Education for meaningful sustainability and regeneration
Building a new more sustainable future is surely best done by creating inspiring alternatives rather than criticising the old. DANIEL CHRISTIAN WAHL celebrates the work of Gaia Education — an educational NGO that is at the forefront of locally focused sustainability education on six continents (an earlier version of this article was first published by The Ecologist)
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” The poet Mary Oliver reminds us the choice to come home into the community of life is ours, every day anew.
Those of us alive today are the cast for an epic of civilizational transformation. Something the environmental activist and author, Joanna Macy, describes as “The Great Turning.”
As this story unfolds we will see humanity collaborating in the conscious re-design of its collective impact on Earth. This is already happening and this much-needed Regeneration is on the rise. The biophysical reality of a planet in crisis dictates our design brief: We have to shift from the current degenerative, exploitative and competitive practices to regenerative, productive and collaborative practices.
If we want to co-create a future worth living, all of humanity will have to learn to collaborate. We need to come together in all our wonderful diversity as one Regeneration facing our common challenge: to re-design our human presence on Earth in accordance with our place in the family of things.
Designing for sustainability and regeneration
Over a seven-year period, starting in 1998, educators and practitioners from many of the leading experimental communities and ecovillages within the Global Ecovillage Network have co-created a curriculum for ‘Ecovillage Design Education’ (EDE), which was launched as a contribution to the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development in 2005.
After finishing my PhD in Design for Sustainability, I joined Gaia Education’s first training of trainers at the Findhorn Foundation ecovillage in 2006. Over the last 10 years, I have taught on EDE courses in Scotland, Spain and Thailand, and co-authored the curriculum of their online programmes. Apart from Schumacher College, where I gained a Masters in Holistic Science in 2002, I don’t know of any comparable organization providing equally transformative eduction for sustainability.
Since 2005, Gaia Education has successfully trained thousands of committed global-local change makers in 43 countries on 6 continents, moving beyond ecovillage design to supporting sustainable community development at village, town, city and regional scale. With over 80 partner organizations across the world Gaia Education’s courses have reached participants from 104 countries in only 11 years!
After the Sustainable Development Goals were ratified by the United Nations in September last year, Gaia Education was invited to join the ‘UNESCO Global Action Programme’ to support the on-the-ground implementation of the SDGs through its diverse educational activities.
Run by a small, decentralized global team, the charity offers design-centered education and trainings — both face-to-face and online. Its diverse programs are aimed at people of all ages who share the common wish to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. While most courses are vocational or life-long-learning offers, some also carry academic accreditation through partner institutions.
The sustainable design framework behind Gaia Education’s broad range of programs is a curriculum organized into the four dimensions of sustainable community development. These are: social design, economic design, ecological design and worldview.
The 4-D Framework for Integrative Whole Systems Design for Sustainability
Rather than sticking with the conventional ‘three-legged-stool’ framework of sustainability, Gaia Education has always highlighted the importance of culture, worldview, values and spirituality as a critical fourth dimension of sustainability.
Change in worldviews and culture change go hand in hand. They are the drivers of behaviour change. The why affects the how and what we design. As our worldview changes, so do our intentions and our real and perceived needs.
A holistic, participatory and ecologically informed living systems view of life explores the why of sustainability and regeneration providing a basis for reframing humanity’s guiding story from one of separation to one of interbeing. Such a perspective allows us to synergistically integrate the social, economic and ecological aspects of the transition ahead.
During the social dimension participants explore how to create a shared vision for collective projects and improve their communications skills. Inclusive decision making, creative conflict resolution or mediation, and effective work in social networks form part of this dimension, just as much as constructive ways to celebrate diversity and work creatively with differences in perspective and worldview.
Participants learn to reframe biocultural diversity as a source of resilience and the collective intelligence necessary for transformative innovation. Multi-stakeholder process facilitation is a vital for effective change agents.
The economic dimension highlights the structural dysfunction of our current economic and monetary systems and explores diverse strategies for creating and strengthening vibrant local economies. Learning about BALLE, nef, ISEC, the New Economics Coalition and the Solidarity Economy helps participants realize that we already have viable alternatives to neoclassical economic globalization.
By introducing methods and principles for creating community currencies and exchange systems and new types of economic success indicators, and by reviewing the legal forms, business models and financing mechanisms that can support the creation of social and regenerative enterprises, the courses enable participants to become active catalysts in the transition to vibrant regional economies based on ecological and social values and supported by global collaboration and solidarity.
The competencies that are fostered during the ecological design dimension include how to ‘carbon footprint’ a project and design for carbon-neutrality or even carbon sequestration. Regenerative water management that integrates with the unique conditions of place, and a basic introduction to a broad range of decentralized renewable energy sources and their most appropriate application, are equally a part of the curriculum as ecological building methods and sustainable materials that are elegantly adapted to bioregional resource availability.
