sustainability is an ominous endeavor. What is it? What pedagogy
might be used? How do we invite the entire community to learn
together? These questions challenge us as we try to develop courses
that might bring the complexity and messiness of sustainability
to a diverse group of learners. Is it easier to take sustainability
in chunks, perhaps being moderately interdisciplinary, but without
trying to be totally transdisciplinary (i.e. going between and
beyond academic boundaries to integrate perspectives from scientific
and non-scientific disciplines)? What department might have the
whole picture of sustainability in its view? How would one even
get a degree in sustainability studies? What would such a degree
colleague Dr. Laurie Thorp and I threw off the straight-jacket
these tough questions wrapped us in and chose to use the Earth
Charter as a vehicle for discussing and venturing into the ideas
and ideals of sustainability. The Earth Charter (www.earth
charter.org or www.earthcharterusa.org)
is an ethical framework for a more just, peaceful, and ecologically
sound world. As part of the unfinished business of the 1992 Rio
Earth Summit, the Earth Charter Initiative was restarted in May
of 1995 when the Earth Council, led by Maurice Strong (Secretary
General of the Earth Summit), and Green Cross International, led
by Mikhail Gorbachev (former President of the Soviet Union), and
the Dutch government hosted an international meeting in The Hague.
This meeting led to the organization of a global consultation
process and the formation of an international drafting team. This
Drafting Committee, led by Professor Steven Rockefeller, released
the final version of the Earth Charter in 2000. The Earth Charter
is the result of a global consultation process that has involved
thousands of individuals and organizations. It has also received
the endorsement of the International Earth Charter Commission,
composed of eminent persons from around the world. The Earth Charter
process is coordinated and supported by an international Secretariat
at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.
Charter is now being circulated throughout the world as a "people's
treaty" promoting the awareness of and commitment to the
values necessary to create a sustainable future. It has been endorsed
by more than 1,800 organizations glo-bally, includ-ing most leading
environmental organizations, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the
World Parliament of Religions, the International Association of
Universities, the Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership,
the NGO Millennium Forum, the International Council for Local
Environmental Initiatives, UN University, and the University for
Peace. The number of governments endorsing the Charter is relatively
small but growing rapidly, and includes the Republic of Tatarstan,
all 99 municipalities in Jordan, and, in the U.S., the cities
of Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, and others.
Earth Charter is a set of principles that focus on our responsibilities
to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future
generations, as a counter-balance to our often-voiced rights.
These principles are formulated around four key themes:
Respect and Care for the Community of Life,
2) Ecological Integrity,
3) Social and Economic Justice,
4) Democracy, Nonviolence and Peace.
these four themes are sixteen principles that cover the elements
Earth Charter draftees deem necessary to create a sustainable
future. They embody, as many students in the course suggested,
a hope, an ideal for which to aim. While they can be looked upon
separately and distinctly, the power of the principles is in their
wholeness. Needless to say, the real world constantly presents
situations where these principles are in conflict with current
realities. The principles are not arranged in order of priority,
but all are weighted equally. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they
tell us what we should do, not what we shouldn't do.
In Spring 2001 we offered this course through our Resource Development
Department within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
although we also had the opportunity to run it through the College
of Social Science. Funding was the determining factor. RD491 is
a three-credit course on "Special Topics." It was open
only to juniors and seniors, although we were willing to waive
that requirement. Nonetheless, that prerequisite served to reduce
the number of enrollees. This course is not a required course
but can be used to satisfy a social science requirement.
a 15-week semester we simply couldn't cover a principle a week,
although we were able to do so with the last 12 principles. We
decided instead to address the first four principles collectively
under "Respect and Care for the Community of Life" as
these values form the foundation for the other 12. This allowed
us to address and discuss expectations for the class, the syllabus,
and to introduce the history and development of the Earth Charter
without giving a whole period to either of these items.
course was developed with a great deal of thought regarding the
appropriate pedagogy to use. As we state in the syllabus:
believe that you cannot talk about global sustainability without
including our current system of education as part of the equation.
The present patterns of distanced, abstract, and objectified
teaching and learning only serve to perpetuate a way of knowing
and being that is detrimental to planet Earth and her inhabitants.
