –in short, when a true scientific approach ceases to operate.
The human cultural tendency towards fanaticism, religiosity, and self-righteousness is strong and should be taken seriously in any learning system design that aims to put forth a new worldview. Possible research questions:
• How may LSS train against dogmatic thought?
Fear: Fear is an expected consequence of awareness of various environmental crises. Fear may be an effective catalyst of action; however, action emerging from fear without understanding is prone to fanaticism (that is: fear may be an effective catalyst for ineffective action in relation to the future described above).
The use of fear as a catalyst for action does not honor human dignity and it sets the ground for manipulation. It is worrisome that fear is presently being used in many instances as a medium for environmental awareness and action (both unintentionally and intentionally). Fear is often transformed into anger, and this nurtures dogmatic thought –the most dangerous expression of action that is not based on understanding. On the other hand, fear may also be a paralyzing force, so its systemic effects are complex.
Recently, fear of the experience of the world in general due to looming socio-environmental crises, and fear of wilderness in particular, is being detected as a rising problem, particularly in children (the latter referred to as biophobia or ecophobia), adding and connected to the general new culture of fear emerging in human society.
Possible research questions:
• How may LSS be designed so that understanding and consciousness, and not fear, conform the basis for communicating awareness and promoting action?
• Given that fear is an expected consequence of environmental awareness, how should it be explicitly addressed and managed in learning systems design, particularly when directed to children?
• How may a learning community context effectively help individuals in the experience of fear?
Disregard or undervaluation of the human species: In many instances the environmental context promotes a negative, contemptuous view of humans that undermines human creativity, dignity, and consciousness: the view of humans as virus and parasites of the Earth, the view of humans as irremediable destroyers, the view of Nature being better off without humans, the view that humans (or the human species, in an extreme) should sacrifice themselves for the sake of other species or nature –since this is the least we may do after the havoc we’ve created (a sort of religious guilt).
In some cases these views promote practices of conservation and restoration where humans living in the targeted areas are not a priority (which is possible if they are poor and politically unorganized). On the other hand, these worldviews have psychological costs to our self esteem as humans, and also convince many children and adolescents that older generations have failed them, promoting intergenerational hostility.
All this disconnects humans from comprehending themselves as part of a species in evolution, seeking adaptation to changing conditions. Instead, they infuse humans with a consciousness-undermining process of guilt and anger. The evolutionary view, in which humans are immersed in continuous adaptation-learning processes, strengthens human dignity and creativity, and thereby fosters the possibilities of conscious evolution as a species towards a future as the one described earlier. Under this view, humans are conceived as a unique (albeit risky) experiment of evolution: a species with reflective consciousness, able to observe nature in awe and wonder and recognize its beauty and its interconnectedness. That the human species is in an evolutionary threshold of understanding this beauty and interconnectedness of nature – which includes humans – is one of the opportunities of the environmental learning context (addressed below).
Possible research questions:
• How may LSS avoid views of disregard and undervaluation of human species and vigorously incorporate an evolutionary view?
• How may LSS promote a view where humans are conceived as a unique species capable (and therefore responsible) of promoting conditions for flourishing life on Earth? (Although maybe not all life: many viruses and bacteria -the most abundant type of biological entity on Earth- are not welcomed partners of humans and other mammals; and putrefied water reservoirs flourishing with bacterial life are not common visions of sustainability).
• How may LSS ‘put humans as priority’ of environmental efforts, in the sense of promoting socio-ecological sustainability? In relation to the opportunities of the actual learning context for sustainability, two interconnected ones seem particularly important: the emergence and cultural appropriation of the concept of interdependence, and the possibility of connecting and fostering learning communities through the internet.
