Greener by Degrees: Exploring Sustainability through Higher Education Curricula

Editor(s) Carolyn Roberts and Jane Roberts
Publisher University of Gloucestershire
Published 2007
Pages 343
ISBN 9781861741806
Reviewed by Dr Terfot A. Ngwana
University of Lincoln
Review published 5 September 2007

This book is potentially a vital resource for both educational developers within higher education institutions and higher education practitioners in general. It is a demonstration of the complexity of the theme education for sustainable development (ESD) as well as an attempt to apply perspectives of it to specific learning and teaching units in degree programmes. The book puts together a series of multidisciplinary activities that use a predominantly action learning approach as a means of developing literacy in sustainability amongst learners. It also permits practitioners to explore sustainability in their areas of interest.

The volume is a contribution from a diverse community of scholars with a common interest in various perspectives of sustainable development. In the introduction Roberts and Roberts present the institutional and conceptual context of the volume. The chapter challenges the reader to reflect on some of the key controversies of the concept of sustainability, for example, what exactly are the needs of the present and how can we determine or measure the needs of the future? The first part (part A), which focuses on sustainability in the classroom, is an attempt by the authors (A1-A17) to illustrate how the theme has been applied in specific units in degree programmes across many disciplines. Part two (B1-B14) presents organisational context of various themes related to sustainability. The specific context here includes instances of local, national and international partnerships on issues of sustainable development. Part three (C1- C6) examines sustainability within the University of Gloucestershire. The contributions describe the process whereby ESD was embedded in internal practices, outreach programmes and partnerships. The last chapter (C6) is unique because it is an annotated bibliography which was initially presented to participants of the workshop they refer to as ‘Swapshop’(p.238) in advance of discussions. This chapter is particularly useful in exploring the diffuse conceptualisation and application of sustainability in education. In this respect, the annotated bibliography provides a salient sketch of scholarship within this area.

The most significant contributions of the book are: it sets out a paradigm for educational development units within higher education institution (Kuhn 1970) and challenges higher education practitioners to reflect on how the notion of sustainable development may apply in their area of expertise or practice.

The way Roberts and Roberts problematise in the introduction and the suggestions implicitly raised in the annotated bibliography set standards of analysis that the book cannot fully respond to in the space available. The notion of holistic rather discrete thinking is difficult to pin down in the chapters because most activities reported are those directly related to the topic of environmental capital or environmental sustainability. Furthermore when one reads the book the general impression is that specific professional and academic skills can be used in integrating sustainable development in various practices ranging from language teaching to town planning etc. Nonetheless, such an approach is mainly based on the assumption that sustainability is a universally definable and fixed concept (which, of course, it is not as argued by the abstract of Alvarez and Rogers (2006) on page 336). Also, the famous definition from the World Commission for Environmental Development (1987) and Poritt’s (2005) five capitals on which the book presumably bases its theoretical justification compounds the ambiguity. This is highlighted by Roberts and Roberts in the argument that ‘the interest of the present and future’ is not clearly defined and that the ‘imprecision of the concept has aided the process’ of its implementation of ESD (p.2).

It seems also simplistic to juxtapose the five capitals as if they all constitute a coherent whole. This may underestimate the significance of the proposition that most contemporary economic goals are constraining to sustainable development. A possible resolution of this conceptual conflict is perhaps to argue that a balance between the capitals can be addressed as a means of developing a meaningful action. Student feedback, especially in the first seventeen chapters (A1-A17), demonstrates that they find the notion of sustainable development more actionable than before. However, the signal of dissonance cannot be ignored. An example is on page 18 where students make the following comment: ‘Sustainability is really complicated, most people are never going to understand it, and most won’t change their behaviour, business is just pretending….Now I realise the responsibility is everyone’s but – I still want to be able to buy a fast car and have nice things’.

Though the book is a good practical companion for lecturers in higher education and educational developers, it also challenges other readers to reflect on the whole concept of sustainable development or sustainability literacy.

Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press