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Framing the sustainability challenge: Part 1: Grounding our work in our Singapore context

Nathan Hunt, Former Director of Sustainability, UWCSEA
4 December 2017

In the words of the new UWC Strategy, how do we live up to the pledge to ‘Teach the right thing – do the right thing’?1 In a series of articles on Sustainability (of which this is the first) we hope to show some of the development of thinking and planning that the College is undergoing to address this challenge. This is not just to showcase our efforts or justify our actions but a means of bringing wider and more critical engagement into the issue from our whole community. For it is not too dramatic a claim to say that the entire integrity of UWCSEA depends on us successfully dealing with this challenge and, it might be argued, the fate of the world too. For if we, with all our financial and intellectual resources and commitment to shared values cannot succeed, then who will?

This first article outlines the scope and context of the challenge ahead and how our conceptual understanding of Sustainability is developing. Subsequent ones will show how this thinking is being embedded in our Learning Programme, its implications for our wider community of parents and alumni, as well as for our buildings and operations.

A global and local challenge

Firstly then, the scope and context: what frames our perspective and shapes our desire and capability to act? Those in our community will have heard references to the centrality of our mission many times. But it is worth reiterating, because many of our parents, teachers and students might have a perfectly understandable scepticism of the role of schools in addressing global issues, when the more pressing issues of achieving competence in Mathematics, making friends, teaching how to write, or getting accepted at a good university might seem to be the most germane to our daily experience. We will explore more reasons why we think the two are perfectly compatible later in this series, but we have said our ambition is not to become a great international school, but a great UWC and that means having a consistent, dedicated focus on the movement’s mission. Educating for Peace and Sustainability is what defines us. It is not our Corporate Social Responsibility or the extra we do on top of academics, sport, etc. It is the sole reason for our existence.

As well as being guided by our global outlook as part of the UWC movement, we also view the world from a local context, and the challenge that Singapore itself faces brings our quest even sharper into focus. Singapore’s ambition to ensure its own transition to a sustainable society where it can deliver continued economic prosperity while safeguarding its quality of life and the natural environment on which much of this depends, is the main focus of national strategy. And in aspiring South East Asia where population and economic growth are dominant factors, the challenge, just like that of the growing UWC movement, is particularly acute. For despite the incredible technological commitments to resource reduction that Singapore is famous for (our own campuses are examples of this), the large ecological footprint of Singapore (and UWCSEA) means its pathway to development is simply not globally replicable. At least not unless we have two spare planets. In a College that educates for a sustainable future, we need to be very clear that both the present states of the school and the nation and their current trajectory of growth are unsustainable; they are not yet models to follow. But the world is following. For, despite the warnings, the agreements, and the education about sustainability in the 25 years since the first Earth Summit in 1992, humanity’s ability to support its own development has reduced every year.

If this sounds like doom-mongering or a politically charged analysis of the state of the world not befit an institution aiming to inspire young people, it should be recognised that this interpretation is derived from a wide variety of distinguished global institutions all with different perspectives and all with ‘skin in the game’—their own actions will define whether the challenge is met or not. Some recent examples: the United Nations Environment Programme reports that the gap between the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions and that which we need to achieve to meet the ambition of the Paris Climate agreement remains worryingly wide. A recent report from Credit Suisse (an institution hardly known for its anti-capitalist critiques) shows that not only do 1% of the world’s population own over half the world’s wealth, but that this inequality is rising.

Given these realities it is no wonder that the Institute for New Economic Thinking has commissioned Nobel prize-winning economists such as Joseph Stiglitz to review the entire governance of the global economy so it can more successfully address issues like these. So while we will always highlight hope and the many positive stories of change, our framing of education for sustainability must come from a deep understanding of the current situation globally, nationally and within our own community. The achievements of the past are laudable, but they have created the very conditions that means business as usual is no longer possible.

A well-being approach

This is true for education as well as development and is one of the reasons why we have rethought our own understanding of sustainability. While many conceptual approaches exist in different courses at the College, we are trying to shift thinking by adopting the definition ‘Well-being for all within the means of Nature’ 2 across the curriculum. This moves the focus away from the notion that sustainability is about ‘saving the planet’—a conceptual short-cut that masks an arrogant assumption that we could destroy 4 billion years of evolution, let alone save it. It even moves away from the widely held concept that sustainability requires a three pillar—Environmental, Social and Economic—approach.

It is not that this framing has not been very useful, but it can reinforce several very misguided notions: that economies and societies are somehow separate from the environment, only occasionally overlapping in some idealised Venn diagram; and that it is desirable that they are sustained even when clearly they are not delivering the well-being that they are designed to do. Economic growth or social cohesion, so often seen as sustainability goals, do not necessarily guarantee well-being nor respect for planetary limits. The focus of the definition on well-being reminds us that this is the chief driver of human existence and that this is deeply connected to and ultimately limited by, the health of the planet’s ecosystems. 

A global partnership for a better world

Adapted from the UN graphic – The 5Ps of Sustainable Development.

Adapted from the UN graphic – The 5Ps of Sustainable Development.

Since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 we also have both a broader and more detailed framework for understanding sustainability and subsequently for us, our UWC mission. The United Nations’ five pledges underlying the concept of Sustainable Development (refer to diagram) highlight that achieving sustainability is as much a focus on reducing inequality and promoting human dignity as it is safeguarding the Earth’s living systems. The greater resonance for the UWC movement is that the UN has shown through the preamble to its agenda that the goal of Peace is inextricably linked to the other elements, “There is no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development” 3 and indeed that integration of all these elements is necessary for the agenda to be realised. Furthermore they stress the need for a true global partnership to work towards sustainable development—we will need to collaborate across borders and disciplines to realise the agenda—and this speaks powerfully to us as a community and as a movement with a global reach. (In the next article on sustainability practice at UWCSEA, we will show how this understanding is being embedded across our Learning Programme.)

If achieving those hugely ambitious goals by the 2030 target seems daunting and our own organisational and individual efforts irrelevant by comparison, it is worth remembering that personal transformation, whether by leaders or followers has always been the key to collective change even if this seems to happen invisibly. So, please, share this think piece in order to extend the conversation so we can expand our impact using those same resources and start working towards solving one of the major challenges of the 21st Century.