Elephants, Us, and Sustainable Development

‘Having a go’ – a teaching and learning technique for SSA?
March 30, 2011
Who has the mandate for sustainability in your university or college?
May 14, 2014

How can heritage interpretation contribute to a sustainable future?

The following is an abridged version of a keynote address I delivered at the Science Links in Museum Education (SLIME) network conference in February 2011 for a UK audience of educators at museums and outdoor learning centres.

You must be expecting me to talk about elephants, having worked for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And I will, but I only have one story about real elephants. The others are metaphorical elephants, or “elephants in the room”. I have been asked to speak about; “What is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)?”; “What are the key features of ESD?”; and “What is good ESD practice?” But I am not really keen on speeches, I don’t ever use PowerPoint, and I prefer to help you construct your own understanding of ESD as it applies to interpretation.

I blame my early career in interpretation for this, as a ranger in Scotland and in the interpretation field in Canada. By the end of my talk I hope you will have recognized some of the different ESD techniques and principles through the activities and questions I have planned, rather than me simply telling you what ESD is. They are six key interpretation principles described by Freeman Tilden that people in the US and Canada tend to use. I can only remember the three I think are most important, so I am going to try to Provoke, Relate, and Reveal ESD to you.


Three SD Elephants

What are the elephants in the room? By Sustainable Development (SD) I mean not only environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability. But what are the things we dare not mention or have difficulty facing about SD? Let’s go back to my time with the WWF. The one thing we couldn’t ever talk about, because it seemed too controversial, was population. People worried about getting too paternalistic and telling other people that they couldn’t have children.

There are also questions in terms of development in the Third World, where until people have the right health system in place, and until they can guarantee that their children will survive them, they need many children for a safe “social welfare” system. That is the first elephant in the room. It is a major driver when we talk about SD, because to go from six billion people to nine billion people in a very short space of time will lead to incredible pressure on resources. Resources are also not evenly distributed geographically, nor used fairly.

There is a dead-end approach sometimes taken to address this dilemma. This is to assume that the past, or remnants of the past, was perfectly sustainable. The thinking often is that small tribal or traditional communities are what we should all be aspiring to. But there is an inherent myth in that thinking. The reason these communities seem more sustainable is because they are small.

However, they have health conditions and survival rates that are, and were, appalling. And as soon as health and fertility rates increase within these communities, their populations increase, and sustainability problems increase too. I am reminded of when David Suzuki visited Papua New Guinea for three weeks. He came back to Canada saying that all we in the West needed to do is live like the Papuan New Guineans. But I have lived there myself, and I taught girls who were gang raped by people in their own villages. I have been part of “tribal wars” where women, children, dogs and pigs were all fair game for raiding men from another village. That is not a sustainable culture to me, or anything we would want to replicate. But some particular small tribal and traditional ways of looking at life and using resources may indeed be better than our current disregard for the impact we are having on the planet.

That was the first elephant in the room. The second SD elephant is economic, and more specifically, growth. Professor Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey produced a book called Prosperity without Growth for the Sustainable Development Commission, just as the real effects of the global financial crisis were being felt. Initially he hit brick walls everywhere, but now there is a movement within economics in which people are starting to question the “grow that all costs” model.

The big problem with the current model is that we have been on a journey of economic growth for at least 300 years, since the Enlightenment. And it has brought tremendous benefits; better quality of life, better health and so on. You can see why the developing world would like this too. Who could blame them? The problem is what we do not count in economic growth; impacts on the environment, on resources, and on people elsewhere.

We can go back to E.F. Schumacher and his thinking that “small is beautiful” as well as to one of the laws of thermodynamics, which tells us that we cannot create matter. We have to use what we have here. So we can either use resources by digging them out of the ground and then reusing them over and over again; or we can use renewable resources, where we continue to replant or use free resources such as the sun’s energy. It is important to remember that everything we create or use or recycle uses energy. Often this means using oil-based energy sources, currently. For example, going paperless often means using technology that has its own carbon-footprint as well as using minerals that are not renewable and are being depleted.

The current economic systems also do not account for the ecosystem services that support the planet, and therefore us. There are a whole range of cycles that are absolutely essential for life on earth, such as the carbon, water, oxygen, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles. It is not as simple as cutting a tree down and planting another one. You do have to think of all the things that tree needs to live, what you do with that tree, how you process it, and how you get rid of the product at the end. This whole life costing needs to include impacts on the planet. It is clear we humans do know that we have limited resources. Many surveys show that people understand this. But we are not changing our behaviours.

The third SD elephant in the room is the myth that consumption will make you happy and increase your well-being. This has been shown to not work beyond a basic level of consumption. Apparently the happiest we ever were was in the 1950s!

