An education leader for sustainability who said it was possible to ‘Save the Planet’ one school at a time might seem an extravagant claim. But imagine if every school really was a sustainable school in the widest sense as described in my latest book. This sustainability to include embedded Environmental Education and operating a circular economy in microcosm through the curriculum, campus (school estate) and community. The difference this would make to education and wider society would be inestimable – although let’s try.
My calculation goes as follows: a school roll of, say, 500 pupils, with 50 staff, would not only have the potential to influence those 550 individuals, but also their families, extended families and friends, which could take the figure up to several thousand. If the school had a high profile in this field, with the way social media works, it could reach many more, perhaps tens of thousands. If all the schools in the UK did the same, through six degrees of separation, we’re talking about a reach of millions across the country and beyond.
But who are the planet savers needed to lead sustainable schools? I characterise leaders for sustainability as guardians of the long-term future who can inspire others to join them by providing opportunities for co-creating new solutions. They model types of thinking and behaviour which encourage everyone in the school to unleash their minds to avoid blind acceptance of what is ‘normal’ (much of the present normal being a planet wrecker via the Take, Make, Use, Dump linear economy). These leaders are upbeat and solution-focused through holistic means, offering a bright future for everyone. They have a strong moral compass – being values-led – and display high levels of empathy and courage. Above all, they are authentic rather than mass-produced cardboard cut-outs. These leaders think outside of the box, while recognizing that the box, in the form of the present education sector, can’t be ignored. They break away from unnecessary conformity and subtly game the system for the benefit of all. It’s all about wanting everyone to thrive and flourish rather than just survive. I emphasize that education leaders don’t need to be trapped by the accountability imposed by a national education service and that, rather than being a peripheral issue, having a sustainability ethos is really the only sensible option on many levels. A sustainability mindset can throw off the chains of compliance laid down by others for reasons of power and/or outdated processes and traditions.
Age of Stupid?
Most baby boomers and many in succeeding generations have been living in cloud cuckoo land by perpetuating a myth that we should expect indefinite economic growth on a finite planet. Consequently, graphs illustrating the rise of greenhouse gases and species extinction show exponential trends. When cells in the body grow like this, we call it cancer! And it’s not as if greening the present economy or waiting for various techno-fixes, including large-scale geoengineering will necessarily be our ultimate salvation (although aspects of these will be needed). Just as importantly, we need a change of priorities within a change in our very culture. Schools should be at the vanguard of this change. Films such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel spell out in graphic detail the factual overview of our plight. For me though, the 2009 film The Age of Stupid has more of an emotional impact. It’s set in the environmentally ravaged year 2055 and centres on an old man who looks through archive film of our time and wonders why not enough was done to alleviate climate change. Thought-provoking and scary!
Our current ‘stupid’ societal approach is also bound up with neoliberalism, which although in most forms advocates governance with rigid structures of laws, rules and regulations (unlike neoconservatism) promotes the idea that other issues (including climate change etc.) should largely be sorted out by market forces which harness the power of individual choice and technical innovation. Perhaps it could be our saviour if we had more time to play with!
Most schools have tinges of green, but they’re not really sustainable in the same way that wider society isn’t. Schools with sustainability at their core can overcome this by becoming part of the zero-waste circular economy. This helps to bring consumption down to within the planet’s ability to replenish and avoid overshoot. This is in contrast to the aforementioned linear economic model that outsources waste and was escalated by the Industrial Revolution, based on the consumption of fossil fuels. A circular economy works in harmony with the biosphere by having the philosophy of ‘there’s no such thing as waste’ and working well within planetary limits. Studies have shown that happiness isn’t dependent on the consumption of ever more stuff most of which is ‘thrown away’, so why should schools subscribe to the old unsustainable narrative? Incidentally, I often ask children where the ‘away’ is that things are thrown to!
