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Refocusing our sustainability lens: Reflecting on our future history

Chris Edwards, Former Head of College, UWCSEA
27 March 2019

Eco rangers on a mission at Dover campus

If you were to buy a single volume History of the World, my guess is the achievements of ancient Mesopotamia would get more paragraphs than those of the indigenous people of New Guinea. Given the former’s protean accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature and so forth, this is hardly surprising. When it comes to being seriously clever, the ancient Mesopotamians are rock stars. Only the Egyptians are likely to get more pages in those early chapters of our history book.

But the lens through which most people have looked at the past has remained unchanged for centuries. Even when I was very young, the word “sustainability” was never used at home or school. There’s a good reason for this: it didn’t exist until 1972. And so we never looked at the mighty civilisations through what we would now call “a sustainability lens”. If we had, we would have learned something interesting. Intensive agriculture was practised in Mesopotamia, and while it allowed for the development of the great cities, armies and bureaucracies we spent time studying, it also led to deforestation and diminishing yields. Nobody told us that. Amazingly, scholars now believe that from 2100 BC to 1700 BC, the population was reduced by nearly sixty percent. In other words, intensive agriculture helped precipitate catastrophe.

Now the people of New Guinea—who are more likely to appear in anthropology rather than history books—may not have created an alphabet, charted the heavens or built in stone, but they did figure out one thing the super-smart Mesopotamians seemingly missed: they practised shifting cultivation. This meant that when a field’s soil was exhausted or even overrun with weeds, it would be allowed to revert to its natural vegetation. The farmers of New Guinea would plant in other fields but might still harvest the fallow field and use its natural vegetation for medicine, tools or even clothes. They weren’t the only people to do this of course, but as we start taking a fresh look at what matters most in our troubled world we might want to give the people of New Guinea some space in our history book. Shifting cultivation brings its own problems—human behavioural patterns mean no system is perfect—but it represented an awareness, among other things, that the land demanded respect if a society was to sustain itself.

Let’s move forward a few thousand years and consider the lens through which people will look at the UWCSEA community and our efforts not to go the way of the Mesopotamians. As students around the world march and go on strike in order to draw attention to climate change, there are many people asking if our schools should be dealing more directly with the environmental challenges before us and whether the lens through which we should teach everything—or almost everything—should, for example, be the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states, delivery of the SDGs requires the partnership of governments, private sector, civil society and citizens alike to make sure we leave a better planet for future generations. And as I look at UWCSEA initiatives, many generated by the students themselves, I see not only a nascent awareness of the significance of the SDGs themselves but, crucially, development of the skills which will be necessary to help deliver the collaborative response demanded by the UNDP. While Goal 11, say,—Sustainable Cities and Communities—can be helped by isolated, individual action, its mighty drivers will, of course, be those people who can lead, marshal and collaborate with groups and individuals to effect profound change. In embryonic form, that is what I see here: through their often inspiring sustainability work, students of all ages are understanding and honing skills to deliver on still greater initiatives.

Another cause for hope at UWCSEA—though we must treat it with some caution at this stage—came from the exploratory, UWCSEA-based Harvard University work that led to the current impact study being conducted across all UWCs. Early observations (it’s too soon to call them “findings”) revealed that UWCSEA students saw environmental issues at the apex of the world’s problems, and while we can argue about why social justice or whatever didn’t get top spot (it did in at least one other UWC), it is encouraging to know our young people are engaged and thinking critically to the extent that they are.

I have just been looking at the some of the work of Dover’s Eco Rangers (Junior School children) and their Sustainable Resolutions for 2019. As yet, these young people are unknown to the wider world, and their scale of their work thus far is necessarily limited. But sooner than we can imagine, these students will soon be running banks, founding NGOs, playing in orchestras, teaching others, designing buildings. Let us hope, as the clock ticks, that the ethical choices they make as young adults inspire those around them to take notice and act. The signs are good.

Perhaps then, like the people of New Guinea, the current Eco Rangers and students like them can take their place in a history book yet to be written. Books where the cities, armies and bureaucracies take second place to a narrative of respect, engagement and survival.