Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



‘Its life Jim – but not as we know it’: The unique contribution of development education to ‘Big Picture’ sustainability education with a focus on climate change

Education for Sustainable Development
Spring 2008

Jenneth Parker

This article starts from the assumption that a key aspect of sustainability is that it requires us to connect different aspects of our lives and of our world that are often separated. Sustainability thus poses a key challenge of situating areas of knowledge and concern in the bigger sustainability picture. This piece begins to re-conceptualise development education (DE) in the context of connective sustainability and aims to tackle the following questions:


  • How can we conceptualise ‘Big Picture Sustainability’?
  • What does DE do best and where does it fit in Big Picture?
  • Could thinking about Big Picture sustainability and education for sustainability (EfS) indicate new directions for DE?
  • How can DE contribute to meeting the challenge of climate change?
  • Does the holistic nature of sustainability mean that everyone has to do everything?


Knowledge pathology and ecology


Our current view of life tends to separate important aspects of the world from each other according to perceived importance and categorisation. This is a kind of knowledge pathology from the sustainability perspective. This fragmented worldview generates a pathology not just of misunderstanding but also of identity. If, as holism suggests, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, then to focus only on its constituent parts rather than on their relation to the whole organism is to lose vital knowledge. This point has been heavily emphasised by those thinkers in sustainability and EfS who stress the contribution of ecology to joined-up thinking. Indeed, to abstract living beings from the ecological networks of life which both sustain and utilise their life-cycles is to lose vital knowledge about their reality. 

            There is a lot of debate about whether and to what extent this view is ‘ours’ – or just who is ‘us’ in this context. Some people argue that the compartmentalised system of ‘modern’ knowledge is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon and mostly adhered to by elites. Others also propose a gender difference to ‘our’ views of life. In addition, local and indigenous knowledge has begun to be recognised as an important addition to expert knowledge in helping to produce more sustainable solutions.


Big Picture sustainability


The diagram below was taken from ‘Situating EfS’, a chapter I authored for the forthcoming book Journeys Around Education for Sustainability, which contains a collection of edited work from the London South Bank’s Education for Sustainability (EfS) international distance learning Masters’ Programme. It aims to provide one way in which we can conceptualise Big Picture sustainability.


Fig. 1 Framework approach to understanding connective sustainability



Artistic Ethical Religious/Metaphysical                       Education/Learning

E: Human cultural systems of representation and interpretation of significance


Military       Economic       Political       Familial/Communal

Knowledge production                            Education

D: Human social system/institutions


Production         Consumption            Care           Settlement

C: Human material systems


Functioning ecosystems     Living organisms                      Climatic systems

B: Life-support systems


Combinatory powers of carbon          Atomic structures

Ordered Cosmos allowing relatively stable planetary development

A: Cosmological/atomic/chemical structures and powers - necessary conditions for life



A: Necessary conditions for life: cosmological/atomic/chemical domain the relatively stable cosmological, atomic and chemical structures and powers form the basis for the development of life and the context within which the evolution of life has occurred.

B: Life support systems/ecological domain this forms the material and ecological base of all life; human life forms a part of this, but also increasingly impacts upon it.

C: Human material systems/social-ecological domain – human groups use ecological resources, thereby impacting directly on the ecological domain (B).

D: Human social systems/social-institutional domain – these organisational forms contribute to shaping material practices at C and thus condition the impact of B on A.

E: Human cultural systems/cultural domain – helps people make sense of the world; provides value-loaded images of the world; impacts on C and B.


            Development education is faced with the challenge of situating itself within, across, or between the systems represented in this diagram, and deciding which systems it can best influence on both local and global levels.


The development education prescription for the knowledge pathology


The separation of things is not just a problem from an ecological perspective. Critics of individualist cultures of social identity and consumerism have also noted that to separate out human individuals from their relationships to other humans is also to lose vital knowledge that may have great practical and ethical importance. If we do not know the connections between consumption of cheap imports and overseas gross labour exploitation this is a failure of knowledge about ourselves and the kinds of social and economic relations to which we (unwittingly) contribute. Development education in its many different forms claims that to separate out the economic effects (in monetary terms) from their related effects on social justice, human well-being and rights is also to lose vital information. To be unable to make these connections prevents us from understanding the causal relationships between things and hence diminishes our capacity to find solutions. 

            Maybe this knowledge pathology also prevents us from knowing ourselves in some important moral ways. Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? Are we careless parasites on the suffering of others, or just powerless individuals in the grip of a juggernaut system that is denying us moral agency? DE raises these vital issues by attempting to increase our awareness of these connections.

