University courses to develop sustainability changemakers – how they do it at Dal

If you were to set up and run a degree programme to develop students as changemakers for Sustainability, what would that look like?

Steve and Georgia from Dal’s College of Sustainability

At the start of my trip to North America, I had an inspiring morning with Steve Mannell, Georgia Klein and Bridget Graham at Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability in Halifax, Canada to hear about just that.

Their programme, Environment Sustainability and Society (ESS), is one of a handful in North America that brings together students and staff from diverse backgrounds to study the practice of taking action for sustainability alongside a disciplinary specialism. Students take ESS as one part of a ‘Double Major’ – this means that it is always combined with developing another specialism and that classes have a genuine inter-disciplinary flavour.

ESS has a big focus on developing collaborative and problem-solving skills to address complex sustainability issues. A key part is an extended placement with community organisations or businesses to work on a real-life challenge put forward by these partners. This is combined with a great deal of reflection on these experiences, in writing and in discussion, so students can track how they’ve developed skills and developed insights over time.

ESS is run within Dalhousie’s ‘College of Sustainability’, which was set up as a new college to run the programme around a decade ago. The programme very much sits within its community, with other outward-facing activity. There are public lectures every Thursday night (providing a topic for students’ Friday classes, ensuring good attendance), Monday morning coffee mornings (how I came to make the link) and a Sustainability Leadership Certificate open to all current students and graduates.

Around 500 students have graduated over the past decade, going on to develop social enterprises like Halifax’s first zero waste shop, or working on sustainability within government, in businesses via graduate recruitment schemes or the voluntary sector. They keep in touch with their Alumni, drawing on them as guest speakers and using their future work to show where the programme can take you. This provides reassurance for parents who are sometimes concerned (or at least curious) about the career prospects for someone doing a vocational sustainability degree.

Read more University courses to develop sustainability changemakers – how they do it at Dal

Why choose a slow way to cross the Atlantic? Or ‘How we ended up on a cargo ship for a week’

I’m currently away travelling in North America for 6 months and got there by travelling on a cargo ship from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia (see here for a sister post describing the voyage)

I was motivated to choose this mode by considering my personal impact on climate change. Was this a misguided idea given that they’re powered by bunker fuel, or a smart low-carbon choice? I’ll explain how me and my partner came up with this decision below.

The Context: Travel and Aviation

With apologies for sporadic referencing of the ideas informing my thinking, here’s my rationale for questioning long-haul flights for personal travel in 3 steps…

1: I know from many (enjoyably geeky) years of looking into the numbers of my personal impact on climate change that taking a long-haul flight means taking responsibility for emitting a great deal of carbon dioxide. For example, a return flight from London to the west coast of America would mean more than 2 tonnes of CO2 on my balance sheet. (Try out a carbon calculator for your whole lifestyle or just for flights if you’re curious.) This compares to the UK average carbon footprint of around 9 tonnes a year (more if you consider the impact of overseas manufacturing for products consumed here).

2: To have the best chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5° to avoid some of the worst impacts of a changing climate, we need to be getting down to something like 1-3 tonnes per year, the faster the better. Now, that carbon budget is for everything – heating our homes, travelling to work, food, consumer goods, so that’s not an easy ask! Some areas of life, like generating energy and urban mobility, have technological solutions that are going mainstream (like solar PV, bikeshare schemes, electric vehicles) that offer us good cause to hope to decarbonise. But for rapid long-haul aviation for the mass market it doesn’t look like there’s a techno-fix on the horizon – my understanding is that it’s likely to get more efficient and a small number of flights might sustainably(?) use biofuel, but most flights would still engender a large carbon footprint.

Read more Why choose a slow way to cross the Atlantic? Or ‘How we ended up on a cargo ship for a week’

Transatlantic on a Cargo Ship

Boarding the ship
Off we go – up the ramp into the unknown world of sea freight

I travelled with my partner Jessie from Liverpool to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada on a Cargo Ship in September, as the first part of six months away in North and Central America.

It wasn’t just for the experience (though that was good!), it was a conscious choice to find an alternative to the typical carbon-intensive transport mode, a long-haul flight.