The practical ways of working towards this circularity underlie most of my book. In particular, it shows how school buildings and grounds (campus), when linked to the curriculum, can deliver fantastic learning opportunities through adding to biodiversity and showing in microcosm how a circular economy can work in reality. However, it also illustrates how we need to study aspects of the urban environment in order to appreciate its strengths as well as its short-comings. We can’t all live in rural idylls!
Permaculture PerspectivesPeople blithely talk about the need to ‘leave a world fit for our children and grandchildren’. The United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development – better known as the Brundtland Commission – said that ecological sustainability must ensure it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (UN, 1987, p. 16). How many future generations was not defined. In this context, looking to the needs of our grandchildren is really very short term as it only thinks about two future generations, who might already be on the planet (depending on your vintage). Perhaps we should see this from another perspective, as expressed by the well-known saying: ‘the world is not given by [our] fathers, but borrowed from [our] children’ (Berry, 1971, p. 26). The famous naturalist Jane Goodall takes this further by saying: ‘We have not borrowed our children’s future – we have stolen it and we’re still stealing it’ (Cooper, 2017).
Scientists shouldn’t have a monopoly on explaining the consequences of unsustainable lifestyles to the rest of us. Indigenous people, particularly in the Arctic regions, bear direct witness to their effects and can add their own unique perspectives on what we are losing and how we can change our ways. I think we should be as forward-thinking as the Iroquois First Nations Americans. Harland (2018, p. 6) describes this perspective as spanning 14 generations – seven before and seven after, with us in the middle. We need to use the wisdom of our ancestors to help forge a sustainable future in perpetuity.
Harland is writing from a ‘permaculture’ perspective. This approach to sustainability can extend to all areas of life. For example, permaculture would say that the ultimate goal of farming isn’t to produce crops but to nurture the soil. If this is done, crops will be forthcoming for the indefinite future. Similarly, in a school, you could say that leadership should make sure that all human beings are nurtured to ensure a measurable yield of meaningful learning.
A way of taking community sustainability even further can also be through permaculture methodology. This is a way of thinking and living which incorporates modern life and technology with natural systems, but also depends upon having a circular economy and social justice.
Permaculture says there should be ‘minimal effort for maximum yield’ and the potential for greater educational, social and leisure benefits. Permaculture shouldn’t be a painful exercise in abstinence; it can deliver social benefits, enjoyment and fun leisure pursuits which have longer lasting and more fulfilling effects on participants, without having to buy endless amounts of stuff or expensive ‘experiences’. This also allows everyone to develop intellectually, culturally and spiritually individually and collectively. This is the sort of infinite growth that the planet can stand! The name ‘permaculture’ can be misconstrued in that it can be interpreted as the melding of ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’, implying a static state. Macnamara (2020, p. 46) offers a useful clarification by saying that permaculture shouldn’t be seen as an ‘idyllic goal’ but as an ‘ongoing journey’. I’ve made the same point regarding the development of a sustainable school. This incorporates ‘cultural shifts and emerging new cultures’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46). She envisages a journey towards fertile, positive and ‘regenerative possibilities’ and describes three areas of ‘regenerative culture’ which together create a ‘Cultural Emergence’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46) that is fit for purpose in our challenging times. I paraphrase them here and they all apply directly to sustainable schools. (Notice the similarities between this and the I, we, planet model described in Chapter 3.)
1. Culture of personal leadership: this emphasizes the need for personal responsibility and the potential for individual actions to make a difference. It requires a constant appraisal of values and a check to see if they align with our thinking and behaviours.
2. Culture of collective intelligence: requires that conditions are created which ‘encourage individual and collective genius to shine’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46), so that new narratives for sustainability can emerge.
3. Culture of planetary care: having a global perspective on and knowledge about how we as a species are collectively perpetrating ecocide and how we can ‘proactively be caring for the fundamental resources of life: namely, water, trees, soil and biodiversity’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46).
