Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Sustainability: Connecting the Environment, the Economy, and Society.

Reviewed by: Alice Cassidy, University of British Columbia and In View Education and Professional Development

Where does your morning coffee come from?  I mean, starting from the bean on the tree, and from a variety of considerations:  geographical, cultural, ethical, ecological, chemical… Think about it, and then go read this book to see how you could invite your students to not only think about it, but also calculate it, act upon it, and more.

This book is dedicated to the planet, because it sustains and inspires us. And to the teachers and learners who carry the tradition on. I thought the first part of that dedication was a touch corny at first. But upon reading this slim volume that is jam-packed with good ideas, I decided that the dedication was very sincere. These authors, as well as those who wrote the forwards and afterwords care about this planet we live on, and they show us myriad ways that we can help our students care too.

Whether you want to infuse a little or a lot of sustainability into your course, regardless of discipline, or you are looking for some new ways to be interactive and reflective, this book, organized into 17 theme chapters and with each tip numbered (let’s see, 17 into 147… that is about 8 tips per chapter) will help you.

The first chapter, Defining Sustainability, starts to tackle this now common, but not always easily definable or agreed-upon term. Hey, I once left halfway through a day-long meeting because the 25 people in the room wanted one definition and could not agree on it! In the Sustainability Education Intensive (SEI) that my colleagues and I designed, we provide a selection of definitions ( and ask participants to use a questions worksheet to guide them through the various perspectives.

Sustainability can be defined as a version of the following: [To meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (United Nations General Assembly. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.)

My only real quibble about the book is that it focuses almost exclusively on an American perspective, referring to the history of environmental policy in the United States, and with most of specific examples or references from…. you guessed it. I would not mention it, except that, after all, the book is dedicated to the planet. Some exceptions apply:  I found a tip referring to a World Bank address; another to Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, with examples from various societies; and one citing a film, Thirst, about the world’s water supply. We also see the Talloires Declaration, a 10-point action plan for incorporating sustainability and environment literacy in teaching, research, operations and outreach, signed by over 350 presidents and chancellors in over 40 countries. Check it out at A total of 37 post-secondary institutions in Canada have signed. Is yours there?

But, speaking of our fine country, how does the term “ecological footprint” appear in 4 tips (a tip index helps direct the reader) without noting that it was coined and first developed in Canada, based on work done by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia?

In his forward, Anthony Cortese imagines a time when “the educational experience of all students is aligned with the principles of sustainability.” (p. xiii) He presents five elements that would need to be in place, including such concepts as interdisciplinary systems thinking,  and “making human/environment interdependence, values and ethics a seamless and central part of teaching all disciplines” (p. xiii). I really like these, plus the others that have a lot in common with good teaching practice that promotes learning; things such as active, experiential learning, a focus on real-world complex problems, the importance of forming partnerships with communities and of course practicing and doing, not just reading, talking, listening.

The 147 tips will help you with the very thing of inviting your students to practise aspects of sustainability. Here are a few examples that I really like, partly because I can see the applicability to a variety of disciplines and contexts. I present the tip number, so you can easily find it when you buy your copy:

9. Look to history for moments when different beliefs and values aligned to fashion more sustainable solutions.

15. Identify steps in the life cycle of a natural product or in the process flow of a business or home (this refers to the coffee question I posed at the start.)

16. Examine how capitalist and democratic ideals and sustainable practices interact with each other. There is so much potential here – reference to the recent Occupy movements, political systems, financial markets…

33. Take a tour of your campus or town and note what buildings embody the wisdom of building structures that use nature’s laws as models [read about the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system at]

43. Explore what informs revered leaders (the possibilities for assignments or in-class activities around this are huge!)

53. Contemplate a daily routine and note the sustainable and unsustainable aspects. Could any be adjusted or eliminated? How?

58. Write a letter:  take a stand on an issue important to you and write to a newspaper, government official, or?  I know of university courses where this is an assignment; what a great way to connect academia with the world in which we live.

Well, I could go on; after all I have only gotten up to about a third of the tips. I encourage you to take a look, whether you focus on a chapter at a time (pick from Personal Responsibility and Empowerment, Learning Through Experience, Effective Communication, and 14 more), or leaf through, you will see 1-2 paragraph tips that I know you will want to try in your next teaching or facilitating event.

I hope that, like the book, I have convinced you that sustainability is everywhere, from the moment we get up in the morning. It can connect to any course, and it should. It links theory and practice; it shows us that each of us can make a difference. Enjoy your coffee.

1 comment:

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