Guest Blog by Barry Carney: MSc (Centre for Alternative Technology, UK); Change Agents UK research associate.

In the age of the Anthropocene, we urgently need new ways of thinking and acting. Economists are predicting that biophysical limits will determine the post-growth world and, as things stand, this will be characterised by mass migration, profound natural hazards, and huge discontinuities for human and natural systems (Crownshaw et al., 2018). Epidemiologists warn how climate change will create a world of unprecedented new diseases.

The current pandemic is sending disruptive shockwaves through all our interconnected global, environmental, socio-economic, and human systems. With this, we have opportunities to alter current systems at the deepest of levels.

The SDG Transformations Forum (TF), established in 2017, is a growing global community of enablers and transformations initiatives. The forum recognises where large-scale challenges – reflected in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – call for urgent interventions. By providing and making widely available the necessary resources, practical knowledge and organisational infrastructure for positive transformations, TF aim to support and amplify the efforts of the world’s change agents on their journeys towards a flourishing future.

Wherever harmful and disruptive events destabilise the status quo, they can prompt the critical reflections which lead to new thinking. TF recognises the importance of these discontinuities for triggering systemic change. In a recent newsletter, TF featured two of their current programmes for encouraging transformational responses to such events. One is the “Global Assessment for the New Economy” (GANE) – lead by Jasper Kenter of York University – which will gather insights on and from economic transformations, synthesise the findings and distribute practical knowledge across an emerging new network. GANE will work alongside a second initiative, “Bounce Beyond,” which provides the necessary infrastructure to mobilise and enable actions (for GANE and other transformations initiatives alike). To do this, TF will apply a growing body of knowledge and action research regarding transformations. The shock of Covid-19 could provide the springboard to ‘bounce beyond’ a mere return to the pre-pandemic business-as-usual.

Too often, theory and practice are deemed to be separate pursuits – perhaps best exemplified by academia’s disciplinary approaches. By using approaches based upon a knowledge of systems thinking and practice, in contrast to conventional methods situated within systems, there are better opportunities to explore and resolve wicked, intractable problems, in a more integrated and emergent way (Scoones et al., 2020). The SDG Transformations Forum adopts a three-step approach of seeing ● connecting ● acting: whereby complex situations are better understood ● valuable actors and interventions are identified and brought together ● so that appropriate, context specific actions can occur.

In this way, they can enable change by i) identifying ineffective mechanisms and behaviours; ii) generating new ways of working; and iii) implementing enabling structures. These can be achieved simultaneously: actions from one serving as enablers and agency for all.

Beyond being a network hub, TF works to engage the transformations community in ‘deliberation–action processes.’ This community intrinsically includes citizens as well as the change-makers informing, devising, and driving the initiatives. The plan is to generate local actions whilst holding global scale challenges in sharp focus. Establishing, maintaining and strengthening multi-directional links will be vital – e.g. between TF as a central hub and resource, the TF community as key communication and agency tributaries, and the various localities and citizenry completing the cycle and providing a collective groundswell of actors.

Transformations “require deep innovation in the ways we organize”. The need for unifying diverse approaches raises difficult questions about the transformational learning spaces for co-creation via participatory methods. Effective governance, facilitation, guidance and education (capacity-building) will be needed to yield appropriate value from such inclusive processes. These factors are elucidated by recent experiments in deliberative democracy in the UK via Citizens Assemblies, established to tackle Climate Emergencies (see e.g. Citizens UK, 2020). Further, there is a need to address the acquisition of key sustainability competencies, which underpin social learning processes, and link knowledge and action. These should include, inter alia:

  • Systems thinking competence
  • Futures thinking or anticipatory competence
  • Values thinking or normative competence
  • Strategic thinking or action-orientated competence
  • Collaborative or interpersonal competence

Digital competencies are being fast-tracked under the Covid-19 conditions and TF are embracing the complementary power of technology (e.g. developing a Multi-Sided [transformations] Platform). Bounce Beyond will be making use of virtual learning and multilocal collaboration to rapidly up-scale actions.