An introduction to the importance of local food economies, key methodologies of regenerative agriculture, permaculture design principles, and the cradle-to-cradle framework, are part of enabling graduates to facilitate ecological design conversations in support of increased regional food and seed sovereignty, local circular bio-economies and a shift towards increase local production for local consumption.
This dimension explores the why of creating sustainable and regenerative cultures. Participants are invited to contemplate the role of spiritual practices like meditation, pilgrimage, prayer or solo-time in nature in creating deeper socio-cultural and ecological ties with the place we inhabit and the communities we participate in. Studying integral theory, Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethics’, the importance of a (bioregional) ‘sense of place’ and ‘sense of belonging’ lead participants to question and become aware of their own perspectives and those of others.
Methods for collective future state visioning and backcasting are introduced as potential catalysts for collective action and local collaboration. New and ancient (Indigenous) frameworks of meaning and the role of rituals and rites of passage, plus healthy lifestyles, socially-engaged spirituality and evolutionary activism are all offered as potentially useful methods and perspectives that can help individuals and communities to become more effective agents of positive change.
Glocal education: local and regional capacity building through global collaboration and exchange
From social entrepreneurs to design and planning professionals, intentional community initiatives, educators, social workers, cooperativists, people in a phase of reorientation or students on a gap year, many of have agreed that Gaia Education’s programmes had a transformative impact on their lives. Educating the Regeneration is about transcending specialization and helping everyone to appreciate that we all have a part to play in the transition ahead. What participants learn from each other and through collaboration has equal importance to the curriculum itself.
Including members of Transition Town groups in the Global North or in the mega-cities of Brazil, community leaders in illiterate rubber tapper communities in the middle of the Amazon, tribal villagers in Senegal, the Congo, Bangladesh, India or Thailand, or disadvantaged youth in favelas and African migrants on Sicily, school kids in Estonia, business leaders, impact investors, academics, and policy makers, the more than 11,000 current graduates of the Gaia Education programmes could not be more diverse.
Building on the ground capacity for community-led action and supporting effective change agents who help to drive local and regional transformation towards thriving communities and vibrant local economies is the goal of all Gaia Education programmes.
Local action is supported and inspired by global goals and international collaboration. There is a growing network of both trainers and graduates who have all learned to celebrate differences in worldview, skills, and perspective as a source of collective intelligence and as a bio-cultural resource rather than obstacles to overcome.
Gaia Education collaborates with more than 30 host sites across North and Latin America, many of them in Brazil where progammes have now been taught in 15 different communities and cities. In Europe there are 20 communities and education centres hosting programmes in 10 different countries from Northern Finland to Southern Italy.
In Africa and the Middle East, Gaia Education works with local organizers in South Africa, the Congo, the Gambia, Senegal, Israel, Palestine and Turkey. In Asia and Oceania programmes are offered in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, China and Australia.
Adapting to the needs of learners everywhere
Supporting sustainability and regeneration globally, regionally and locally cannot happen through a one-size-fits all approach. It needs to be supported by networks of collaboration that span the different scales of design. To offer a variety of entry points into a learning journey designed to support a broad spectrum of participants with a breathtaking diversity of ethnic, educational, and professional backgrounds, Gaia Education has evolved a variety of different programmes and modalities to support learning.
Example one: Project-based leaning in Bangladesh, India, Senegal, and Sicily
Working directly with disadvantaged people and communities on the ground has been an aim for Gaia Education for many years. The Project-Based-Learning approach enables participants to acquire tools, methods and design skills that support them in implementing practical solutions to some of their most pressing issues — with a direct and beneficial impact on their lives.
With support from the Scottish government and in collaboration with the Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development (BASD), Gaia Education has created a series of capacity-building workshops that enable in women (in particular) to flood-proof their houses, create highly productive organic vegetable gardens and establish aquaculture systems to produce good quality local protein.
In Orissa, India, Gaia Education has led a Scottish government-funded collaboration with the local NGO THREAD and a local women’s association to promote an ecological alternative to the so called ‘climate smart agriculture’ pushed on them by big agri-businesses to sell their chemical fertilizers and genetically manipulated seeds. The project encourages seed saving of local heirloom varieties and aims to strengthen local food security by building capacity to design and by implementing productive agro-ecological food systems that blend traditional techniques with permaculture.
Senegal has adopted ecovillage development as a national sustainability and rural development strategy in close collaboration with the Global Ecovillage Network. In the Podor Region of Northern Senegal, four villages have been supported by Gaia Education and local organizations — funded by UK Aid — to improve food security, income generation and environmental sustainability.