1. Interdependence: The concept of the interconnectedness of nature, which includes humans, is gaining unprecedented cultural ground. Some traditional societies developed cultures with a deep experience and understanding of interdependence (as is the case of some of the Native American tribes, for example), and some philosophical traditions have had for a long time highly sophisticated theories and practices of interdependence (as the Buddhist traditions, for example); what is unprecedented is how widespread this idea is now becoming among humans, due mainly to the perception of environmental threats, and to a heightened understanding of ecological interdependence and biological evolution. This all allows for the emergence of an interdependence-awareness, since the arguments for it do not depend strongly on personal, religious, or cultural experience, and are thus accessible to a wide range of people.
Although this awareness is still generally superficial, grasping the phenomenon of interdependence is fundamental to understanding what is to be human in nature (not excluding urban environments); foundational for deep appreciation of other species and the rest of nature; and essential to the emergence and cohesion of learning communities. Therefore, seeking processes that take advantage of this opportunity and aim to deepen the understanding and experience of interdependence is valuable (indeed necessary) if true sustainability is to emerge.
Possible research questions:
• How could LSS promote a deep understanding of interdependence (both intellectual and nonintellectual) that enhances consciousness in a way that is independent of particular religious or cultural contexts? Through which concepts, processes, experiences?
• How should LSS integrate evolution theory and ecology?
• How can LSS be designed so that knowledge pertaining to different areas is interconnected instead of separated (as has been traditionally the case), thereby producing an interconnected design that shows interdependence both as content and structure?
2. Internet communication: Internet makes possible that a net of individuals and learning communities interested in reaching sustainability, exchange information and experiences, thereby increasing our possibilities of adaptation and survival, as well as of promoting conditions that help other species adapt and survive. This is an unprecedented opportunity. Moreover, the very structure of Internet, resilient and self-emergent with millions of connected nodes of information, is a blueprint for the formation of a global net of learning communities for sustainability.
To fully seize this opportunity, learning communities and individuals must increase the quality of the learning experience that internet facilitates. Indeed, internet is such a new feature of our society that there is still a very feeble culture of scientific inquiry and dialogue helping distill and organize the enormous amount of information to which we have access. The accumulation of information is now less valuable than the capacity to discern information and understand the systemic processes of its production, the better to find valuable information and differentiate it from propaganda, misinformation, or half truths. This capacity need not be left to specialists but can and should be built into the consciousness of all members of any learning community.
The creation of online systems of collaborative inquiry is also crucial in order to maximize both creative innovation and research. Projects like Wikipedia and the like have already set the ground and proved that there is enormous will from ordinary citizens to participate in the generation of public knowledge, so that systems specifically designed for collaborative inquiry within a ‘citizenized’ scientific process would imply a valuable evolution of the possibilities of human collaboration.
Possible research questions:
• How may LSS build capacity for information analysis and discernment in internet?
• How could LSS help create and promote online collaborative inquiry systems?
For learning systems for sustainability (LSS), the present opportunities are as exciting as the risks are menacing. They may contribute significantly towards an abundant and peaceful future, but they may also become part of the problem. The possibility of a world full of connected learning communities that share the common interest of finding deep sustainability across diverse cultural, religious, economic, and political views is invigorating and encouraging. It also seems our best bet as a conscious evolutionary strategy. A learning system that not only permits but also foments creativity and diversity, and simultaneously promotes accords, is essential if we are to be successful. Diversity is more easily proposed than achieved: many views in the environmental context are more closed to diversity than it seems (and some are outright totalitarian, with everyone living in basically the same way, under a central global control). A diverse universe of inquiry where differences are nevertheless resolved through integral scientific process, has a good probability of emerging if superficiality, fanaticism, fear and undervaluation of the human species are forestalled, as well as if the emergence of interdependence-awareness and the internet blueprint for human networks are harnessed and enhanced. A human neurological system, within itself, is already a learning system where creativity and diversity may flourish while simultaneously resolving differences. It also permits the emergence (or expression) of auto-referential consciousness. One can only wonder at the possibilities of a larger, emergent, “neurological” system where each human participates in learning communities around the globe.
16 Senge, Peter M.; The Fifth Discipline, New York: Doubleday , 1990, p.158
17 Santayana, George; Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, p.13.