A primary focus within the TF initiatives is the transformation of mainstream economics. Many alternative, often radical conceptual reworkings of the economy have been emerging in recent decades and the pandemic has now centre-staged their importance. Transformation of current economic models can be hard for citizens to ‘buy into’, in part as understandings of the existing systems offer a fantasy of security.

Powerful narratives will be important: taking root beneath existing biases, nurturing societal understanding of what transformations can look like. It is narrative and communication (between humans and natural systems) which orient us and guide our journey. TF recognise the difficulty in working with heightened levels of complexity and so the story is best created through acting, with both pen- and script-in-hand.

We need to clear away the broken shards of failing systems and identify the best placement for precautionary crash mats. Creating new attractors within our stories can lure our behaviour towards the new, the exciting and the flourishing. In the example of the economy, uncovering its original meaning of ‘household management’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2009) creates space for innovative stories and fresh understandings of creating new and better. How do we, as humans with active influence and responsibility over systems, transform how we manage our home?

Against our best intentions, it was perhaps easier and often more attractive, pre-pandemic, to approach transformations in a genial way (ambling on rather than bouncing beyond). This approach often lacks impact. ‘Light-impact’ can be easily countered by established structures and world views and their efforts subsumed back into existing systems: e.g. the status quo is re-rebranded using greenwashed packaging.

The SDG Transformations Forum was established in response to the urgent existential needs of our time, and it is identifying the crucial pathways used or imagined by transformations experts. The Covid-19 pandemic is having a fundamentally destabilising effect, such that systems can be tipped into a new order, repurposed, or eradicated and replaced with better. ‘Bouncing beyond’ demands swift and decisive action, which will require new breakaway mechanisms and above all, wise leadership. Where will this come from? Our universities are outstanding in the acquisition of knowledge but much less effective in the acquisition of wisdom apt for fundamentally addressing wicked challenges (Tassone et al., 2017). At present, our educational systems do little to consider the ethical and ontological challenges related to sustainability science. There is a deeply fundamental and ongoing need to understand and reconcile the relationships between the human world and the physical universe, and hence help provide critical and imaginative solutions to a growing escalation of global existential problems (Maxwell, 2020).

One of the biggest challenges will continue to be launching en courage into [and thus creating] new paradigms. This is an action call to us all – a time to ask, “who am I in the interconnected universe and which systems do I want to support?” Is it time to explore these questions through agency now? We must be prepared to recognise old systems and navigate past pitfalls along the way. To truly create a movement of movements, we need to keep living the stories of collaboration, seeing our worldview rather than seeing with it, and committing decisively to acting as one flourishing system.



  • Citizens UK (2020) Local chapters > Leeds. Available at: (Accessed: 26/05/20)
  • Crownshaw, T., Morgan, C., Adams, A., Sers, M., dos Santos, N., Damiano, A., Gilbert,L., Haage, G., Greenford, D. (2018), ‘Over the horizon: Exploring the conditions of a post-growth world’, The Anthropocene Review, 1 –25.
  • Oxford English Dictionary (2009) Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Luxury Edition. 11th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Scoones, I., Stirling, A., Abrol, D., Atela, J., Charli-Joseph, L., Eakin, H., Ely, A., Olsson, P., Pereira, L., Priya, R., van Zwanenberg, P., Yang, L. (2020) ‘Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 42, 65-75. Doi:
  • Maxwell, N (2020) Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolutionary Approach to Philosophy, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Available at:
  • Tassone, V., O’Mahony, C., McKenna, E., Eppink, H., Wals, A. (2017) ‘(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective’, Higher Education, Doi: /10.1007/s10734-017-0211-4

Hyperlinked websites:


As we enter week 8 of the lock down, along with thoughts of returning to work or sending children back to school, there is a growing chorus of voices talking about the need for a new form of economics. One of these voices is called the Wellbeing Alliance (WEALL for short: )

WEALL is proposing a new economic model based on a radical repurposing of our current preoccupation with more and more growth: an oxymoron on a finite planet!
It advocates that in the world’s most developed countries, growth has brought unrivalled prosperity and hence “we have arrived”. However, some of the outcomes of growth, such as increasing personal debt, inequality, climate change, a pandemic, and a fractured and deeply polarised politics, may make the fruits of growth rot! In a ground-breaking book – The Economics of Arrival -Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams persuasively argue that it is about time we made ourselves “at home” with the wealth we have created. That we move away from enlarging the economy to improving it and secure the benefits that have accrued from growth, for everyone.

