Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Bold Education

By Catherine O'Brien • October 10, 2013

Last week, my students completed their Sustainable Happiness Footprint Chart. They logged their activities for a day and identified opportunities for enhancing sustainable happiness – contributing to their own wellbeing, the wellbeing of other people, and/or the natural environment. One student commented on a positive choice that she could make, drinking fair trade coffee in a reusable mug, but she also wondered how much of a difference that would really make. It’s a fair question. Given the vast scope and complexity of environmental degradation, human suffering, and unsustainable lifestyles, does it matter if one person recycles, carpools, buys local produce and fair trade products?

One response to questions about the significance of individual actions is to point out that every person doing their part contributes to change, and that gradually, we create enough momentum to reach a tipping point – new social norms become established, progressive policies and laws are developed – and each of us has a role in this. Our actions influence others too, directly or indirectly. Have you noticed the shift happening in your grocery store as more people are using reusable shopping bags? Eventually, plastic bags look like the fringe choice.

Returning to my student’s question, I believe that each of us who take right action make a difference – a substantial and critical difference. Let’s add to her question: is this enough? Should we be satisfied with environmentally friendly lifestyles of recycling, energy-efficient light bulbs, local produce and similar steps to reduce our Ecological Footprint? For many people, this represents a shift from less sustainable behavior and every one of us who makes that shift is a positive force for change.

As a sustainability educator, I keep wondering though, why don’t more of us take these first steps towards healthier, and more sustainable lifestyles? A bigger question still, why aren’t more of us leading movements for change? Small, local movements? National movements? International movements? Why, in a country like Canada, that has an exemplary academic achievement record are we not educating more students who are demanding change from our leaders and “being the change” themselves?

A conversation with the president or our university, Dr. David Wheeler, helped me to think about this. We were discussing the benefits of universities modeling sustainability in policy and practice – identifying themselves as fair trade universities, for example. David is passionately committed to sustainability, with extensive international experience and I was inspired by his response. It went something like this: these are important and vital measures for universities to take but he is also interested in much bolder objectives. Why can’t we be contributing to food self-sufficiency for Cape Breton Island, he said? Why can’t we contribute to strategies that bring food self-sufficiency to other countries that so desperately need this? Essentially, he was stating that higher education institutions need to be much bolder. I agree. The idea of Bold Education appeals me. Imagine the transformations that would be possible if more universities demonstrated bold leadership for sustainability. More professors applied their expertise to resolve pressing social and environmental challenges? More principals and teachers met curriculum outcomes using methods that inspire students to appreciate the need for change and the fulfillment that comes from “being the change?”

It’s no longer a debate whether or not education reform is needed. It’s widely recognized that transformation is required to modernize education, to foster creativity and entrepreneurship, to focus on student (and teacher) wellbeing and simultaneously ensure that academic standards are maintained, or elevated.  These increasing demands on educators can be daunting and sustainability education tends to drop off the radar because most reform proponents aren’t quite clear about how it fits. My concern is that without the benefit of a bold and long term sustainability lens education reformers will be tinkering at the edges of what really needs to change. We may end up with happier, and more ‘successful’ students who are unlikely to challenge the business-as-usual lifestyles, policies and practice that relentlessly steer us individually and collectively on an unsustainable trajectory.

Conversely, when I envision Bold Education I see several overlapping perspectives finally merging into a transformative approach to education. I see the strengths of Education for Sustainability (some prefer Education for Sustainable Development) merging with Health Promoting Schools, social and emotional learning, entrepreneurship education, and 21st century learning competencies. I see education processes that inspire, rather than beleaguer, teachers and students – education that contributes to sustainable happiness and wellbeing for all.

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