HSS hosts Conference on Sustainability in Education

By Chen En Jiao 

In a drive to nurture leaders able to meet future challenges, the Environment and Sustainability Research Cluster of NTU brought presenters from 17 different countries and representatives from eight ASEAN nations, plus China, Japan, India, South Korea and Hong Kong (via Skype) together to the Nanyang Executive Centre from 27-28 February 2014 to explore pedagogical themes, sustainability practices and cross-disciplinary conceptualisations of sustainability.

Funded and held in conjunction with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), NTU, to mark the 10th anniversary of HSS, the “Sustainability in Education: Pedagogical Themes and Practices in Asian Countries” workshop featured Prof Sing C. Chew, Humboldt State University, California, USA, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig, Germany, Founding Editor of Nature and Culture, as the keynote speaker.

Prof Chew opened his lecture with a provocative question: “In this postmodern world with increasing scarcity of natural resources, ecological degradation, biodiversity crisis, and global warming pervading our environment, what is higher education for?”

According to him, higher education exists to generate and disseminate knowledge, which can help provide solutions to problems we face as a global society. However, the character of our knowledge and the uses we put it to also have implications for sustainability.

“Higher education in the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and Sozialwissenschaften (social sciences) has largely been shaped by the drive to extend our domination of the planet to the fullest so that ‘all can benefit’ from this modern/postmodern era that we have attained in socioeconomic and political development,” said Prof Chew.

However, he is hopeful that the increasing momentum of the “weightless economy”, in which Google and Facebook are prime movers, can offer possibilities for a future where prosperity is maintained while material consumption is diminished.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, the predominant concern raised was our human ability to save ourselves, to offer an alternative narrative on sustainability. Prof Chew felt that at the end of the day, “people will have to go through levels of sustainable practice from awareness to consciousness to mobilisation, but these are personal choices to be made”.

In panel sessions over the two days of the workshop, alternative approaches of teaching sustainability were continually explored. Ideas and capacities around education for sustainability were also actively discussed. Talks ranged from strategies promoting engaged student learning in Thailand and Indonesia, the need to consider and preserve the Rohinngya ethnic minority experiencing oppression in Burma (Myanmar) to prevent further environmental and social disruption, origins of environmental NGOs in the Philippines, concepts of anthropocentrism, ecocentrism and their relation to “weak” and “strong” sustainability models in economics to the constraints of exam-centered educational cultures in Korea and Singapore.

A volume consisting of a review of the current situations, conceptual foundations and best practices in education for sustainability in Asia will also be published for those keen to learn more.