WEALL issued a briefing paper on 8 May, which sets out 10 key principles for an economy which “builds back better “from the Covid 19 pandemic. It prioritises human health,wellbeing,and ecological stability in the long term and seeks to avoid some of the “back to worse” traps of business as usual economics, based on GDP growth!

  1. New goals: ecologically safe and environmentally just Prioritise long-term human wellbeing and ecological stability in all decision-making; degrow and divest from economic sectors that do not contribute to ecological and wellbeing goals; invest in those that do; facilitate a just transition for all that creates jobs in and reskills for environmentally friendly and wellbeing focused sectors.
  2. Protecting environmental standards Protect all existing climate policy and emission reduction targets, environmental regulations, and other environmental policies in all COVID-19 responses.
  3. Green infrastructure and provisioning Develop new green infrastructure and provisioning, and sustainable social practices as part of the COVID-19 recovery. For instance, transform urban space towards active travel and away from car use; scale up public transport, green energy, environmentally sustainable food production, low carbon housing; attach environmental conditionality to bailouts of high carbon industries.
  4. Universal basic services Guarantee needs satisfaction for everyone, including through health care coverage for the whole population free of charge at point of access; universal free provision or vouchers for basic levels of water, electricity, gas, housing, food, mobility, education.
  5. Guaranteed livelihoods Ensure everyone has the means for decent living, for instance through income and/or job guarantees, redistribution of employment through working-time reduction.
  6. Fair distribution Create more equal societies nationally and globally through a fair distribution of resources and opportunities. E.g. more progressive and environmentally orientated income and wealth taxation; public/common ownership of key resources and infrastructure.
  7. Better democracy Ensure effective, transparent, and inclusive democratic processes at all levels; end regulatory capture from corporate interests and corruption.
  8. Wellbeing economics organisations Prioritise in all businesses and organisations social and ecological goals; implement circular economy principles to minimise resource use and waste; ensure economic and organisational democracy.
  9. Cooperation Ensure cooperation and solidarity at all levels, including in international politics and the global economy; across industrial sectors and government ministries; across scales (global, national, regional, local).
  10. Public control of money Introduce public and democratic control of money creation. Spend newly created money on investments that promote social and environmental goals and avoid post-recovery austerity.

I believe we are at a new global tipping point, where the idea of building back better, is growing in everybody’s mind. But will our existing governance systems respond urgently and at scale to the new reality and embrace an economy that values wellbeing and ecological sustainability? Its worth all of us joining and fully supporting the WEALL Movement!

THE HIDDEN POWER OF SYSTEMS THINKING Governance in a Climate Emergency

In many of my recent blogs I have begun to focus on how we can implement transformational change. During my time as the CEO of a new company in the fastest growing city in the UK- Milton Keynes in the late 1990s, I found myself engaging with some of the foremost creative and influential academics in what was then the Centre for Complexity and Change at the Open University. One of the many outcomes of this collaboration was a piece of research by one of its students-Alexandra Di Stefano- on the company I was running. Her PhD was entitled -BEYOND the RHETORIC: A Grounded Perspective on Learning Company and Learning Community.

The creative initiatives the company took with the local business communities , schools and the 4 universities, from a systems perspective, had a profound effect on national education policy, because the company became the precursor of a national network of regional Learning and Skills Councils. Anyway , to the point of this blog! Alexandra’s work and her supervisor Professor Ray Ison introduced me to the importance and impact of systems thinking and practice. Ray and the OU systems team have pioneered work on systems thinking and practice for almost 50 years.

Last month , Ray and Ed Straw published a persuasive and well written book called the Hidden Power of Systems Thinking( , which shows how the failure of governance at all levels(national, regional , local and organisational) is fundamentally at the heart of “the collective incapacity to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.”

