Education for sustainability; a holistic philosophy


\"\"My last blog announcing a new certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Massachusetts resulted in lots of inquiries.  While most were about specific courses and requirements, some asked about the pedagogy and underlying philosophy of our new program.  This blog attempts to describe the thinking that went into development of the certificate program as well as our undergraduate Sustainable Food and Farming major.  I hope it is also relevant to the many new degree programs, courses and curricula emerging around the world focused on education for sustainability.

Should sustainability be part of a public education?

The next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial and technological growth that are simultaneously destroying or depleting much of nature and endangering human and non-human species, while offering the highest standard of living and rate of consumption ever known.  These modern systems of industrial and technological development must be re-imagined and re-created in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources, use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, or cause harm to people or the natural world.

\"\"Education for sustainability should prepare students to address these daunting challenges.   While university leaders often talk about education as \”an engine of economic growth\” and a means of creating jobs, a more complete understanding of how public universities serve the public good would include attention to common human interests such as: affordable, nutritionally adequate food; adequate and affordable clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment; a means to provide for one’s livelihood, personal growth and community health; accessible health care; and accessible educational opportunities.   Education for sustainability should address these basic human needs.

What are the attributes of an education for sustainability?

A widely accepted conceptual model presents sustainability as a quest toward three interrelated objectives: 1) environmental integrity; 2) economic vitality; and 3) social equity.

\"\"This model however sets up  three competing objectives in which economic priorities almost always win out over environmental and social objectives.  Recently university leaders have begun to talk about \”environmental sustainability\” (which might be considered progress).  But I believe we must learn to view this model in a more holistic way, using systems thinking tools that allow us to integrate all three objectives rather than trading one off against another.

Some academics particularly struggle to incorporate social equity into their thinking.  According to an April 2001 Science article about sustainability science, the university research community has generally ignored the social impact of their studies.   The authors of this article call for a new science that is different in “structure, methods and content” from the science of the past.  Specifically the new sustainability science will need to approach problems from a holistic perspective that:

  1. transcends spatial scales from economic globalization to local farming practices;
  2. accounts for temporal inertia of global affects such as atmospheric ozone depletion and the movement of toxins;
  3. deals with the functional complexity of interacting systems and subsystems; and
  4. recognizes and honors a wide range of divergent opinion within the scientific community and between science and the larger society.

We must be clear that the call for a more integrative approach including social objectives does not represent the abandonment of rational, objective thought, but the evolution of human thought toward holism or systems thinking.  According to Ervin Lazlo, this \”macroshift\” represents the necessary evolution from logos to holos thinking with a significant change in focus as described in this table:



Reductionist thinking




‘Head’ oriented

Separate from nature



Holistic thinking




Whole being (head, heart, body, spirit)

Connected with nature/ecological


Systems oriented

Education for sustainability goes beyond \”mere knowledge\”

Current undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Education for sustainability on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom, knowledge can be dangerous.  Human knowledge, for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Knowledge \”alone\” cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.  Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).

Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is, knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.  Communicative learning may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning and story telling are core to communicative learning.  Lastly, while instrumental learning may thrive in hierarchical systems where the power of teachers is greater than students, communicative learning must occur in environments that support co-learning of both teachers and students.


Education for sustainability will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  It will mean less time in classrooms and more time learning through experience.  It will require pedagogy founded on a model of transformative learning that engages the student’s mind, body and spirit, builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  Awareness of the connection between the individual, the community, and the cosmos are necessary attributes of education to prepare young people as leaders in sustainable world.

\"\"In my mind, few university programs fulfill this vision of education for sustainability (including our own certificate and major).   If you want an example however of a quality university program that truly prepares students to be leaders in a sustainable world, look to Living Routes Inc.  This program should be a model for us all!


This blog was adapted from a proposal I wrote in 2002 for a new \”sustainability studies\” curriculum (interestingly, the proposal was rejected by university administration).   And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.