Repairing Ecologies

Who knew that the first-ever Earth Day in 1970 was originally planned as a college teach-in in the US? This is just one of the things I learned while writing the most recent chapter of my book, on critical-creative ways of teaching students about ecological challenges. This not really being my area of research, I learned a lot in the process of writing it, about eco-centrism, systems theory, Buen Vivir, deep ecology … Here is an attempt to summarize some of the chapter’s main points, illustrated by some photos from my recent holidays in Devon where I appreciated the marvels of nature as never before.

As in each chapter, I start with a critical take on mainstream discourses and interventions, in this case on sustainable development, with its famous but wanting Brundtland report definition of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Whose needs? Defined by whom? Whose development? Being neither sustainable nor developmental, sustainable development prioritizes economic growth over environmental sustainability. The green economy, ecological economics, natural resources, environmental management, carbon trading, biodiversity derivatives – to varying degrees they all show the instrumentalization of nature in the service of economic development and human needs. The alternative to this pervasive anthropocentrism is ecocentrism, as concept influenced by Aldo Leopold and his land ethic (‘a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community’), Arne Naessdeep ecology (‘the more diversity the better’) and Fritjof Capra‘s systems view of life. Eco-centrism recognizes the integrity of the whole of the environment and that nature and other-than-human species have intrinsic values, independent from their utility for human needs.

I don’t know how I feel about these tree tags. Are trees not of value in their own right?

Applied to education, sustainable development becomes Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), a global program spearheaded by the UN, which declared an ESD Decade from 2005 to 2014. ESD has resulted in declarations, summits, policy initiatives and a large field of scholarship, and many universities, Sussex included, have developed ESD-focused teaching and research programs, adjusted campus operations and developed relevant community programs. However, ESD replicates the market-driven nature of sustainable development and the larger neoliberal HE regime, while also marginalizing non-scientific knowledges from the Global South, neglecting local specificities and undermining non-Western ways of relating to other-than-human species. So, what are some alternatives?

The field of ecopedagogy extends critical pedagogy to environmental concerns and focuses on developing students’ critical eco-literacy that takes into account how unsustainable practices have been shaped by colonialism, capitalism and other structures of power. Creative approaches include incorporating the arts, emotions and place-based teaching. Decolonial pedagogies focus on ‘radical well-being notions’ such as the South African notion of Ubuntu, the Indian idea of Swaraj and the South American concept of Buen Vivir. Based on my Bolivia research for parts of the book, I trace the complex and contested ways in which Buen Vivir has transformed from an Andean indigenous cosmology centering on the inseparability of all elements of life and living in harmony with nature, humans and the spiritual world, to becoming part of global environmental and development discourses.

A small group of Devon oaks, of which they are not many left

I also write about the need for students to develop a basic understanding of complexity and systems thinking, a field I learned about from reading Donella Meadows‘ excellent primer, among others. To be able to learn with uncertainty rather than being paralyzed by it (as we all are being forced to do by COVID), to understand the unpredictability and non-linearity of change, to appreciate the long-term cycles of ecosystem sustainability and to learn about the power of leverage points, where small changes can lead to system-level shifts are all important insights students can gain from systems thinking. What surprised me most are the similarities between some of the core ideas of Buen Vivir and systems thinking, especially about the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all aspects of life and the notion that all living beings are expressions of earth’s creative forces. Ideas relating to emergence (think snowflakes), self-organization (think flocks of birds) and non-linearity (think tipping points) can be found among both indigenous relational cosmologies and systems and complexity sciences.

A critical-creative pedagogy can help students better understand foundational ecological ideas, critically examine the limitations of anthropocentric sustainable development discourses and think about the importance of relating to the environment in more eco-centric ways. It also enables students to creatively explore and experience these insights, for example through designing and playing serious games and through mapping campus infrastructures during walking seminars, two teaching activities I describe in detail in the chapter and will blog about soon.

image of a forest sculpture
A mythical guardian in the Devon forest. How can environmental art be used creatively in teaching?

Reclaiming economies

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An example of a game used for reclaiming the economy (developed by a group of researchers in the Netherlands)

Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policy makers shaping human society in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950, which, in turn are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century this is shaping up to be a disaster.

