Sustainability: An integrative vision

CANADELL, Àngels (2010)

In this article Àngels Canadell, coordinator of the GUNI Report Higher Education in the World 4, explains the need of an integrative vision to advance sustainability and the possible education’s contribution on this.

One of the greatest challenges faced by education for sustainability is to supplant our fragmented, dual vision of reality, in which our approach to society, people and nature is that of subjects before objects that can be manipulated to suit our interests.

The distance created by this vision is a major obstacle that must be overcome if the knowledge we acquire is to have genuine power to change, since it precludes interaction with experience and conditions the way in which we interact with others and manipulate knowledge, treating them simply as means to an end.
To acknowledge this conditioning we must first recognise that the advancement of knowledge is not achieved by mere speculation and that it must be integrated into daily life, into the experience of interacting with others.
The classical model of science grew through the development of a mathematical and technological interpretation of the world, which has provided man with numerous benefits but is now reaching the limits of its own potential, revealed as deficient in its interaction with society and with nature. One of the principal flaws of this model is its disregard for the intangible risks and consequences of its own application.
The history of civilisations is marked by collective issues that society strives to resolve in different eras. Education must maintain a genuine link with the different social groups and assume the role of elucidating the challenges facing each generation and providing the knowledge through which they can be met.
Learning to view ourselves as part of a greater whole whose growth we contribute to through our everyday attitudes and thoughts is a step towards overcoming the endemic division between mind and reality, between the individual and community, and should be a compulsory aim of higher education and the research carried out therein. The use of different linguistic registers (e.g. emotional, scientific and social among others) is an important component of this process.
The fundamental environmental, social and economic challenges that have become the hallmarks of our time are underscored by the absence of a holistic vision of our social reality and of the place we really occupy on the planet.
It is time to revise our views, to learn to perceive reality as a whole of which we from part, as a complex, dynamic and systemic structure that can only function correctly if we respect its limits, its patterns of reproduction, its rhythms of growth, its channels of cooperation and the symbiosis between different living ecosystems. We must understand human society as just one of a large number of interacting natural and cultural systems.
Interpreting human actions through their relation to the environmental behaviour of the planet – learning to adapt this behaviour to create the state of equilibrium needed to maintain the world around us – must be a fundamental concern in education for sustainability. But to bring about this change we must be able to perceive our knowledge as part of the broader framework of planetary processes to which we belong.
What do we need to learn?
We have reached a high level of technological development and are confident that the scope of this development is sufficient to meet our needs and overcome our limitations. However, it is impossible for this growth to continue without deterioration. Equilibrium is the first criterion through which to identify whether a person or an ecosystem is growing healthily. Through cycles of growth, maturation and renewal, nature demonstrates that temporal rhythms are connected across the planet and that each organism maintains a consistent pattern of reproduction and an organisational structure that that guarantee its stability and provide scope for innovation.
Although our growth over the last two hundred years has fostered the belief that we can move outside the laws of nature, and though we once believed that progress consisted in creating an entirely human world, the reality of our times has brought us back to earth, with the many limitations that this implies. We depend on the Earth for everything. Through food, the quality of the air, water and soil, the geography of different countries and communication with other species, the human community has found the only place in which its existence has meaning.
Yet the awareness of our dependence on the Earth should not be treated as a problem but rather as a means of understanding our place in nature. We are the air that we breathe, the water that we drink and the light that we reflect. Traditional cultures commonly perceived humans as inextricably linked to the Earth, as children of the plant rather than its lords.
We must pay heed to the lessons of the 20th century. It can no longer be argued that one culture is superior to another, and even less so that our civilisation has acted correctly in its interaction with other cultures. But though colonialism may no longer be a source of pride, the mentality on which it was founded continues to influence us.
The place of knowledge is directly linked to these lessons. Acknowledging the importance of cultural legacies foreign to our own and rationalising the planetary impact of our scientific and technological culture are ethical responsibilities of the coming generations. Both aims are subject to the forces of politics and economics, but education can provide the key to transformation.
Sustainability is taken to mean a series of economic and lifestyle changes whose principal aim is to maintain the conditions of life on our planet as they were prior to modern human development. The all-too-apparent threat of ecosystem collapse, the impact of climate change and the many manifestations of the global economic crisis have combined to make sustainability a universal goal.
From a long European tradition, we know that there is a substantial difference between knowledge and understanding, knowledge being a strictly rational process whereas understanding implies an act of identification with what is known. Our ancestors believed that we can only understand what we have loved, echoing the traditions of other cultures that draw no distinction between thought and action, between heart and mind. Knowledge belongs to the intellectual dimension, where it plays a fundamental role in clarifying our thoughts and decisions, but one of the most frequent assertions in Western thought is that our civilisation has reduced understanding to the level of rational knowledge, relegating intuition and experience to the realm of subjectivity. Through this process we have lost the ability to discern the path along which we are moving and to comprehend the scope of our actions.
We only understand that with which we have a direct involvement. Just as there can be no real dialogue if we are not truly receptive to the reality of others – if we do not accept that we are in fact one and the same and show a willingness to adapt to foreign perspectives – there can be no real knowledge without a notion of its tangibility, without which knowledge can never be more than largely dispensable information.
Sustainability rests on the interiority of knowledge, which, as a multi-dimensional concept, must integrate the different dimensions of existence, the different dimensions of life on our planet, the different languages through which learning is expressed... But this interiority must be roused, educated. To echo the ancient thinkers, education is the exteriorisation of interior knowledge, so we must learn to heed our inner voice if we are to find the path of wisdom. Yet this voice needs space and time in which to be heard, and we must find room in ourselves to listen.
The culture of sustainability derives from an awareness of the interdependence of all that exists, and this awareness is reached through the prior or simultaneous perception of life as whole of which we all form part.
There are many ways of transmitting the awareness of this whole, but all of them require us to adopt a more humble perception of the human position, in which our priorities are not to reach the dizzying heights of fame and power but rather to develop the self-knowledge through which we can convey the best of ourselves to others.
Higher education plays an important role in facilitating the transmission of the self to the human and planetary communities. A cultural shift is required in which individualism and competitiveness are secondary to learning to interact equitably with others. Our pride in science, which leaves no room for alternative ways of interpreting knowledge, must be tempered by respect for what we do not know.
The human community needs to make fundamental changes that alter the way in which we understand ourselves; external changes that concern the more respectful use of energy, conceptual changes that take in new forms of thought through which we can learn to value the collaborative construction of our world.

About the author

Àngels Canadell Prat holds a PhD. in Philosophy from the University of Barcelona with a thesis on "The notion of time in Raimon Panikkar”. She teaches at the University of Girona (Sustainability) and the University of Barcelona (Sociology of Religion). She chairs the Association Philosophy of Earth and Cultures, where she coordinates symposia and researches on philosophy of sustainability and intercultural philosophy. In addition, she forms part of the Sustainability, Technology and Humanism Group of the UNESCO Chair in Sustainability at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. In December 2009 she joined GUNI as a researcher and coordinator of the Report Higher Education in the World 4.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government