As the preface of the book states:” it is an invitation to think differently. Because the world is in a fix”. And, it goes on to argue very persuasively that we need purposeful change to fix the world’s wicked problems. But not first order purposeful change(i.e. doing the same things more efficiently) but second order change (i.e. changing all systems)which embraces governing for emergence in a new and complex new epoch called the Anthropocene.


As governments proceed to reduce the lock down measures implemented to contain Covid-19 they are being encouraged to implement a 5-step decision making framework which takes account of longer-term impacts of climate change. We do not need gung-ho business as usual changes which stimulate carbon intensive industrial and consumption growth, knowing only to well that this will need further decoupling in the very near future in response to the climate and biodiversity crisis. Makes sense doesn’t it?
• Systematically evaluate possible unintended negative environmental impacts of new short-term fiscal and tax provisions. While the priority is rightly on providing urgent relief to impacted businesses and individuals, a careful screening of the environmental impacts of stimulus measures would significantly add coherence to policies and avoid creating perverse and unintended environmental consequences that might damage the future resilience and environmental health of societies.

• Do not roll-back existing environmental standards as part of recovery plans. As countries implement urgent measures to tackle the health and immediate economic impact of the crisis, it will be important not to retreat from the gains made in recent decades in addressing climate change, air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, and other environmental challenges.

• Make sector-specific financial support measures conditional on environmental improvements where possible. The use of financial support measures such as preferential loans, loan guarantees and tax abatements could be directed towards supporting stronger environmental commitments and performance in pollution-intensive sectors that may be particularly affected by the crisis.

• Ensure that the measures will enhance levels of environmental health to strengthen the resilience of societies. A cleaner environment will have a positive impact on human health; for example, reductions in air pollution will improve the health of vulnerable segments of urban populations and can make them more resilient to health risks.

• Communicate clearly on the benefits of improving the overall environmental health of societies. Underscoring the benefits to well-being and prosperity from more resilient societies can strengthen public support for measures aimed at enhancing environmental health.

As the COVID-19 emergency evolves, the effects of governments’ stimulus packages will need to be assessed with respect to the long-term environmental impacts. A focus on the transition to low emissions and resource efficient economies will be a central component of such a process. For example, the investment plans associated with recovery will be critical in setting the environmental pathway for the next few decades, crucial for global efforts to avoid dangerous climate change.


Imagine if a university totally reoriented itself around redeveloping its locality. It would only offer teaching and research directly relevant to this mission. It might bring in local employers, partner with private training providers, and only carry out research that would benefit its local communities.
This idea by a leading consultancy firm was headlined in the Times Higher last week. Yet, it failed to mention a range of opinion and research on this issue emanating from academics in the UK and worldwide. In an earlier blog I mentioned the extensive work by the philosopher Nicholas Maxwell on the role of universities in learning for wisdom and their contribution to social progress. Another important contribution was made recently in a report by the Civic University Commission, chaired by former cabinet Secretary Bob Kerslake.
It argued that universities play a key societal role through their teaching and research work. But they can also play a hugely important role in the sustainability and environmental wellbeing of the cities in which they are located.
The importance of this civic role is growing. For example, in the city of Sheffield there were 4,000 students and nearly 45,000 people working in the steel industry in 1978. Today there are around 60,000 students and around 3,000 steelworkers. Universities have become one of the largest employers – next to the National Health Service in many cities and areas of the country.
In the United Kingdom , for example , which has grappled with the challenges of low growth, low productivity, the impact of austerity and widening spatial inequalities, universities can be (alongside local authorities and the health sector), significant ‘anchor institutions’, able to make an enormous impact on the success of their places. But this impact is often framed solely in terms of their economic impact, with limited consideration of the wider sustainability agenda set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs)
National education policy has tended to ignore the importance of regions and cities. This ignorance of place – and how different places have experienced growth, globalisation, and shifts in a country’s sources of wealth – has led to huge inequalities across many countries. Many universities have seen themselves as increasingly global first, national second, and local third.
There has been some shift towards place-based policy making – most notably in the UK through the industrial strategy and city deals, but also – for example – through opportunity areas in schools’ policy.
University policy in England remains almost wholly national, including:
• A lack of recognition in recent policy and legislation that universities are anchor institutions in ‘left behind’ places and their closure could have drastic effects on those areas.
• Funding for teaching that is nationally designed.
• Funding for research which is still almost wholly awarded based on national and international excellence.
What is needed is a greater focus on creating Civic Universities with the following characteristics:
• A clear strategic rationale for how teaching, research and professional civic engagement benefits the city/city region.
• Along with a civic engagement plan which is negotiated and evaluated with key organisations in the city via a time dependent “Performance Agreement” Which is in line with what happens in Holland.

