When I started working in the field I hoped that Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was a discipline that is aware of the growth-driven causes of the environmental problems and the multiple crises we face. Quite soon I realized that this is not necessarily the case. While there are parts of the ESD community that are growth-critical, there is also a large number of policy documents and political programs that can be summarized as “mainstream” ESD. As such, they have some major blind spots that prevent education from taking on the responsibility of being the active agent for the socio-economic changes we need for a sustainable future. The critical community in ESD knows about this conflicting idea and is busy trying to develop concepts that cannot be corrupted by the growth paradigm.
There are at least two blind spots of “mainstream” ESD that are targeted by the more critical scholars. First, many official policy documents and political programs of ESD have a problematic conception of sustainability in the way that they connect to the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. There is an enduring scepticism among degrowth authors and activists about the idea of “sustainable development”. However, for some decades now, the debate on “mainstream” ESD has promoted educational ideas in the light of the Brundtland-conception of sustainable development. Such ESD relies on the conception of weak sustainability, and thus accepts or even prefers that environmental degradation or social injustices can be justifiable, as long as something else is flourishing – which will be, in nearly all the cases, economic growth – which brings us to the second blind spot.
The second blind spot is that economic growth is often passively or actively supported within ESD. By building on the conception of weak sustainability, ESD conceptions become contradictory: How can they promote sustainability while at the same time accepting that the economy rules over the other dimensions of sustainability such as society and the environment? A new trend within ESD is to align its concepts or topics with the political program of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is obviously a contradiction, because in the SDGs, economic growth (goal 8) is one goal among others. Therefore, it is equally important to other goals such as reducing inequalities (goal 11) or climate action (goal 13). How can education teach in a sustainable way while following the topics given by the SDGs and promoting the idea that growth could be green? In other words, these goals should have clear priorities – and economic growth would certainly not be on top of the list. These two examples document a rather passive or ignorant stance to economic growth. Other examples are even actively in favor of economic growth, such as programs for ESD in vocational training that sell ESD as a tool for increasing the performance of learners in the labor market. In a nutshell - whether growth is actively or passively prioritized in education, the effect in both cases is that economic growth is promoted.
When I realized this inconsistency exists in big parts of the ESD community, I started wondering how a reconfiguration of ESD could look like. In my thesis, I asked the question of what ESD could learn from degrowth that would make it incorruptible to the economic growth paradigm.
The critical ESD community which I joined by asking this question has a decades-long tradition of not only questioning the educational and societal mechanisms that prevent us from achieving sustainability but also of exploring opportunities for education to contribute to socio-ecological change processes. This community builds on Critical Pedagogy and connects to Critical Theory, which gives it a similar theoretical grounding as degrowth. It works with transformative learning theory and practice to irritate learners’ deep-seated assumptions and to enable their change. Degrowth and critical ESD both end up being effective in two ways: on the one side they focus on critique, analysis and reflection. Critique of the economic or educational reality and in reflection of the causes of unsustainability which mainly lie in the economic growth paradigm. On the other side, both degrowth and critical ESD promote action for initiating socio-ecological transformations. This is only one explanation among others why these two disciplines should go hand-in-hand to become more effective. Despite the obvious match here, the degrowth perspective is only a side issue so far within the educational community even among critical ESD scholars.
ESD can learn some central things from degrowth. Integrating the degrowth perspective brings in a holistic understanding of the levels at which growth operates within our political and structural organization, in the way we live together and in our modes of thinking. This is extremely valuable for education. Degrowth scholars are busy unpacking the idea that growth is not only paradigmatic for our societies but is also an active ideological and hegemonic force. One outcome for degrowth-informed ESD could thus be to not only critically reflect upon and address issues around the compulsion to consume and the negative consequences for people and planet, but to also understand how our social imaginary is part of the problem and how the psychological forces behind consumption are another driver of economic growth. By doing so and by relying on a systematic critique of growth that is inherent to the degrowth discourse, such as paradigm, ideology and hegemony – ESD could prevent inconsistencies.
To sketch a concrete picture of what a degrowth-informed ESD could look like, I build on empirical results. I asked experts and learners of degrowth and ESD about how topics, abilities and pedagogy of a degrowth-informed ESD could look. Among a multitude of topics, the interviewees emphasized that it is crucial for ESD to clearly address the causes of unsustainability in the form of the growth paradigm and in the operating modes of our social, political, and economic system. With respect to abilities and competencies, they suggested that, despite the big bundle of important examples, the following are central competence components for a degrowth-informed ESD: the ability to question and criticize the impact of economic growth on one’s personal life, the ability to reflect on how economic growth shapes culture and the social imaginary, and the ability to resist and unlearn cultural practices that relate to economic growth. Regarding the latter, unlearning unsustainable patterns of thinking and acting instead of learning even more new things is key for education in the context of degrowth.
With regard to pedagogy, the experts and learners came to the conclusion that educational settings need to be strongly based on experiential learning, problem-orientation, connected to examples of degrowth alternatives, and that they should foster intense phases of reflection. Just a very few concrete examples: such pedagogical approaches could be individual and collective self-experiments in degrowth such as no money-experiments, zero waste or degrowth-diaries, collective self-organized change projects with alternative economies such as alternative currencies, local sharing networks, social gardening projects, or excursions to alternative lifestyles, and reflective theater pedagogy. Interestingly, all these examples relate to what we know from Critical Theory and critical pedagogy in coming to a state where we can liberate ourselves with an interplay of critical reflection and transformative action.
One point coming from pedagogy seems to be crucial for the design of degrowth-informed ESD, if we come to the more political dimension of learning. A pedagogical approach that was emphasized by the experts and learners was that education must provide critical-emancipatory spaces for self-organization. Such spaces are so important for degrowth and for education because they can be used for cooperative and collaborative forms of learning, for intense phases of reflections or for small-scale degrowth projects, and for collective economic experiments. In such ‘safe’ spaces, learners can moreover attempt ‘small-scale resistance’ against hierarchies, routines and norms related to the growth paradigm and the operating modes of capitalism. Optimistically speaking, the upscaled sum of such critical-emancipatory spaces for degrowth could contribute to dismantling the ideology and hegemony of growth.
Coming back to the question of whether degrowth-informed education and ESD can change society: the degrowth perspective could help make ESD more theoretically coherent. Education is always both subject and agent to change. By adopting or incorporating the more theoretically consistent perspective of degrowth, ESD can more successfully affect positive change regarding sustainability, as doing so would prevent ESD from being hamstrung by its theoretical inconsistency. Yes, education can positively transform society. Or at least it should.