This course has been purposefully designed as an alternative
model for students, teachers and the subject to come together
in a meaningful way. In developing this course we have designed
and deep reflection rather than rote memorization of information;
and engagement rather than passive receptivity;
self-expression rather than one-size-fits-all assignments;
self-assessment rather than multiple guess tests with one right
construction of meaning through dialogue rather than lobbying
for position with debate and discussion.
course will focus on the Earth Charter document as a vehicle
for personal, institutional, community, national and
course met twice a week for an hour and 20 minutes. The first
session of each week featured a speaker or group of speakers addressing
a specific principle of the EC. From each speaker or set of speakers
we requested short recommended readings. We compiled these readings
into a course pack. The second class meeting of the week was a
discussion session based upon the readings and the presentation
given earlier in the week. Each student was expected to participate
in a semester-long project of engagement with the Earth Charter
document in their community. These projects were chronicled through
the compilation of a praxis portfolio. In addition, students
had to complete two short reflective essays and their attendance
also counted toward the final grade.
of our early dilemmas was deciding whether to rely on local or
nationally recognized speakers. In an earlier course we chose
principally out-of-town speakers, which cost more money and took
a lot more time to plan for logistics, travel, lodging, etc. However,
we were concerned that involving predominantly outsiders devalued
the local. The course conveners brainstormed in a small group
to come up with both local and national figures who we thought
would address the individual principles well. The final list included
primarily campus and local folks, including some students, with
just a few presenters from out of the area. Aside from recommending
pertinent readings, speakers were urged to engage the students
beyond simply lecturing on the topic.
projects were to be determined by the student with the approval
of the instructors. We compiled a list of possibilities and contacts
on campus and in the immediate community. Students could choose
from the list or suggest an alternative. They were given two weeks
to make a choice and to submit it to us for review over a weekend.
Students were also given a set of expectations and criteria by
which their involvement and recording of that involvement would
be evaluated. Students were required to schedule a meeting with
their instructors during the middle of the term to check on the
progress of their project and to seek advice and or ask questions.
This was based on the assumption that there might be a need to
reframe individual projects, or at least to ensure that progress
was being made. We also spent a session talking about the criteria
and listening to student voices on how to apply the criteria as
we evaluated their projects.
As I write this article more than a year after the conclusion
of the course it is still easy for me to reflect on a number of
the sessions that had a life of their own. There was the visit
by Fr. Peter Dougherty, a leader of the Michigan Peace Team who
had recently returned from Palestine, where the peace team was
bearing witness to nonviolence by putting themselves between Palestinians
and Israelis. He addressed nonviolence as one of the principles
of the charter and spoke of his own life journey that connected
him to nonviolence during the Vietnam War. There was some very
heated discussion regarding the view of the Palestinian/Israeli
conflict. Fr. Dougherty, while outspoken about the violence on
both sides, saw the Palestinian position as that of an occupied
state where citizens live in poverty and have little freedoms.
Some students could not distinguish his "pro-Palestinian"
position from his nonviolence and were more interested in getting
the historical record straight. Fr. Dougherty's refrain throughout
the class was that "we are all broken and beautiful"
and that we are all brothers and sisters. When he told his tales
of involvement in nonviolent protests and civil disobedience over
his lifetime, the students were clearly moved by the stories,
and by the power that nonviolence can have. His ability to give
flesh to the bones of an idea was written about later by a number
Peter Plastrik, author of several books on democracy, opened the
eyes of the class to different ways of looking at democracy. He
brought a healthy skepticism towards the Earth Charter with him,
asking us to look at the assumptions in the Earth Charter and
really assess them. Several students were up to defending the
EC and he relished the opportunity to challenge them with tough
questions. One of the ideas he shared was the role of "private
democracy," which looks at the marketplace and how we vote
within it, as well as what he called "civic democracy,"
where we volunteer our time or make donations. Peter was persuasive
in his insistence that democracy was not simply voting, writing
letters to representatives, and working on election campaigns,
although those are important. He challenged us to consider that
the ways in which we spend our money and time are also votes in
a democracy. Many of us found this idea engaging and we spent
the next day talking about the nature of the choices we make every
day. Peter also had us consider whether "democracy mimics
nature." Is there equality in nature? Majority rule in nature?
Representation in nature? There was much food for thought in his
the most engaging session was conducted by a panel of faculty
on the issue of animal welfare. After they opened up the session
with a brief review of the issues, they had the students role
play on the issue of controlling deer populations. Students were
asked to play the roles of hunters, government regulators, farmers,
environmentalists, township officials, etc. The exercise of role
playing brought many of the issues to the forefront and allowed
people to see how they felt from different positions. Initially,
many of the students were reluctant to play, but some of them
soon took on the roles seriously and it was both fun and informative.
session brought a different kind of engagement around an Earth
Charter principle or set of principles and students explored some
of the ways in which principles could be in conflict.
