Education for sustainability, action-oriented research and the value of building bridges
In March 2019 the Sustainable Consumption Institute held a series of activities around sustainability education. The SCI hosted Rachel Trajber, education lead of the Brazilian government research institute Cemaden (National Monitoring and Early Warning and Centre of Natural Disasters) and used Rachel’s visit to build bridges with the Manchester Environmental Education Network.
Rachel’s visit was initiated by SCI Research Associate Catherine Walker and builds on a series of international research interactions around Education for Sustainability (EfS), described by Rachel, Catherine and others in an article for a recent special issue of Action Research journal on Climate Change Transformations.
In the special issue, Rachel, Catherine and co-authors call for researchers to ‘create conditions for public educational policies – and educators – to become part of strategies for realising transformations for sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change, disaster[s] and resource insecurity.’ At just such a time when international youth climate activism is raising critical questions, Rachel’s visit enabled SCI researchers to engage our research on un/sustainable consumption with EfS, as a research area in its own right and a means of disseminating research.
From the outset, Rachel’s visit was envisaged as an opportunity for the SCI to build bridges with and between Cemaden Education’s Network of Schools and Communities for Disaster Risk Prevention and the Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN). The work of both organisations – in geographically-distant contexts and in response to different manifestations of socioenvironmental vulnerabilities – is consistent with the action-oriented transformations approach set out by the editors of Action Research. Cemaden Education’s work aims to contribute to more sustainable and resilient societies by building curriculum skills and research competencies in schools. The team has equipped schools to become micro-risk monitoring and prevention centres in regions where increasingly unpredictable weather is resulting in flooding and landslides. Much of MEEN’s recent work has centred on working with pupils to research their school’s soil quality, which often reveals contamination and impoverishment. Heavy rains, which experts predict will be one outcome of climate change, could expose impoverished soils and this is one reason why MEEN is simultaneously delivering a social action project on climate change through intergenerational carbon classrooms.
Cemaden and MEEN share an understanding of climate-related hazards as socio-environmental, requiring responses ‘from top-down and bottom-up, involving multiple stakeholders in dialogue and collaboration at every stage of the process’, as argued by Rachel Trajber and colleagues. For MEEN this works as a three-stage process: learn, act, share. Both organisations seek to cultivate spaces for intergenerational learning: taking young people’s concerns and knowledge seriously without making them solely responsible for action, as MEEN Coordinator Rachael Lock writes with Susan Brown.
Having called the collaboration between the SCI, Cemaden and MEEN ‘Building Bridges’, we reflect on the bridges built and those remaining to be built through a series of questions that have grown out of our work together.
‘Do people in Brazil have climate change like we have climate change?’
This question, raised by a pupil at a primary school where we planted trees to offset Rachel’s flights, sums up the enquiry at the heart of our collaboration. Rachel responded that we (humanity) are in the same boat, but on different parts of the boat, some of which are more vulnerable than others.
This is being illustrated through the social cartography work that we are undertaking with schools in Manchester, Santarém (Pará, Brazil) and São José dos Campos (São Paulo, Brazil). Students are mapping hazards, areas of risk and vulnerable populations onto aerial maps of the areas around their schools. They are creating overlays on these maps to show alternative scenarios: one overlay showing the risks that could be heightened by climate change, another showing ways that the communities can become more resilient to climate risks. The three schools are in dialogue about similarities and differences in risks and potential responses that the mapping is helping them to see.
At an intergenerational conference on climate change, risk and resilience on 22 March, students from all three schools presented (live or through a video-link up) their work-in-progress and discussed some of these emerging similarities and differences.
Is the city a context for deliberation or a site that innovation gets done to?
This question, part of a series of questions orienting the SCI’s Cities and (Post)Sustainability working group, provided a platform to discuss with the working group the ways that young people are frequently affected by city innovations – for good or ill – yet are much less frequently consulted on these innovations. Recently, there have been proposals to build schools in Greater Manchester and elsewhere on reclaimed land (which, as former waste collection or industrial sites, may contain harmful contaminants). It is worth considering what suggestions young people – who will spend the most time in these ‘sites of innovation’ – might make if they were consulted in a meaningful way on such plans.
Our social cartography work offers one way to build bridges between classrooms and decision-making spaces. Our aim is that, in addition to building bridges between young people in different geographical contexts, the work will prompt schools to contact local politicians, community groups and researchers to propose actions for more resilient communities. Student social cartographers at the Manchester school are keen to show their work to MP Afzal Khan and to tweet photos of their map, overlays and action plan to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.
Nonetheless, events such as the young people’s platform at the Manchester Mayor’s Green Summit and the Strike for Climate – both of which happened during Rachel’s visit – suggest that it is when young people go outside of school that they have the greatest impact. As adults at these youth-led events, we were on the receiving end of a bridge extended by young people, a rallying call to action, much of which must be led by adults as young people’s poems from the strike make clear.
Is it enough to learn together? How do we build together?
In institutional terms, our collaboration bridges an academic institution (SCI), a government research institution (Cemaden) and a non-governmental institution (MEEN). As individuals, we have different ways of positioning ourselves as researchers, activists and practitioners and how we see ourselves depends on the contexts in which we work. Our work together and the range of activities carried out (seminars with academics, tree planting and assemblies in schools, supporting after-school eco-clubs, hosting an intergenerational conference, participating in a climate strike, attending a policy summit) have perhaps blurred boundaries as much as they have built bridges.
As those privileged with the vocation of working with knowledge, our responsibility to bridge research, action and practice take on a new urgency at a time of climate crisis. As the authors of the Action Research editorial calling for action-oriented research for transformations write, ‘the times demand it’. Our collaboration enables us to think together about how we build critical understandings and responses to the climate crisis with those who are not only the subjects of our research but also fellow (global) community members.
Catherine Walker is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute
Rachel Trajber leads the education work of the Brazilian government research institute Cemaden (National Monitoring and Early Warning and Centre of Natural Disasters).
Rachael Lock is the co-ordinator of the Manchester Environmental Education Network.
Trajber, R., Walker, C. et al. (2019) “Promoting climate change transformation with young people in Brazil: participatory action research through a looping approach” Action Research Volume: 17 issue: 1, page(s): 87-107 https://doi.org/10.1177/1476750319829202