Interlaced with these three aspects, she stresses the importance of an ‘Awareness of Culture’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46) – that is, how our culture individually and collectively ticks so that, where necessary, we can instigate change. She points out that culture is ‘a complex, dynamic web of seen and unseen patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving and interacting’ (Macnamara, 2020, p. 46). This illustrates that cultural systems are just as complex as ecosystems. It’s a vital aspect of ecological intelligence that was discussed in Chapter 2. Without an understanding of prevailing cultures, leaders for sustainability (or any leaders, for that matter) are missing an important trick.
This is yet another way of conceptualising the need for new paradigms of thought and action. These are essential elements of the values-led leaders. It moves us from a toxic culture to a nurturing culture which has the resilience and wherewithal to provide a ‘good life’ for all, now and into the far-distant future. Permaculture shows that it’s possible to re-establish ties with nature, which enhance sustainability, rather than degrade it. Ultimately, this creates harmony between all things – living and non-living – needed for a stable and nurturing biosphere and keys into the concept of Gaia developed by James Lovelock.
The reason why I find permaculture to be increasingly relevant to schools is because it harnesses spiritual, ethical and practical elements under one umbrella. It can bamboozle with deep thinking and radical theorising if you want to go down that road, but it also provides a straightforward basis for practical action.
Transition TakesA long-standing form of sustainable community is embodied in the transition town and more recent climate action movements. Schools are often part of these initiatives. Rob Hopkins founded the Transition Network in the UK, which is based upon permaculture principles.In his book he says that a central concept is: ‘resilience – familiar to ecologists [and] refers to the ability of a system, from individual people to whole economies to hold together and maintain their ability to function in the face of change and shocks from the outside’ (Hopkins, 2009, p. 12). This requires not only local security of food and other resources needed for daily living, but, crucially, social cohesion which can withstand adverse changes. Hopkins (2020) sees its relevance to businesses, but all the transition processes he describes can be applied to sustainable schools and how they respond to the needs of their communities.
There are also many big thinkers in the permaculture movement who look beyond the local, while at the same time promoting local solutions. One such person, Starhawk (2016, p. 7), says:
"The struggle for social justice is an integral part of permaculture, inseparable from our core ethics of earth care, people care and fair share. We can’t effectively care for ecological or human communities unless we address the structures of power that enforce destructive patterns. We must be willing to confront the realities of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism and all other isms that constrain us."
This perspective is needed because most people can’t escape to a rural idyll to live in a sustainable way. It echoes the messages of this book, which call for linked thinking across subject disciplines and social and cultural divides. Starhawk also makes the point that diversity is strength, whether it’s applied to a woodland or a human community, including a school community. Barkham (2020), interviewing Rob Hopkins, quotes him as saying: ‘we are all “frogs in the boiling pan of imaginative decline” and we can and must leap free’. This links to the point made in Chapter 3 about encouraging children to have a creative and optimistic outlook for the future.
You can see that schools have a great opportunity to use and, in turn, contribute to the permaculture approach to sustainability – if their leaders can take that leap. At least they can see that at a local level they will be swimming with the tide. As Hopkins says:
I’ve never been anywhere where anybody has said: … ‘I was doing all right until I learned to grow my own food.’ We are social creatures living in a time that is trying to stop us from being that. There’s something good for the heart about being involved in projects with other people (quoted in Barkham, 2020).
I advocate throughout the book that leaders for sustainability should keep a watchful eye on the global dimension while operating at a local level. This emphasises what a crucial role such leaders play in determining a just and sustainable future. It also requires the ability to be dispassionate and to recognise that dominant economic systems just don’t cut the mustard. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2006, pp. 7–8) put it this way:
'Environmental concerns were largely ignored by communist regimes, and are not typically integrated into socialist approaches to the management of human affairs. Capitalist systems tend to ‘deify’ production and consumption at the expense of balanced, long-term growth. Social justice will only flourish if environmental preservation and sustainable development constitute an integral part of growth strategies now and in the future".
Even this recognition implies that ‘growth’ is good. How can it be on a finite planet. Stuff in the form of manufactured products, be they large or small, always needs to be questioned. This was highlighted by Elhacham et al. (2020), who calculated that, at 1.1 teratonnes, global human-made mass now exceeds all living biomass and continues to grow exponentially. Yet another reason to take a critical look at what we really need in terms of possessions, both personally and professionally.
