ARTICLE BY ESTHER VALLADO | OCTOBER 25, 2022
SUSTAINABILITY AND LEARNING
in youth work
SUSTAINABILITY: A CONCERN FOR YOUNG PEOPLE!
“Sustainability is a societal goal that broadly aims for humans to safely co-exist on planet Earth over a long time. Even if there are 3 dimensions to sustainability: social, economical and environmental, in everyday usage of the term, sustainability is often focused on the environmental aspects.” (Wikipedia contributors, ‘Sustainability’).
The majority of young people nowadays are concerned about the state of our planet. We only have to see the results of the Eurobarometer 478, in which 67% of young people mentioned “protecting the environment and fighting climate change” as the top priority for the European Union in the years to come. Or the results of surveys such as this one conducted in 2021 on behalf of the University of Bath, UK, with 10,000 young people across ten countries, in which 59% of the respondents declared being very or extremely worried about climate change, over 50% feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty about it, and over 45% saying that these feelings negatively affected their daily life and functioning. According to the conclusions of this study, young people consider climate anxiety as a psychological stressor that is threatening their health and wellbeing.
The importance that young people give to sustainability was also put in relevance during the Youth Dialogue process, in which 50,000 young people from around Europe were involved. One of the outcomes of this EU Youth Dialogue was the formulation of 11 Youth Goals, one of which is “Sustainable and Green Europe”. These goals have been included in the EU Youth Strategy and have been taken into account in the development of EU youth programmes and policies.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF YOUTH WORK
Youth work has to respond and adapt to the needs and concerns of young people and support them in becoming healthy members of a community in which they can flourish, or at least not sink. Youth work needs to be helping them find ways to contribute actively to the construction of the kind of society in which they would like to live. If young people cannot access education, youth work provides them with non-formal educational activities. If they are suffering from STDs or unwanted pregnancies, youth work provides them with tailored advice and information on reproductive health. If they lack healthy leisure alternatives, youth work provides them with options for playing sports, games, and going on excursions…
These are some of the ways in which youth work has been responding over time to the emerging needs of young people. Now the majority of young people want a sustainable and green Europe and feel anxious about the climate crisis. Youth work has the responsibility to answer this call and help young people deal with the anxiety brought along by the climate crisis, and help them find their ways to contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable Europe.
SUSTAINABILITY AND LEARNING IN YOUTH WORK
In an earlier blog post in this series, Paul Klosterman gave some arguments for how learning is easier, more natural and attractive when the subject matter is of interest to the learners and has a practical use to them. With so many young people now concerned about sustainability, this has become a topic that can attract young people and stimulate them to learn many useful competences for life.
Learning about sustainability involves, among other things:
– Systems Thinking;
Systems thinking can be referred to as becoming aware of the interconnections between all the elements of our system. It is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. This is crucial in the current context of a global crisis, as systems thinking is a very good tool to develop effective action in complex systems such as the ones we are part of. Systems thinking also helps us understand that everything we do has an impact, sometimes of a magnitude and scale that we cannot predict, as we are not aware of all the relationships in the system.
– Building Relationships;
Caring about the relationship with ourselves, each other and the environment in which we live. A sustainable lifestyle involves keeping ourselves healthy in both body and mind, having satisfying relationships with other living beings (including people) and relating to our environment in a regenerative, nurturing way, so the conditions that allow for a comfortable life to happen can be maintained over time.
Self awareness and identifying the values we want to live by and the relationships we want to have. Knowing ourselves as an element of the bigger system, what we want our life to be about and how we want to relate with others makes us conscious functional parts of the whole.
– Critical Thinking;
Practicing critical thinking in order to uncover “greenwashing” is an important competence. There are many companies, organisations, governments… that sell their actions as “green” when in reality they are not. Critical thinking allows us to go beyond the messaging and analyse whether the green claims are true or not. This is important if we want to make choices towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
– Stimulating creativity;
This is key for designing the new elements and structures of a more life-sustaining society. The current way in which we have been making use of the Earth’s resources is not functional, as it has been leading to depletion rather than to sustainability or regeneration. As we step into a transition towards more life-sustaining global societies, new ways of relating to energy, food, transportation, consumption, trading… need to be designed. Creativity is therefore a key competence for the green transition.
THE TRANSFER OF LEARNING
The same set of competences that enable young people to lead a sustainable lifestyle and to contribute to the design of more sustainable communities, equip them to better navigate their lives as a whole. Here are some examples:
– Systems Thinking;
By being able to apply systems thinking, young people become capable of analysing and deconstructing the systemic problems that bother them and make them anxious, allowing them to identify what they can do to create lasting positive change. When being bothered about the accumulation of rubbish in their neighbourhood, for example, they can demand to their local government the design of waste collection systems, knowing that this would be more effective in the long-run than organising a rubbish-picking day. By knowing that they can do something lasting and meaningful to improve the situation that is bothering them, young people can feel more empowered and less anxious about it.
– Building relationships;
By learning to care about their relationship with themselves, each other and the environment, they learn how to stay healthy in both body and mind, how to have satisfying relationships with others and how to relate to their environment in a regenerative, nurturing way. Mindfulness, nutrition, exercising, non-violent communication, compassion, Eco literacy*… are all part of education towards sustainability, but also key knowledge for a happy, healthy and fulfilling life.
By gaining self-awareness and identifying the values they want to live by and the relationships they want to have, young people become more effective elements of their community and increase their feeling of belonging. This can make them realise, for example, that they have a talent for drawing graffiti and that they want to share their art with other people, and this way end up having a collaboration with their town hall for decorating some public walls or buildings. This graffiti may or may not have a “higher purpose”, such as bringing natural landscapes into the urban environment as a way to claim for greener cities for example, but the simple fact of a young person finding their own personal way to contribute to their community is beneficial on its own.
– Critical Thinking;
Practicing critical thinking is useful for uncovering “greenwashing” and thus being able to choose the most sustainable options, but it’s also useful in this era of over-information, for young people to know how to tell truth from lies, identify fake news more easily, avoid the spread of conspiracy theories and, in general, for not believing everything they are told or they find in the Internet.
– Stimulating creativity;
By stimulating their creativity, young people can find new ways to occupy their free time, to interact with others, to build their own image… they can for example design their own clothes, or a new element in a skate park, or a new app for a purpose that matters to them.
Learning how to live more sustainably helps young people to build a more beautiful present and sets the basis for developing a more beautiful future for themselves, the people they care for, and the environment we share.
Sustainability matters for the majority of young people. We as youth workers have the responsibility to address it and facilitate learning on this topic, if not for the sake of achieving sustainability itself, at least for the sake of equipping young people with a lot of useful competences for living happier, more fulfilling, lives.
*Ecoliteracy = an understanding of the principles of the organisation of ecosystems and the application of those principles for creating sustainable human communities and societies (Capra, 1997)
ESTHER VALLADO is a freelance trainer and facilitator specialising in environmental issues, sustainability and connection with nature. She is the founding manager of the NGO Biodiversa, focused on creating meaningful environmental education and awareness-raising experiences for young people and adults. Esther is currently Senior EU Project Manager for Biodiversa based in Spain, occasionally travelling abroad to deliver training. She has worked around Europe for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Young Nature Friends (IYNF), among others.
Youth work has to respond and adapt to the needs and concerns of young people and support them in becoming healthy members of a community in which they can flourish
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