Kate Raworth

This post is the first part of a summary of the economics chapter of my book, which I recently finished. Even though the chapter does not focus on teaching economics students per se, but rather explores how economics-focused teaching in the social sciences can help students to better imagine and creative alternative futures, it was in part inspired by the above observation. The chapter therefore spends little time presenting the neoclassical status quo, while most of it explores a number of compelling heterodox alternatives, such as including marginalized perspectives in keeping with decolonizing pedagogy initiatives, emphasizing the teaching of inequality and exploring plural and diverse economies inside and outside the classroom. The chapter’s two teaching activities are the creation of student individual diverse economy portfolios and a group activity to design a plan for establishing a recycling cooperative. You can read this post together with a guest post by Cristina Cano, a student who recently finished a joint Economics/International Development degree at Sussex to get a student perspective on the matter.

Development Economics

The chapter begins with a brief summary of neoclassical economic thought that is still dominant in many university classrooms, noting in particular the dominance of white men teaching at elite universities whose texts as regarded as authoritative in the discipline. By comparison, the field of development economics, which is particularly relevant for challenges in the Global South, is more diverse and presents a good opportunity for students to learn how economic (and other) scholarship arises from personal biographies and institutional locations, shows a dynamic field shaped by diverse voices, many of which are still located at elite UK or US universities but maintain strong ties to Latin America, the Caribbean and India. The field’s founding figure provides a good example of this.

Arthur Lewis, who, born in the then British colony of St Lucia, was the first-ever black student to be admitted to the London School of Economics in 1933, where he met many anti-colonial advocates who shaped his economic thinking, together with his studies of the British empire and 19th century England. He became Britain’s first Black professor when he was appointed at the University of Manchester, where he developed his well-known dual economy model, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979. Like so  many academic economists, Lewis was also a policy advisor, first for the British colonial office and then to several newly independent governments in Africa and the Caribbean, where he served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, before taking up a professorship at Princeton. Teaching students about the live and work of this complex founding figure shows how in economics, theory/academia and practice/policy as well as empire and post-colony are entangled in complex ways that defy easy categorization and  ideological pigeon-holing. Other influential development economists include Walt Rostow and his 5 stages of economic growth, Raúl Prebisch and his work with the Latin American dependency school, Amartya Sen and his capabilities approach which informed the UN’s Human Development Index, Diane Elson and Naila Kabeer‘s groundbreaking with in gender and feminist economics, Ha Joon Chang‘s arguments about kicking away the ladder and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee‘s work on Poor Economics. Through this diversity of perspectives and academic biographies, students can understand the importance of a more pluralistic approach to economics-focused teaching.

Pluralist Teachings

According to Frank Stilwell, an early advocate of pluralist economics teaching, ‘a pluralist pedagogy, i.e. a teaching practice that explores a plurality of different ways of understanding how the economy works . . . is the principal antidote to the reproduction of a narrow orthodoxy in the discipline.’ Pluralist teaching includes, alongside neoclassical economics, institutional, environmental, Marxian and feminist economics, among others. Rather than a pick-and-mix approach, it asks students to consider how these different theories have developed and interact with one another. Pluralist teaching converges around a set of principles that include

  • recognizing the role that history, ethics and power play in economic discourse, policy and practice
  • understanding the complexity of economic systems and acknowledging that situated knowledge, value judgements and political ideologies shape economic decision making,
  • embracing more active and student-centered teaching that relates economic theories to students’ own experiences and to real-world examples

Pluralist teaching is therefore an important improvement of orthodox economics-focused teaching and has energized the teachings of students as for example in the global Rethinking Economics student network. A teaching example described in the chapter is the application of Kate Raworth’s 21st century economics principles to students’ understanding of the COVID crisis.

For decolonial scholars, however, the mere addition of different approaches, while keeping neoliberal economics firmly in place, does not go far enough. Their demands are for a more pluriversal economics that acknowledges that the discipline’s claims to universality mask its Euro-centric origins and continue to exclude work from women and scholars from the Global South. To show how such marginalized knowledges can become part of the curriculum, in my chapter I include a teaching example from Jonathan Langdon, who teaches in Canada, that is of particular relevance in the current historic moment in the fight against racial discrimination and injustice.