            Because we live in a compartmentalised culture it is generally easier to deny problematic causal relationships on a daily basis. DE therefore has an important role in raising these connections between our economic, social, cultural and ecological life on this planet. To be aware of these connections and not recognise their moral significance is another kind of failure, although one based on choice. This may emanate from a sense of disempowerment arising from the conviction that we are too deeply implicated in an unjust society to contribute to meaningful change. It is important that DE promotes the joy and liberation of living in a more joined-up and ethical manner through positive examples such as fair-trade purchasing or cross-cultural dialogue and solidarity. DE could contribute more by way of showcasing cultural alternatives and engaging in debates on sustainable livelihoods.


The contribution of development education


This diagram utilises the framework approach to begin to analyse the contribution of DE to Big Picture sustainability.


Fig. 2 Analysing the contribution of development education to Big Picture sustainability


DE can explore ethical, cultural and identity aspects of joined-up living.

E: Human cultural systems of representation and interpretation of significance


DE can investigate, expose and disseminate information about social and human rights and the effects of economic and military institutions and social power relations; it can also investigate and disseminate information about alternatives; develop liberating and democratising pedagogies that also address key issues of people’s lives.

D: Human social system/institutions


DE can investigate the material impacts of production systems on the health of workers; investigate and disseminate information on healthcare and health issues of gender and power systems.

C: Human material systems


A connective DE might investigate and disseminate information about the links between poverty and decline in life support systems.

B: Life-support systems


A connective DE might consider the possibility that the conditions for life could be disrupted by nuclear radiation.

A: Cosmological/atomic/chemical structures and powers - necessary conditions for life



Joined-up change: the example of climate change


A key point to sustainability is that it necessarily focuses us on joined-up change. In terms of ecological sustainability the complex material and social factors that are contributing to climate change are being measured and studied including, importantly, predictions of likely effects on ecosystems and life-support systems. However, the economic, social, cultural and human consequences of climate change are currently receiving much less attention. In the field of economics we have had the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006 look at the implications of climate change for increasing poverty. The review estimates that without significant financial investment to avoid the worsening effects of climate change, a 20% reduction of life-support capacity for the planet can be expected in the future, which makes grim reading for the poor and affluent alike. 

            Some development organisations are presently making strong contributions to the cultural and ethical interpretation of climate change as a key global justice issue such as the recent Oxfam climate justice awareness-raising campaign. It is important that development education step up these efforts and determine how it can contribute to a sustainability-based analysis of climate change and advocate for positive change across its characteristic domains. What could and should be the unique contribution of DE to the increasingly voiced concern about the multi-dimensional threat of climate change? What opportunities does the greater profile and certainty about climate change present for DE in terms of influence and development?


Conclusion and implications for practice 


Faced by the global crisis of sustainability, of which climate change is a key part, all areas of study are encouraged to review their capacity for joined-up analysis and propositional thinking in order to make their appropriate contributions to: reduction of human impact on local and global ecologies; mitigation of current effects; and political, social and economic adaptation to predicted future conditions. DE has a lot to offer sustainability and it is crucial that these contributions continue to be made.  Moreover, sustainability provides overwhelming support for the need for greater social justice, and forms of ethical development and ecological understanding that are necessary for better project analysis and planning. 

            NGOs of all kinds are faced with demands for joined-up practice from funders and also from the logic of our joined-up world. Environmental NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund are now taking on human development aspects, and development NGOs like Oxfam are now taking on environmental aspects to their work. Like big players in the corporate sector, large NGOs with interdisciplinary capacity may be squeezing out smaller organisations. The latter may need to enter partnership coalitions to address sustainability, but all areas of practice should examine their partnership needs in the light of connective sustainability. 

            The challenge of sustainability raises questions of our capacity for social learning, both within our own organisations and through partnerships and coalitions with other NGOs. Thus connective sustainability should not mean abandoning areas of expertise but re-conceptualising our fields through ongoing links with other sectors and areas of education.    Can we embrace this as a learning opportunity?



Dr. Jenneth Parker’s background is in philosophy, feminist and environmental activism, and adult and community educations. She has been learning and teaching about sustainability issues since 1992.  She worked for nine years as Co-Director of the Distance Learning Masters Programme on Education for Sustainability at London South Bank University.  She is currently researching Leadership for Change in Higher Education at Bristol University, writing on climate change and sustainability and would be interested to hear from anyone who would like to engage in further discussion of the issues raised above.



Parker, J (2008) '‘Its life Jim – but not as we know it’: The unique contribution of development education to ‘Big Picture’ sustainability education with a focus on climate change', Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 6, Spring, pp. 95-100


Parker, J (2008) 'Its life Jim – but not as we know it’: The unique contribution of development education to ‘Big Picture’ sustainability education with a focus on climate', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 6, Spring, pp. 95-111.