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Educating For The Steady State Economy by Susan Brown

On 1st November, 2012 the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change hosted a free public event at the University of Manchester, UK entitled ‘We need to talk about growth’. Central to the discussion of the speakers (Richard Sharland, Head of Environmental Strategy at Manchester City Council; Dr Alice Bows, Sustainable Consumption Institute (University of Manchester); Prof Mark Burton (Manchester Metropolitan University & Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy-CASSE) and Dr Dan O’Neill (University of Leeds and CASSE) was the argument that we need to move from a model of ‘economic growth’ measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), levels of consumption, international finance etc, to one of a ‘steady state economy’. 

Subset of environment

A steady state economy is predicated on the notion that the economy is a subset of the environment and therefore has to preserve the environment on which it depends. This entails moving the economy from one of environmentally deleterious growth to a stable state, where growth is minimized and understood in terms of health, well-being, developing green spaces etc.

The efficient use of resources, the revaluing of commodities, so that water, soil, forest etc are appropriately valued; the redistributions of wealth, concomitant reduction in working time and more localized food production are pivotal to ‘steady-state economy’ thinking (for more on steady state economics see the CASSE report ‘We need to talk about growth).

This discussion prompted me to reflect on how you educate for a steady state economy – a question further considered in a meeting convened by CASSE  in Manchester, 20th November. I draw on aspects of that thinking here. This question also throws light on many a conversation I have had over the years.

It is fair to say that currently many formal education contexts across the globe (are expected to) educate for economic growth (I would love to know more about any exceptions that anyone knows of). This is the case with the UK.  Educational policy in the UK is driven primarily by notions of the importance of educating a competitive work force. It emphasises the need to teach core subjects/skills which will better equip people for the work place and the need to find the brightest and best to lead economic growth.

The rhetoric tends towards meritocratic elitism (nurturing the brightest in society regardless of their background) than it does to inclusivity (educating all people to as high a degree as possible). This rhetoric translates, by way of example into the design of ‘harder’ exams in order to better determine who merits a place at University ( a system which fails in its meritocratic aspirations) and a marginalisation of subjects perceived not to benefit the economy.

Education, to my mind, will need to be reconceived for the steady state economy. Moving to such an economy requires us to renegotiate our way of life. This will entail shifts in: mind-set: i.e. our perceptions of the World, our core values, our habits-of-mind and how these translate into agency in the World; the Language we use to describe the World and our relationship with the environment and each other; the skills we learn which will need to be broadened with increased value placed on vernacular skills i.e. skills which are locally useful and are oriented around growing food; crafts, building, mending, renovating etc.

These shifts need to take place among the many rather than the few as responsibility to move towards a steady state economy lies not with the few but with the many.  Education needs in these terms to be:


i. Inclusive:

We need greater levels of access to education both informal and formal so that education becomes a part of the fabric of society rather than remaining exclusive, regulated and institutionalized. We need to re-envisage what we value in learners: are we looking for people able to pass exams with good grades or do we need to think rather more expansively about what a good learner is? For example, to what extent do we value an ability to think: experimentally; holistically; out-of-the-box; practically; ethically; globally and to translate that thinking into agency? Such a review of levels of access and what we value in learners will have implications both for assessment and accreditation.


ii. Diversified:

We will need to think through what educational contexts we value and support and what we consider constitutes education. The more diversified the educational landscape with greater informal, community and apprenticeship opportunities the better. Bureaucratic impediments to offering educational opportunities will need to be minimized.

There needs to be latitude for new conceptions and models of learning to flourish. These might include, by way of example: informal peer-to-peer learning communities forming around online, free educational courses offered by Universities;  ‘universities of vernacular skills’ which explore the skills of different communities/societies across the World, decide how those skills may inform other societal contexts and practice those skills; Community Mobile app development projects.


III. Open:

Formal Higher Education institutions are principal drivers for new knowledge and innovation. The knowledge and innovations emerging out of Universities germane to steady state economy thinking should be available to the broadest range of people possible. Universities should ensure that ideas and innovation move into the creative commons as soon as viable with any re-formulating of Intellectual Property Policy that this entails.

IV. Interdisciplinary: Interdisciplinary education will be vital. The complex environmental/social issues we face need to be addressed from a range of perspectives. The understandings and new language that emerge from interdisciplinary discussion will allow us to better address those issues. To give an example, to gain an holistic understanding of global warming and its effects requires not only the involvement of climatologists, but also of geologists; ecologists, agriculturalists, computer scientists; psychologists; economists; engineers, architects;  designers, linguists; artists etc. Imagine the potentially powerful understandings that would emerge from such interdisciplinary discussion and the opportunities for problem solving that this would open up.


V. Focussed on the global/local rather than the national/parochial:

The environmental/social challenges we face are globally scoped and the fate of humans intertwined. Thinking around economic growth tends to the parochial and the national(istic). As long as we feel the imperative to compete to sustain economic growth and for the resources that allow for that growth, we are very unlikely to transition towards a steady state economy.

A focus on cosmopolitanism in education (i.e. the notion that we are world citizens and have responsibilities towards humans beyond our local/national contexts) is, therefore, important. The capacity to communicate across cultural contexts is also key. There are likely to be cultural contexts which can tell us much about steady state economics; we need to learn humility, inquisitiveness and the openness of mind to listen and learn from those.


VI.  Versed in technology/software/media:

Technology plays an intrinsic part in any societal change and would certainly be necessary in transitioning  to  a steady state. Social media can facilitate the building of communities of learning/practice which will help us do this. We all need to  understand, at least to a basic degree,  the nature, potential and implications of technology use and work together towards emergent ethical codes guiding that use.  This means a concerted effort in educational contexts to bridge the digital divide (the divide between those who have access to digital resources and those who do not), and  a focus on enhancing technology skills in a range of educational settings.

Technology (e.g. alternative energy technologies) needs to be re-appropriated by communities, that appropriation  facilitated by the dissemination of knowledge via social media  and  through a philosophy of ‘open design’- see the Onawi project by way of example. Programming skills that allow for the development of (mobile) apps to facilitate local community initiatives should be broadly taught (a focus on programming skills in UK curricula can be seen as a positive initiative in this light). We may rediscover new currency in old technologies, discoveries that will come from the diverse educational contexts mentioned in II above.

Some in informal and formal education are already engaged in this process of re-conceptualization. Freeing up bureaucracies, reconsidering core educational values and offering more varied financial support to such endeavours must be a start. Less stultified, more vibrant understandings of education should be welcomed all round.

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