Universities can actively promote co-creation of societal transformation that goes far beyond technology transfer and other economic contributions, which is what the concept of a “civic university” demands. The idea of a civic university takes a university’s role in society much further and at scale towards active engagement and mutual learning. If a university takes on this role, it enhances its chances of transforming itself as an institution and becoming a sustainability role model in its community. This is especially true when active engagement and mutual learning are paired with participatory processes, since this creates an environment that promotes critical, systemic, and future-oriented thinking. A good example of such engagement is the development of city-wide citizens assemblies to develop climate emergency and net zero carbon plans( Good examples include the universities and cities of Nottingham, Bristol, and Leeds)
Another example is a recent study carried out by the University of Sheffield: it addressed the question; Is there space to grow vegetables and fruit in the city? In the United Kingdom, approximately 16,000 km2 of land is designated as urban, of which green infrastructure constitutes approximately 50% (an area 5.3 times larger than that used nationally for the commercial production of fruits and vegetables). To understand the extent to which urban horticulture can make use of this apparent land resource, the researchers used high-spatial-resolution datasets to analyse the current and potential productive space for urban horticulture for the UK city of Sheffield. With 582,500 inhabitants, Sheffield has the sixth largest population in England and Wales. Results indicate that there is more than enough urban land available within the city to meet the fruit and vegetable requirements of its population. Such studies illuminate the recent proposals made by Tim Lang in his book-Feeding Britain- that we need a systemic reappraisal of our food system so that we avoid a food security crisis.

Transformative Change: How do we get there?

The pandemic lockdown is offering groups of like-minded individuals the opportunities to come together to talk sensibly and sensitively about our global futures. Here in Derbyshire the Climate Coalition group recently initiated a zoom conversation on why and how to create a “movement of movements” on climate change. It was a robust and creative session but limited by the inevitable complexity of the question. At a time when humanity is facing a growing number of unprecedented and interdependent existential crises, how do we make progress? Is there realistically a convergence of solutions to both the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change?

Paul Raskin, the founder of the Great Transition Initiative (GTI:, offers some encouraging ways of approaching this complexity. He argues that we need a global citizens movement. He believes we need stronger and more motivational answers to the burning question of action. He uses a simple framework of 4 questions to address this conundrum:

  • Where are we?
  • Where are we going?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we get there?

The questions offer an ascending order of difficulty. On the first 3 questions there has been a growing catalogue of progress. Not least in terms of the scientific understanding of many of the so-called wicked sustainability issues we face.

We are also getting a wholesale and frightening introduction to the social, psychological, and economic impacts of a global pandemic.

The fact that most nations have signed up to implementing the 17 UN  Sustainable Development Goals provides us with a global road map of where we are going and more importantly where we want to go.

Other international agreements like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sendai Framework on disaster risk reduction add considerable weight to the beginning of a global response to these crises. But much more is needed to embed these agreements into national and sub-national governance systems along with the transformation of institutional and organisational structures and cultures.

To tackle  the question “How do we get there?”  we need a systemic transformation. This requires a systemic movement to lead us in a vast cultural and political transformation which  can shape a new and vibrant sustainable future.

Maybe the systemic movements initiated by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion show the way. Maybe the clean air in our cities, arising out of the current pandemic, is also showing people a new and different future.

Crucially this movement must ensure that its ends animate the means. It needs to find ways of balancing a unity of purpose with the diversity of  human engagement, whilst renouncing the extremes and polarising influence of top-down vanguardism and bottom-up spontaneity.

The Intelligence Trap: Why do clever people make stupid mistakes?

I have argued that our universities are not yet addressing, at scale and urgency, some of the systemic existential issues of our time. We are currently facing the Covid-19 pandemic and our collective understanding of this crisis is woefully inadequate. And this underpins some of the ill-judged policy decisions made in response to its impact.

