IN the dialogue about staying sustainable in environmentally challenging times, there is a tendency to think about earth’s preservation through science. This is as it should be because scientific advances can bring about new and sustainable ways of living. In the automotive industry for example, cutting-edge technology has meant that conventional fuel cars are being replaced by the cleaner, environmentally-friendly electric car.
The replacement of fuel-powered vehicles for cheaper, battery-run vehicles has begun to take place in Europe and China. Yet, for all the scientific advancements, the estimated number of electric vehicles on these roads by 2025 remains unimpressive. European market share for electric vehicles has been estimated to only be at 3 per cent.
Why has fast-paced scientific advancement not brought on the desired transformation towards sustainable lifestyles in equal measure? Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid in his column (New Straits Times, July 24) acknowledged that although having scientific advancement is crucial for solving the problem of scarce resources, a reassessment to see this problem from a cultural and social perspective is called for.
To build on this call, the idea of sustainability as a social and cultural construct must also be located on a historical timeline. Thus, to make it easier to understand, we can look at this concept vis-a-vis past, present and future perspectives.
First, a look into the past. In antiquity, philosophers have long thought about man’s existence in relation with nature. Referred to as natural philosophers, thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle, or Newton and Locke, have contemplated about the relationships that human beings form with nature. For example, the view that reality is ‘out there’ and therefore independent of human interpretation versus reality being a co-construction of human action and interpretation are two opposing views that can shape attitudes differently.
The former view can be thought of as being exclusive while the latter is inclusive. The inclusive view argues for the idea that man and nature are interconnected and interdependent.
This is important to support perspectives that encourage living in sustainable ways. Entomologists and zoologist who hold the inclusive view have empirically documented the powerful connections that underlie man’s use of synthetic chemicals with the balance of insect and wildlife that both populate and sustain our land and seas.
The feminist environmentalist Rachel Carson was pivotal in championing what we see today as the modern, inclusive, environmentalist movement. Thus, from understanding our past, we can trace and follow the path to sustainability which has been charted.
Second and in the present time, the push to address climate change crisis has brought on a focused effort towards equipping children with environmental literacy. Again, this movement is not new because basic to our own science education is the learning of the life and energy cycles. However, what is new is a movement amongst Science literacy instructors i.e. teachers of Physical Science, Biological Science, Chemical Science,
Geographical Science to reclaim the space of environmental education from activists who may not have the pedagogical and technical know-how to impart specialist knowledge. This is important to note because it locates the responsibility of environmental education not just on the subject matter but on the sociocultural ways in which Science specialist teachers share, live and demonstrate their own sustainable living through the subjects they have been trained to teach.
This also means that the revival of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects must be accompanied by the teaching of Social Science and Humanities-based subjects that provide the context for how STEM is applied in new, challenging times. Linguistic, economic and historical knowledge are important building blocks that underpin how scientific knowledge can be best used. In this light, the significance of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) education should be the new pedagogical path for ensuring education for sustainable transformation.
Finally, in looking towards the future, the modern notion of sustainability, no doubt popularised by UNESCO’s 17 SDGs can be a new vehicle to further mobilise this long-standing concept of man-nature connectedness. However, merely bandying about catch phrases without asking difficult questions about our attitudes and our lifestyles will not get us very far.
Sustainability is fundamentally, about social and cultural transformation. Key to unlocking this transformation is holistic education that encompasses the Science, Social Science and Humanities.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Management and Humanities, Institute of Self Sustainable Building, Universiti Teknologi Petronas