By learning on projects that implement agro-forestry practices combining traditional and modern land-use systems, villagers increase their competencies with regard to permaculture practices, food processing and trading in the local food economy. Thus these programmes have a direct beneficial impact on the quality of life of people living in these communities.
One of the design principles of Gaia Education courses is about maximizing the ‘edge-effect’ that works creatively with the diversity generated as two or more ecosystems, cultures, or disciplines meet. The more diverse the system the more resilient (and potentially innovative) its transformative responses to environmental, social or economic change.
The short video (embed below) explores this approach and introduces a variety of the project-based learning programmes around the world.
Example two: Grass-roots capacity building course in sustainable community (ecovillage) design
Gaia Education’s most established programme was originally called Ecovillage Design Education but in many countries is now simply referred to as ‘the Gaia course’. This face-to-face programme has been taught in a variety of formats from four week long residential trainings to a series of weekend courses over a few months.
The 125-contact-hour programme follows the four dimensions of sustainable community design explored above and gives students a lived experience of co-creating whole systems design projects together. The basic syllabus for this course has been translated into eight languages and is available for free download in English, Danish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Finnish and Chinese.
Four books called The Four Keys — one for each of the dimensions of the curriculum — were published as an official contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD, 2004–15). These collections of short essays by a wide range of practitioners and activists from around the world offer inspiration and advice on how to effectively support sustainable community and enterprise development.
A participant of an EDE course in Denmark commented afterwards: “I didn’t know a lot about sustainability before coming here. […] now, I look at sustainable community with new eyes and I totally embrace it all”, and a graduate from a USA based course wrote: “I finally crossed the threshold and will lead a life that serves our planet.”
The short video (embed below) describes the success of the EDE programmes around the world.
Example three: UNESCO endorsed on-line course in Design for Sustainability
Since 2009 the Gaia Education has been offering a very content- and information-rich online course — called Gaia Education Design for Sustainability (GEDS) — to enable people to gain an even deeper knowledge base in the thematic areas of the four dimensions. Subsequently they are challenged to integrate their new skills and knowledge of each dimension within a collaborative design studio project focused on a real locality and real projects — often championed by one of the participants who is aiming to implement the project (see link for a wonderful diversity of case-studies).
The course is taught entirely on-line using a collaboration platform that enables students from all round the world to form an effective learning community, supported by skilled and experienced tutors. With a minimum of 450 hours of study and design time, this course requires a significant commitment. From 2016 onwards it is also offered as part of Gaia Education’s professional pathway and training of trainers. To make it easier for people to take the step into this online programme Gaia Education has recently created a short, self-paced introductory course that introduces the four dimensional whole systems design framework and the GEDS.
The GEDS is offered in Spanish through the Open University of Catalunya with varying levels of academic accreditation, including the option of taking it as the first year of a 2-year online Masters. The English version is currently offered directly through Gaia Education with an option of gaining academic credits through Goddard College in the US; and this year, a Portuguese version has been added.
Gaia Education’s Growing Edge
Among the new programmes that are currently being piloted or in development are:
the Training of Trainers aimed at creating skilled multipliers who can help Gaia Education to reach more people;
- a series of programmes adapting the curriculum for children and youth already underway in Estonia, India, and Brazil;
- a new partnership with the UN and Strathclyde University offering a short on-line module as an introduction to decentralized renewable energy systems at the community scale;
- a new project-based-learning program focused practical skills in regenerative organic agriculture and local food systems offered to migrants and unemployed youth in Sicily;
- a new introductory course, and a month-long online course in partnership with Ubiquity University; and
- the development of an ambitious regionally focused 9-month blended-learning programme to foster social and ecological entrepreneurship and create employment within a Bioregional Design Education (BDE) framework — to be piloted in Scotland, Spain, Italy and Israel in 2017.
My own path of learning has greatly benefited from the supportive community provided by both colleagues and students on Gaia Education programmes. The track record created since the official launch in 2005 is impressive. I am committed to making more people aware of Gaia Education so more people can benefit from their programmes and become skilled agents of positive and so urgently needed change.
I know of few organization that offer equally effective education for the Re-Generation, enabling people of all walks of life on six continents to help in the re-design of their communities. In doing so we really are beginning to redesign our presence on Earth in accordance with humanity’s place in the family of things.
Daniel Christian Wahl is an educator, activist and consultant, specialized in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenerative cultures. A member of the International Futures Forum, a fellow of the RSA, on the advisory council of The Ojai Foundation, and a Findhorn Foundation fellow, Daniel currently works part-time as head of innovation and curriculum development for Gaia Education and for the University of the Balearic Islands. His first book Designing Regenerative Cultures was published by Triarchy Press earlier this year.