David Robson, the author of a recent book “The Intelligence Trap”, has advocated that there is no direct link between intelligence and wise decisions! Based on many famous case studies, he argues that “smart people can make seriously stupid mistakes”. These include Albert Einstein, Arthur Conan Doyle, Linus Pauling, Kary Mullis and many others. In short ,experts make wrong decisions  again and again. AND geniuses can be wildly irrational too.

 As we enter our fourth week of isolation in the UK, we are subjected to meaningless statistics on everything, from the use or not of face masks and the numbers of deaths, which include ONLY those in hospital. The government’s fallback position in justifying its policy decisions is a parroted “we have followed expert medical and scientific advice”.

The 21st century presents us with deeply complex problems like pandemics and climate change that require a wiser way of reasoning: one that recognises our current limitations, tolerates ambiguity and uncertainty, balances multiple perspectives, and bridges diverse areas of expertise. So it is becoming more and more important that our education systems help create more people with these attributes.

For some considerable time, a philosopher called Nicholas Maxwell has been arguing, that the quest for wisdom should be at the heart of a university’s purpose. He advocates that they should prioritise this through “an organised inquiry which is rationally designed and wholly devoted to helping humanity learn wisdom and learn to create a more enlightened world.” But, you might ask, isn’t this what they already do? Apparently not. According to Maxwell universities have taught and advanced, in ever increasing detail, our knowledge of science, the humanities, and the social sciences, but with limited understanding of how this knowledge can be applied to benefit wider society. All of which has helped create the modern world. But it has been a mixed blessing, as many of us now recognise. This enhanced knowledge has had a profound influence for public good, in health, agriculture, transport and communication. But this has also been globally damaging for all humanity in terms of modern warfare, terrorism, inequality, destruction of our natural environments and climate change. He posits that our universities have become conditioned by the idea that they are there to enhance our knowledge and technological innovation. But there are limits to knowledge inquiry if it bypasses reason and wisdom. A good introduction to Maxwell’s position can be found here, in a recent TED talk. In it he offers a simple-4 stage solution for giving this intellectual priority in our universities.

The Urgent Need to Bring About a Revolution in Academia: Nicholas Maxwell at TEDxUCL

Our House is on fire

I have written in an earlier blog about Greta and my links with Sweden and its education system. I have also been honoured to work with Karl Henrik Robert the founder of the Natural Step a framework for sustainability  ( ). And, following the 2002 Earth Summit, I worked as a facilitator of an amazing international consultation on education for sustainable development  called “Learning to Change our World” held in Goteborg in May 2004.

So, Sweden has a special place in my development and engagement with sustainability. No surprise, then that I ordered this new book narrated, largely by Greta’s mother, Malena Ernman, the Opera singer.

Wow, what a family story, littered with the family trials of two daughters, Greta and Beata, who struggle with speaking, eating and other disorders. It highlights how these and other wicked family issues lead  them to link their own suffering to the suffering of the planet.And which then leads to a global movement when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a solo “school strike for the climate”. A teenager who became the unlikely face of climate activism. Our House Is on Fire is, among many other things, the story of how and why Greta came to be sitting on the pavement outside the Swedish parliament with a home-made placard.

This book has diminished my positive views of the Swedish education and social systems.  It wastes no time in dispelling any notion that Sweden is a utopia of public services. The description of getting help and a diagnosis out of the adolescent psychiatric services – “Where everyone is burned out from struggling with a constantly growing workload and where much of the time is spent putting out fires” – will have parents across the world groaning with grim recognition. Not a lot better is their view on mainstream education, “where all pupils must function in exactly the same way and where overworked teachers on a conveyor belt end up hitting the wall”. Greta was bullied, her school was indifferent, she lost 10kg in two months and reached the brink of hospitalisation before she was, eventually, diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism and Asperger syndrome. “Perhaps we will never be fine, but we can always get a little bit better, and there is strength in that. There is hope in that.”

For me the message is clear, despite  the turbulence and stress in their lives every family member rose up and made transformational changes  in their work and lifestyles to become celebrated global role models.