We had 26 students representing a wide variety of majors including
political theory, building construction management, anthropology,
urban planning, environmental studies and philosophy. We had one
graduate student, but otherwise a mix of undergraduates from freshmen
to seniors. No one was familiar with the Earth Charter when we
began. After reviewing the EC for their first assignment, it was
clear that while students found the principles affirming, many
felt the EC was "too utopian." This raised an early
concern for at least one of the instructors as we wanted the course
to be "empowering." We wanted students to feel that
they can make a difference, that they can change the world. The
"utopian" concern arose from folks already feeling quite
cynical about the world.
speakers gave an array of performances. Some had very polished
Powerpoint presentations, others relied on simple notes and some
short readings. Still others organized panels, many brought questions
for the students to ponder, and one group developed a scenario
exercise and assigned roles to all students to act out. We think
the variety of presentation types was a strength of the course.
Some loved the role play sessions, others did not. Some really
enjoyed the Powerpoint presentations, others found them too formal.
Several speakers were mentioned time and again as the ones most
compelling. In each case it was a speaker who was actually working
with the issue in the real world: a social worker, two elementary
school teachers, a consultant, and a leader of a peace team. They
were each passionate about their work and told personal stories
that made the principles come alive. The instructors are believers
in the power of narrative and storytelling. The responses of these
students reaffirms that belief. The instructors shared stories
and poems aloud with students throughout the course to reaffirm
the power and beauty of the spoken word.
power of the course was most noticeable in the student semester
projects and the weekly discussion sessions. In the course evaluations
these strengths were emphasized. Student projects were of their
own choice and we encouraged them to pick something they were
passionate or deeply curious about for project areas. Students
worked in school gardens, literacy programs, underprivileged tutoring
programs, studied green building standards, developed recycled
products lists, organized a regional collegiate conference on
global warming, raised consciousness on eating meat, studied and
performed with an international dance for peace effort, and so
on. Of particular note were those students who stumbled into projects
with some ambivalence, yet experienced significant impact. They
learned more about themselves and the complexities of life in
a much deeper fashion than the typical classroom could offer,
for they lived their projects. The freedom to express their projects
through different media was also a delightful surprise. We had
more typical poster sessions and displays, a long essay, a binder
loaded with reflections and photos, a couple of Powerpoint presentations,
and a video. The presentations were generally first rate and revealing.
We had the students share their projects through a "share
fair" with each other on the last day of classes. Thus students
were able to view not only the content of the other projects,
but also the depth and variability of presentation modes.
discussion sessions usually focused on the topic covered earlier
in the week at the featured presentation. However, we occasionally
stepped outside that format through a checking-in process where
students related what was generally on their mind at that time.
We met outside on a few occasions and on one day in particular
we ended up playing a children's game in the botanical gardens.
Ideas were characteristically challenged with respect, and differing
perspectives were welcomed, although there was some initial reluctance
to go against the "groupthink" that sometimes arose.
Instructors would raise questions to probe different ideas and
to challenge "groupthink." This was needed less as the
semester advanced, as questions came to be generated by the students
was amazed at the generally positive energy that the Earth Charter
stimulated. There were a number of cynics in the course, who tended
to soften their cynicism somewhat as the course developed. There
was one week in which a presentation on hunger and schools led
to students wanting to take on the local school board over the
inadequate food program at a nearby school. Activism typified
much of the discussion and projects. Yet there were clear differences
among student values. The highly idealistic students learned how
much more complicated their key issues were. Environmental activists
learned to consider and balance the social and economic factors,
while the social justice activists began to look at environmental
and economic elements with more openness.
course group was small enough that personal connections were made
between them, and new and deeper relationships were built. The
atmosphere that was created in the classroom was among the best
by-products of the course for many students. Age and background
differences enhanced the exchange in discussions as students learned
to challenge stereotypes. Perhaps one of the strongest outcomes
was the effect on the instructors. The present author has been
inspired to promote the Earth Charter beyond the course, starting
a local Earth Charter study group. The other instructor has expanded
her own work with school gardens and is offering a single-credit
Earth Charter course for new students this semester. Neither of
these outcomes was expected. Perhaps the true power of the Earth
Charter is as a fertile ground where many good things may bloom.
Link is director of the Michigan State University office of Campus
Sustainability, a librarian, and an activist. He co-founded the
American Library's Task Force on the Environment, sits on the
boards of several environmental organizations, and feels we need
to address the role of violence and it's antithesis, nonviolence,
in our future sustainability work.
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