Experiential Education: The Future Of Sustainability

the-future-of-sustainabilityTuesday evening saw the launch of the innovative new Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) based at the University of Cumbria. Hosted by the Royal Geographical Society and titled ‘Adventures in Sustainability’, an audience of sustainability professionals, students and enthusiasts were treated to talks from a range of leaders in the field to discuss the future of sustainability.

Ed Gillespie of Futerra Sustainability Communications spoke engagingly of the need to take a “doom and bloom” approach to the urgent problems we face and called on us to enlist the “contagious” power of hope. We heard from Dr Kate Rawles’ about her intrepid 4553 mile cycle ride along the spine of the Rockies, asking everyone she met along the way what they thought about climate change. Cutting the tethers of our electronic lives and stepping out of our “spreadsheet mentality” and into the wild was the advice offered by Daniel Start, author of cult classic ‘Wild Swimming’. He was followed up by 1 Giant Leap producer Jamie Catto’s provocative accusation that we are all “approval addicts”, a charge that may help us to examine why ‘business as usual’ is still the norm despite the enormous environmental threat ahead of us.

Education was the theme of the evening: for Jem Bendell, Founding Director of IFLAS and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, it is an essential part of the toolkit for building a sustainable future. With his new institution, Bendell seeks to “provide business people with transformational experiences in nature”. The stunning scenery of the Lake District acts as the perfect backdrop for this experiential approach to learning.

Cumbria is not the only institution hoping to generate the next pioneers of sustainability. In September 2011, Exeter University launched its One Planet MBA with the backing of a roster of corporate partners including Coca-Cola, IBM, Lloyds Banking Group and Sony. Its cutting edge programme includes modules on everything from sustainability in supply chains to biomimicry. And as proof that education really can create leaders in this sphere, the evening’s own Ed Gillespie is a star graduate of Forum for the Future’s long-running Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development.

But of course, educating young people now to become leaders in the future is a long-term solution. And unfortunately, the environmental problems we face are all too short-term. Just this month, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere passed the symbolic marker of 400 parts per million. If we are to successfully transition to a low carbon economy, we need businesses and policy-makers to take action now, implementing effective sustainability strategies and instilling a climate-conscious culture. This means reaching and educating those already at the top. We simply don’t have time to wait for the enlightened to rise up the ranks.

There are a number of sustainability consultancies doing stellar work examining companies’ culture and strategy, working with them towards a greener future. Separately, there are many organisations offering team-building and executive training in outdoor settings. What there isn’t much of, yet, is a combination of the two. Drawing on Bendell’s approach, this seems like a crucial gap in the sustainability education market. IFLAS is running a graduate course for those already in the corporate world and the social enterprise Embercombe provides experiential executive training in its bucolic Exeter valley: these are admirable programmes, but we need to see many more institutions and companies getting courageously creative and back not to the shop floor, but to nature. That is, after all, what environmental sustainability is all about.

Paul Rose, Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, opened the evening by saying that with a population of 7 billion, we have become a force of nature, “and yet we’ve never been so removed from it”. Time will tell whether institutions like IFLAS can remedy this and – in the words of Gillespie – get sustainability “sizzling”.

You can find out more about IFLAS at its website here

About the Author Emily Kenway

Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.

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