So how was it? First up, some frequently asked questions, as I’ve answered them a lot in the past three weeks…

  1. How long did it take? Six and a half days.
  2. How did you sort it out? Via an agency, (other agencies are available too!). They let you know about costs, dates and sort your booking with the freight operator.
  3. How much did it cost? 825 euros each (about £720). Around £100 per day to be at sea on a cargo ship is typical.
  4. How many passengers were there? Just 8 on our trip. There’s a legal limit of 12 passengers – any more than that and a cargo ship needs to have a doctor on board
  5. Was it rough? Did you get seasick? Nope, we had basic but comfortable accommodation. No one was seasick – I took the occasional motion sickness tablet to take the edge off the first signs, but I’d have been OK without.

You can read something about our rationale in a blog post here – this post is to share some photos and facts about the experience.

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“ESDG” – addressing the Global Goals via developing sustainability competencies in higher education

At the recent AASHE2018 conference in Pittsburgh, which drew 2000 people to discuss sustainabilty in higher education, I came across a new acronym that gave me a useful lightbulb moment: ESDG.

Universities across the globe, including my own, are rightly starting to focus their attention on addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. These include acting to eliminate hunger and poverty, reducing societal inequalities, ensuring free and fair elections and a lot more. Universities might contribute via their teaching, research and public engagement work, and have a key role in relation to Goal 4 on Education, and Target 4.7 (below).

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

As the SDGs were being formulated, the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was coming to a close. As a result, ESD is a well-established (though of course, hotly debated) set of principles and practices for understanding and implementing sustainability education, in universities and elsewhere. DESD was followed by UNESCO’s Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, expressed via a Roadmap published by UNESCO. As this was published prior to the SDGs, I gather from an AASHE session that work is underway to explicitly link the SDGs to GAP.

So, with much of the new push for action for sustainability in universities focusing on the SDGs, how can this also incorporate the insights developed on ESD over recent years?

The idea of “ESDG”, which I first heard at AASHE offers a helpful bridge – meaning the kind of education that will support the achievement of the Global Goals.

How to make this concept tangible for university staff and students looking to make ESDG happen? My initial thinking is to suggest working with two main conceptual frameworks: the SDGs and Core Competencies for sustainable development.

Read more “ESDG” – addressing the Global Goals via developing sustainability competencies in higher education

Designing a regional support structure for local sustainability groups

Local voluntary groups such as Transition initiatives can do excellent work to develop projects around local food, renewable energy and more. But what kind of network and support structure can help them to thrive?

I took part in a really engaging one-day workshop at Graceworks in Leicester on Saturday 17th June that explored that issue. The workshop was led by Richard Couldrey (conducting Masters research on this topic) and Mike Thomas (from the Transition Network). Our workshop focussed on the East Midlands, with people attending from Transition Leicester, Transition Lincoln and groups in Melbourne, Chesterfield, Belper, Horncastle, Loughborough, Market Harborough and Nottingham.

The discussion around what enables and holds back grassroots action brought up a lot of familiar themes, such as the challenge of recruiting volunteers, of good group dynamics making or breaking voluntary projects and how a supportive local authority can be a great help.

Five main themes emerged around what a regional support network might do: linking out to other organisations (either other sectors or on a national/international scale); sharing stories (case studies and otherwise); sharing resources and knowledge; staying connnected; using a Permaculture, systems-thinking ethos to design the network.

My lightbulb moment during the day was about the concept of social learning. That is, I see sharing resources/knowledge/stories and staying connected as two sides of the same coin, in that they are done through relationships and interaction of some sort (whether face-to-face or online). You could call this ongoing process social learning.

As someone looking to support social learning for sustainability in Leicester and the wider region, this reaffirms for me the value of organising face-to-face get togethers and online learning spaces.

Interestingly, we all agreed that catching up was valuable, and yet without the initiative to do so coming from the outside (from the Transition Network), it wasn’t on anyone’s to-do list to organise. I left with the intention of contributing to that “convening” role locally, through this blog and events at DMU.