Onwards and Upwards?The English 1952 feature film The Sound Barrier fictionalises the ruthless pursuit of a technical solution to get a plane to fly faster than the speed of sound. There are many failed attempts and fatalities, until one of the protagonists thinks in a different way. He decides to counter-intuitively push the joystick instead of pulling it to stop the plane nose-diving when nearing the sound barrier – and it works! Similarly, as a society, should we expect to soar faster and ever upwards, spurred on by Enlightenment thinking and the business-as-usual economic imperative? Post COVID-19, will we simply pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and get back to unsustainable ‘normal’, or does there need to be a new normal?
The book speaks of the need to foster hope. I’ve heard it called, rather dismissively, ‘Hopium’, suggesting we trust that ‘others’ will come up with scientific and geoengineering solutions to our crisis and, therefore, we can sit back and wait for this to happen. Leaders for sustainability need to disassociate themselves from this idea and instead create the conditions for a genuine and realistic sense of hope, enabling individual and collective actions that make a significant difference now. Schumacher’s (1993 ) book Small is Beautiful encapsulated this and emphasised that what we all do counts, but especially when we lead on something that creates and channels the energy of others. Once again, butterfly effects can escalate this. To this end, I like the following definition of a leader: ‘Leaders are agents of change – persons whose acts affect other people more than other people’s acts affect them. Leadership occurs when one group member modifies the motivation or competencies of others in the group’ (Bass, 1990, pp. 19–20).
This includes building the capacity of a school community to ‘be the change’ through creativity and connectivity in the context of high-quality environmental education. Connecting to the natural world has been shown to be central to this, and without this connection we are truly lost as a species.
Sackcloth and Ashes? 'Everything is Bad for You' is the title of a book by David French (2005) given to me by an anonymous colleague for my Secret Santa present one year. It caused much mirth in the staffroom and gave me pause for thought. It made me realise that good news sustainability narratives are essential. Sustainability certainly shouldn’t encompass false notions of Cromwellian frugality, and we proponents need to be careful not leave this impression. Everything should, as far as possible, be good for you! Of course, this needs to be tempered by one of the permaculture ethics of fair shares, meaning that surpluses are shared rather than accumulated. The saying adapted from Gandhi, ‘There’s enough for all our needs but not all our greed’ applies here (Schumacher, 1993, , p. 20). I’ve shown that a sustainable school can achieve this, with the potential to influence further afield, and school leaders shouldn’t underestimate their influence to enable people to thrive and flourish now and into the distant future.
 In Valerie Hannon’s (2017) thought-provoking book Thrive she argues that in order for more of us to really thrive, we need more disruptor leaders – especially in education – who challenge dominant damaging paradigms in schools and society generally.
 See https://www.geoengineeringwatch.org.
 The scientific facts presented by Gore are largely irrefutable and should have scared us into change. Why haven’t they? Once again, complex psychology is at large.
 See George Monbiot’s (2016) account of neoliberalism, and also David Harvey’s (2005) book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Both are quite a revelation and shocking in their way.
 See David Holmgrem’s useful overview of permaculture in practice at: https://www.holmgren.com.au.
 South Shropshire Climate Action includes schools and colleges in its strategy for change. See https://southshropshireclimateaction.org. See also https://www.dacorum.gov.uk/home/environment-street-care/climate-change/climate-action-network, https://friendsoftheearth.uk/about/climate-action-groups and https://climatenetwork.org.
 For more on food security, see https://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/challenge. Just-in-time supply chains make the UK particularly vulnerable to disruption; perhaps we really are nine meals away from anarchy!
 Like many sayings attributed to Gandhi, this is difficult to track down. It probably started out as something like, ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed’ (Schumacher (1993 ). For obvious reasons it was rendered gender neutral.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Dr David Dixon