So the principles of SD adopted by the UK government in 2005 make a lot of sense. The main two are living within the environmental limits; and living in a way that is socially just, for now and for future generations, and in a way that encourages quality of life now and in the future. Summing up so far, these are the three SD elephants:

  • population increase
  • economic growth
  • wellbeing/happiness linked to consumption

Are you surprised that I haven’t mentioned climate change? Often people use climate change as shorthand for SD. But climate change is not only about switching off lights and saving energy. If we don’t also think about growth, consumption, population and the broader connectivity with environmental systems, we are missing the point. If we also include the evidence that oil distribution has been central to many conflicts over past decades, we begin to see why SD thinking is essential, and not simplistic. At heart we have to become socially critical. We need to encourage questioning about how we got to where we are today, examining the thinking that got us there, and challenging ourselves to think in new ways.


More Elephants in ESD

Sustainable Development is a challenge for educators and interpreters, because it not easy, it is not a single subject, it is about change, and it isabout us. Some have interpreted Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as being about values. The assumption is that all we have to do is ensure that everyone has the right values, and sustainability will flow from that. But what are the right values? When I asked this at WWF-UK, the answer came back, “Ours!” When I asked whether all 300-plus employees had the same values, they really believed they did. I was not so sure.

Sustainable Development is a challenge for educators and interpreters, because it not easy, it is not a single subject, it is about change, and it is about us.

To help us to understand whether there is diversity in our values here as a group in society, I have devised an activity based on world views. It is based on Derek Wall’s book Green History. This author says that within the last 2000 years there have been two major types of environmental world views relating to the environment and solutions to environmental problems.  The first world view is called Imperialism; “We are clever enough and creative enough to fix all environmental problems we create, and therefore can use the earth as we like”. This view is advocated by Enlightenment scholars such as Carolus Linneaus, who thought that hard work and the exercise of scientific rationality would lead to man’s dominion over nature.

The other world view is Arcadian; “Mother Earth is the only one who can fix the earth. We are the problem and cannot fix it.” This was epitomized by writer Gilbert White in Selbourne 200 years ago. He advocated a return to a simple, humble life peacefully coexisting with nature. I wonder if you are already asking, “Do I agree with either one of these?” But what if it is not an eitheror question, rather a continuum of views with Arcadian at one end and Imperialist at the other? Where would you place yourself on a line between the two, and why? Check with other people and see if their views are close to yours or somewhat distant. This checking and reflection is an example of the socially critical thinking I mentioned earlier. If you do this activity in a group, there is always a range from one end to the other. Sometimes it forms a normal curve. But what always happens is that people unpick the language, critique the line metaphor, think about other ways to do it—and are still amazed at the differences among world views of people they know. The point is to deconstruct the activity. Why do a line? Why not opposing views? Why not quadrants or a circle? Was a line chosen because of our education and the way we are trained to think?

Diversity is another SD principle. Biodiversity and also us; diverse societies, and diverse individuals within
societies, with diverse world views. The second ESD elephant is what we mean and understand by education and learning, and therefore by ESD.

I used to go to many conferences about the environment, biodiversity, conservation and nature. Without fail,
in the last half hour people started to wonder, “What is the answer, then? What shall we do?” And someone would stand up and say, “What we need is education!” I used to think, “Great!” But now I think, “Oh, no!” Now I understand that people have different world views about education, and about learning, and they have had different experiences of learning and education than maybe I had in the 1960s and ‘70s. The problem is we mix up the words “education” and “learning”.

Many people, including myself, hold that SD is a life-long action learning/action research project. We cannot predict all of the sustainability challenges to come, and worse, the textbook hasn’t been written yet. We are going to have to experiment, to reflect, to change and to keep moving on. Look at how quickly climate change has become accepted, even if some still deny that we are causing it. But when I was doing climatology thirty years ago, this sort of climate change was not discussed. Instead it was thought we were heading for the next ice age.

If we are to think and do things differently without a road map, we will all have to learn how to learn

Witnesses abound. We have now people in northern Canada who are experiencing skin cancer and sunburn; things they have never experienced before. I spoke to the Minister of Environment from Vietnam recently, and he expected about ten million people to be flooded out by rising sea levels in the next twenty years in his country, as the evidence is so strong. These are people who are already experiencing change.

How do we ensure that our education and interpretive programs don’t look so far back in time that they don’t show and connect with reality today? Learning and experience are tied up together, and this includes our experiences of learning and education. I was good at school, as probably most of you were. I had a photographic memory from the age of sixteen, and I passed exams by memorizing diagrams, poems and whole Latin translations. Eventually I went to train as a ranger in Falkirk, Scotland. This experience changed my life because the training involved no lectures, no notes, and no textbook. We had to construct our own understanding of what it meant to be a ranger over nine months. We met every six weeks for four days and were pushed to the limits of our comfort zones. But I felt I was really learning for the first time ever. My brain felt different! But I didn’t understand why. It has been a career-long search for the answers. I realize now it was because they:

  • used a constructivist, experienced based approach,
  • allowed time for reflection and review of experiences
  • created dissonance to allow new thinking and new pathways to be established
  • connected it to our own reality in our own parks.