Is there a Case for Re-Purposing our Universities?

We are now citizens of the Earth joined in a common enterprise with many variations. We have every right to insist that those who purport to lead us be worthy of the task. Imagine such a time! (Orr, 2003)
Hundreds of delegates met late last year in Madrid(Cop25) to discuss climate change and the UN’s Secretary General headlined with his statement that” we have reached a point of no return!” The UK will hold the next climate conference (Cop26 )in Glasgow in 2021 and our government is making much of how well the UK is mitigating greenhouse gas emissions despite our increasingly prolific use of fossil fuels and our unsustainable consumer lifestyles.
If we look back on the World Summit for Sustainable Development (the Earth Summit)) in Johannesburg (2002) and many of the other international summits which followed, and reflect on their impact, the overriding conclusion is that political leadership the world over has failed to rise to the challenges of sustainability. And yet it is likely that most of the hundred or so leaders who attended the earth summit would have had a higher education degree from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. This raises some serious questions for our university leaders and their governance structures. Why, as the American academic, David Orr once remarked, is it that the people who contribute most to exploiting poor communities and the Earth’s ecosystems are those with BAs, MScs and PhDs and not the ‘ignorant’ poor from the South ? And, why is the illiteracy amongst the world’s politicians as to how the world works as a living system so widespread? Why is it so rare that we encounter in our leaders the qualities needed to enable sustainability: humility, respect for all forms of life and future generations, precaution and wisdom, the capacity to think systemically and critically challenge unethical actions? And more worryingly based on current performance, what hope of improvement is there for future leaders?
The fact that the higher education sector is seriously failing society by producing leaders incapable of addressing our most pressing problems should trigger some critical consideration about the fundamental role of universities in society, based on three key assumptions: If universities are the nursery of tomorrow’s leaders and educate most of the people who develop and manage society’s institutions, then the sector bears “profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create a sustainable future”, as the Talloires Declaration (signed by many of the world’s university leaders) stated in 1990 (ULSF, 1990). This clearly implies that graduates of every discipline (whether as engineers, teachers, politicians, lawyers, architects, biologists, banks managers or tourism operators, etc.) will need a sound working knowledge of sustainability.
Moreover, sustainable development is now a mainstream policy issue around the world ( in 2015, 150 world leaders signed up to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals) and there is an increasing demand for graduates with a broad interdisciplinary training in sustainable development and problem solving. Universities as centres of the most advanced knowledge can through their teaching and their institutional practice, act as role models for wider society and be overt, ethical leaders and advocates of best practice for the future.
Last September the proportion of young people in England going to university passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time and a further 2.5 million optimistic students arrived at our universities. Should we celebrate these significant milestones? Or is their optimism misplaced and is the achievement of this 20-year-old policy target good for our society? OECD’s education director Andreas Schleicher believes that achieving this target is a good thing, whilst at the same time he argues that UK’s record in measuring the learning in schools is “leading the world”, we are less effective in measuring the learning taking place in our universities. If we are not adequately measuring the output of a university education how can we assess its effectiveness and how does this influence a student’s choice of a university? And, more fundamentally, how does the absence of clear learning outcomes, help us to understand the purpose of a university education?
A recent book written by Professor Kerry Shephard (Higher Education for Sustainability) asks a more fundamental question: “What does guide our beliefs and actions? / and, to what extent might higher education be guiding the beliefs and actions of our students?” Without assessing the outcomes of a university education, there is no answer to this question. Shephard argues that universities should develop and enhance their student’s critical thinking and related dispositions because this captures more precisely the social, environmental and ethical needs of civil society in a complex and rapidly changing world. In the absence of this kind of explicit purpose, then as one Finnish academic has recently commented, the university “has already become an empty shell, or a soulless organism reduced to dead matter”
The traditional view is that a university education provides a basis for extending and deepening human understanding in a disciplined, ethical and illimitable manner. But this liberal view has been overtaken in recent years by the prevailing commercial wisdom which holds that the purpose of higher education is to advance knowledge, promote social mobility and help ensure perpetual economic growth and competitiveness. As one commentator has suggested:
This commercialisation of higher education serves a bigger purpose, though. It softens students up for the rigours of globalisation. By creating a market, young people are encouraged to think and behave like rational economic man. They become ‘human capital’, calculating the rate of return on their university investment. A degree becomes a share certificate. Commercialisation conditions students to expect no help from others, or society, and therefore never to provide help in return. Debt and economic conditioning discourage graduates from going into lower-paid caring jobs – and instead into the City, where the real ‘value’ is. It fashions a Britain that competes rather than cares.’ NEF University Challenge
This commercialisation creates citizens who remain as mainstays of the prevailing economic system and, consequently, are unable to lead as agents of progressive social change. But complexity, volatility, and potential social collapse increasingly define the lives of today’s graduates, as well as most (around 87%) of our political representatives in parliament who have undertaken a university education. If our universities are to provide us with leaders capable of making a positive rather than a negative impact on human survival and wellbeing in these changing times, they need to rethink their purpose.