Decolonial economics teachings

Langdon asks his students to read excerpts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations alongside the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, published 12 years after Smith’s book,  in which Equiano describes his experiences of enslavement, the middle passage, slave labor on plantations and ships and eventual freedom. For Langdon, such a reading does not only reveal the gulf between Smith’s rational, self-centered mentality and the human experiences of slavery, but also how Equiano himself used Smith’s writings to advocate for the efficiency of wage over slave labour. This shows how (former) slaves were able to appropriate Western arguments for the abolitionist cause, something that is also taught in Sussex’ Colonialism and After course. For Langdon’s students, discussing how both texts were used by proponents and opponents of the slave trade prompts them to ask why they have certainly heard of Smith before but not of Equiano. Langdon argues that ‘it is only by bringing in the voice of those impacted by [the slave] system that the immorality of the economic arrangements stands out in sharp relief.’ Situating both books at the historical emergence of capitalism also provides a fuller historical context and ‘destabilizes the foundational authority of economics to vision of progress.’ It allows for an ontological reframing of capitalism from a structural given to a system produced by particular discourses and practices and that therefore can be changed.

Another teaching example in the chapter comes from my Sussex colleague Paul Gilbert, who has developed a third year specialist module on Wealth, Inequality and Development, which interrogates the drivers and consequences of inequality and uneven wealth accumulation. The module is constructed around a post-colonial perspective and presents the long history of politics and practices of inequality, from questions of colonial drain and reparations to the colonial origins of contemporary corporate dispute resolution mechanisms to the current work of the Southern Centre for Inequality at Wits University in South Africa, to complement the better-known Thomas Piketty debates around inquality. Where neoclassical assumptions hold that inequality is an inescapable aspect of growth and will eventually be ameliorated by it, heterodox economists advocate for a pro-active redesign of the economy to distribute wealth and resources more equally. In his teaching, Paul focuses on issues such as taxation, land inequality and international law. He also introduces students to the work of advocacy, campaigning and research groups such as the Tax Justice Network, IIED and Debt Resistance UK and follows a problem-focused pedagogy where theoretical discussions are linked to specific challenges. As an example of combining critical reading of academic, policy and activism texts with creative activities, Paul introduces students to interesting data sets such as the Panama Papers to get them thinking about how different actors use and manipulate figures and data. Students then learn some of the practical skills used by NGOs and investigative journalists to read corporate accounts to detect tax avoidance and evasion and try to apply these to reading corporate tax sheets themselves. In this way, students develop a hands-on understanding of corporate tax avoidance and how to find it and think through the implications of both. Subverting the economics 101 skill of reading financial statements, here students learn to read them ‘for difference’ to destabilize mainstream ideas and uncover what is unseen, but also what can be possible when the invisible is brought to light. A brilliant example of critical-creative teaching!

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This is a great blog to which Paul contributes

Designing Futures

How can we invite students’ creativity into university spaces?

Having just finished a draft of my design chapter, I thought it might be interestig to provide a brief summary here. The chapter argues that design’s future orientation and open-ended methods, together with its use of creative spaces and materials (inspired in part by a visit to the Stanford d.school during which many of the images in this post were taken), are well-placed to inform a critical-creative pedagogy. They can help students to become more confident with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy in their learning, as I show through a detailed presentation of two learning activities that involve the building of future scenarios. The chapter draws mainly in the work of Tony Fry, Arturo Escobar, David Staley as well as Tim Ingold and other design anthropologists. In this post I outline the main arguments of the chapter while in the next one I present one of the learning activities.

In his groundbreaking book Designs for the Pluriverse, Escobar seeks to reclaim design, whose commercial version are often seen to contribute to unsustainable life styles and consumption habits, for the making of alternative worlds. Transition design in particular can help ‘embrace the vital normative questions of the day . . .  from out-of-box perspectives.’ In my chapter, I work with this concept of socially-conscious design, which has developed within the larger discipline since the 1960s and recognizes itself as a fundamentally ethical and political activity. I also conceive of a design as an innate human capability that incorporates both intellectual and material activities and results from our abilities to prefigure and imagine what we want to create. As Karl Marx famously wrote ‘a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Design has also been codified and become a professional field of study and practice. Last but not least, design has been called the art of the possible because of its inherently optimistic orientation, and, like the generative theory I use in my book, ‘transcends the limits of deconstructive and discursive analysis by venturing into the positive project of how the world can be – and be understood – otherwise,’ according to Escobar.