So I have had to learn how I learn. If we are to think and do things differently without a road map, we will all have to learn how to learn. And we will have to unlearn the model most people have about learning and knowledge acquisition; the empty brain model. This model is extremely prevalent. It assumes an empty brain, which the educator unlocks, opens up and pours new information into. Brain and behavioural research shows us that real learning does not happen like this. If an event or new piece of knowledge does not relate to anything else in your brain it is not remembered or used. So creating links and experiences with which to link new knowledge and understanding is crucial.


Roles For Interpreters

How can heritage interpretation contribute to a sustainable future? What are the ESD opportunities for educators in museums and outdoor learning centres? The concepts to link with are there. The concept of well-being is a good place to start. Some people are tying well-being in with citizenship, and with better health and happiness through either just being in the outdoors, or through taking part in unstructured inclusive activities been created.

Interdependence is another concept. Perhaps instead of seeing a museum as a single topic centre, or producing time lines as though discrete chunks of history occurred without connections to anything else, you can relate topics to the here and now, and incorporate real witnesses and real activity across disciplines. There are many good examples of museums and outdoor centres doing community engagement programs so that people feel they are “part owners” of the site. This is another way of incorporating interdependence. SD thinking might mean instead of using linear thinking, you encourage thinking in cycles. So when you interpret artifacts or products or natural history, or anything really, you can explore the whole “life cycle”, along with all the other things that happen during that “life”.

I think the concept of witnesses is really powerful because it is linked to story telling and interpretation and their similarities. We are at heart social animals, and we prefer social learning environments in the main. What an ESD opportunity for interpretation and education! It may even be that your witness is the natural environment itself.

We have already tried out a socially critical thinking activity to explore world views. The concept of socially critical thinking means you are not blaming anyone, but instead you are reflecting back and encouraging self awareness and self reflection.

I would add here the concept of taking care. Taking care of the ecological and social elements of our world is an essential component of sustainability. Taking care means looking ahead to the impacts of an activity and assessing the risks. There will be times when we don’t know the environmental or social outcomes of an activity. Then taking care means applying the precautionary principle. If we can’t see whether an action will have a negative impact, we consider not doing it.

And the last concept is “how do you deal with conflict?” We have already seen conflicts around climate change, and we can expect to see many more. The point here is to introduce critical conflicting issues, and to encourage people to do the required reflection and to develop new ways of thinking.

What about your evaluation forms? Instead of asking participants to rate their satisfaction with your programs, you could ask more constructivist and reflective learning questions that extend the learning and encourage connections to be made. In fact, you could almost get rid of your learning objectives, and instead ask participants what they think they learned! How aligned to educational constructivism would that be?

It would be wrong of me to say that all this can be done without influencing. In fact we influence even when we don’t realize it. Examples of signs in Petrified Forest National Park in the US attest to this. Signs about how much petrified wood visitors took from the park each year led to even more theft, because we are hard wired to deal with scarcity. My point here is that social psychology and environmental psychology have much to teach us. We need to become literate in many disciplines to achieve the impact and intended outcomes that our organizations or we want. We cannot just rely on our one area of expertise to enable change.

So what can we do about the ESD elephants in the room?

  • work with a diversity of values and world views, instead of making people change their minds
  • learn to learn, instead of following the empty brain model
  • apply SD thinking and check your own thinking
  • become literate in my disciplines, instead of relying on being an expert in one.


What about the real elephants?

Here is my favorite story of all time about elephants, sustainable development and us. It comes from WWF. In Eastern Africa, villagers were getting upset because elephants were trampling their crops. They needed the crops for food, to survive. They couldn’t afford fences. Such a fence would have had to be very strong anyway.

So they came up with an appropriate sustainable technology solution. They found out that elephants don’t like chili peppers, and so they planted a chili fence around every growing plot. And they had no more problems with elephants. I hope that SD and ESD become as easy as for you as planting a hedge of chili. It will be, if you include your participants in the process. They will be much more creative and diverse in their thinking than we can ever imagine.



  1. Tim Jackson, 2009. Prosperity without growth: the transition to a sustainable economy. Sustainable Development Commission, UK. Available at www.sd-commission.org.uk
  2. Derek Wall, 1993. Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy, and Politics. Routledge, UK.
  3. E. F. Schumacher, 1973. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Perennial Library, New York, US.

Comments are closed.