What Do We Mean by a Crisis?

Massive social lock down has closely followed the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Like many I’m struggling with how this is being communicated and, more importantly, how the required actions are being implemented. More than ever we need clarity and understanding from everyone. Yet we continue to see pictures of breaches to the government mandate to socially distance when we shop or walk for exercise. We all face difficult decisions and painful dilemmas as we begin to understand the implications of the crisis we face. As one commentator recently suggested, we are in a kind of stasis, shrouded by deep anxiety, as the scale and urgency of the crisis unfolds.  And, we cannot fathom the transformative change we face, much of which is unknowable. ‘Experts’ have no access to infallible truths to guide us towards a safer and more sustainable future. Yet our political leadership continue to repeat the mantra that their actions are based on the best scientific evidence! Perhaps, it would be wiser to say based on the “best available evidence?”

The word “crisis ” is derived from the Greek “krisis” which means a decision or judgement. This derivation also includes a critical state or condition such as a medical state, which can develop positively towards a cure or, negatively and lead to long term ill health or premature death. Hence, the outcomes of a crisis are unpredictable and unknowable. 

Those of us who are deeply concerned about another crisis – the climate emergency, will inevitably look at Covid-19 and draw comparisons. But this is ultimately a flawed exercise because Climate Change does not have the same dynamic as that we are currently experiencing.  It is much slower to develop and so does not pose an immediate threat to our very existence. It doesn’t have the same imminent sense of threat that Britain faced as German troops massed on the other side of the channel, ready to invade. Therefore, it has less influence on our collective social consciences to initiate rapid behavioural change.

What does an emergency mean when we face a crisis?

An emergency is a situation where the normal ways we manage society and the economy cannot adequately deal with the risk we face. It implies, therefore, a change to what we do, commensurate with both the scale and urgency of the risk.

Declaring an emergency should result in the development of a plan, underpinned by strong leadership, that communicates, coordinates and deploys the practical capacity and financing to protect communities from the threat, including the most vulnerable. In most emergencies, only the state has the authority and capacity to act  in this way. All of us rely on the state  to do so.

As a result of Covid-19 we now better understand  the basic characteristics of an emergency response. As the Breakthrough Climate Centre describes it:

“In emergency mode we stop ‘business-as-usual’ because nothing  else matters as much as the crisis. We don’t  rush thoughtlessly in, but focus on a plan of action, which we implement with thought, and  all possible care and speed, to protect others  and get to safety.”

Could the devastating impact of the new coronavirus pandemic destroy the momentum that the climate movement has built up over the last year? Some say so, believing that the economic fallout will push climate down the list of priorities for governments. But rather than seeing the solutions to Climate Change and Covid-19 as independent, we should recognise that appropriate behaviour changes can  mitigate both risks concurrently. For example, good air quality improves people’s health and mitigates climate change.

In fact, I believe the last few weeks, as terrible as they have been for so many people, have taught us crucial lessons that we needed to learn in order to enter a new era of radical, collaborative action not only to plan for further disease outbreaks but also to cut emissions and slow climate change. Like everyone else, I can’t believe we’ve learned  so many devastating lessons in a matter of days. Once we are freed from this cruel threat we should face up to the absurdity of our unsustainable lifestyles and the precariousness of the human condition.