A van stuffed with cushions and drawing materials in the entrance area of the Stanford dschool invites playfulness

So what can design bring to challenge-focused teaching in the social sciences? In the chapter, I show that its open-ended approach and iterative process of continuous testing and adjustment, the practice of prototyping to test assumptions and responses, the posing of what-if questions to disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and understanding the concept of wicked problems (which I already explored in relation to COVID) can make students more comfortable with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy.

  • Experimentation involves students being playful, taking risks and exploring boundaries, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprises. Experiments can fail, and reframing failure as learning opportunities involves iteration as a continuous process of reworking. Emphasizing the open-ended and emergent qualities of things can help students keep an open mind and explore different avenues before settling on a specific course of action. This goes together with the ability to use questions in an exploratory way, by wondering whether they are even asking the right question rather than knowing the answer before the question is even posed.
What if teaching embraced rapid experiments?
  • Ambiguity means being open to more than one possible meaning or interpretation. Judith Harding and Lynne Hale show how the ability be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the key markers of creative problem solving processes, when a problem is clarified and different responses are considered. Design methods can help students to embrace ambiguity by enabling them to look at various angles of a problem or situation, suspend judgement and not rush to a solution. Harding and Hale give the example of providing students with purposely puzzling instructions for a learning activity and then resisting demands for clarification, instead explaining that students’ experiences of discomfort or frustration are part of the learning experience.
What if students were encouraged to dwell in ambiguity?
  • Empathy, broadly defined as the ability to imagine other people’s feelings or to emotionally identify with another person – to put ourselves in their shoes – involves cognitive processes of understanding and affective processes of emotional and embodied labor. Steve New and Lucy Kimbell argue for ‘designerly’ rather than managerial empathy that involves taking a ‘creative leap into the experience of another’ through techniques such as visualization, the construction of personas, role-play and co-immersions. In teaching, engaging empathy needs to complemented with research to avoid empathy’s negative potentials. For example, asking students to put themselves into other people’s shoes without understanding their situations can lead to students projecting their own emotions or experiences unto others and to patronizing assumptions or misrecognition. On the other hand, empathy can connect to pedagogies of unlearning and decentering privilege by providing situations where students encounter, learn about and interact with difference. Empathy also connects to Bruno Latour’s writing about design’s humility, which I have written about in the context of COVID.

Another element that design brings to creative teaching is its future orientation. To better understand universities’ overall relationship with the future, Keri Facer’s work on modes of stewardship, modelling, experimentation and critique has been particularly instructive. In his book Design Futuring, Tony Fry argues that ‘design futures or defutures – it rides the line between bringing things into being that sustain the conditions upon which viable futures depend and taking the possibility of such futures away.’ To support the field’s futuring capacity, he proposes the practice of ‘prefigurative criticism,’ whereby emerging products or processes are associated with negative values, for example through placing them into undesirable contexts, which would decrease demand for them. Students could explore such a recoding of the value of things through creative alterations of brands, adverts or billboards, following the path-breaking work of organizations like Adbusters. They could also examine their own consumer habits and the values underlying them and then experiment with recoding.

I want to conclude this post with reference to the ‘Future University’ proposed by David Staley as part of his utopian universities design speculations. Such a university would focus on both pure futuring, through a liberal-arts type education where students explore the future ‘as a possibility space,’ and applied futuring, through more vocationally-oriented teaching where students are ‘making the future happen.’ Teaching would encompass systems thinking, dystopian and utopian science fiction reading and writing, and the incubation of new social forms within universities that become a kind of living laboratory. It would also include the creation of design fictions through the making of prototypes that materialize students’ visions of the future. This future university is a great example of critical-creative learning that fosters students’ curiosity, introspection, imagination, situational awareness and humility. Elements of it already exist in many innovative university programs that have recognized the need to become incubators to foster collaborative learning and interdisciplinary problem solving to help students better address contemporary wicked problems.

What if this was the motto?