Learning sustainability – grasping the nettle

Publiceret 23-04-2020
Story

STORY Nana Gerstrøm Alsted, vice-principal, co-founder, and teacher at Jyderup Folk High School in Denmark, elaborates on how they are "Learning sustainability – grasping the nettle" at the Green Guerrilla course at Jyderup. This story was first published in the book "Take responsibility" volume 3 in the book series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School.

By Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

It is their first week at the folk high school. A group of young students on the Green Guerrilla course are sitting at a table with a blank sheet of paper between them. The sheet is later to be covered with post-its containing ideas of what their time at the school should involve. It is a dif­ficult and nerve-racking exercise, for how exactly are you supposed to think up content? Slowly the ideas emerge: kitchen garden, wind turbine, political campaign, educa­tion for children, cultivating mushrooms, build a green­house, keep animals – chickens, perhaps – a pig at the edge of the wood? The mood relaxes and becomes euphoric. We can do it all, and together we can make these ideas reality.

Slowly the ideas emerge: kitchen garden, wind turbine, political campaign, educa­tion for children, cultivating mushrooms, build a green­house, keep animals – chickens, perhaps – a pig at the edge of the wood? The mood relaxes and becomes euphoric. We can do it all, and together we can make these ideas reality.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

A couple of weeks later, the same students are sitting there on a Monday morning, and the mood is rather sub­dued. Who knows how to plan the garden? How do you make a start at building a greenhouse? It is hard to find materials that are both affordable and sustainable. And what actually was the point behind making a political campaign?

Difficult project work awaits the students over the weeks ahead. They struggle to find the right materials for the home-built greenhouse. Along the way, they discover that the most sustainable materials in their view come from the local sawmill, and they find that there are vari­ous types of wood preservative. They learn that in a group making a political campaign there has to be compromise. For each of them has a view about how it should be angled, and none of them can carry out a campaign alone. They learn that hens have to be let out and fed every morning – you cannot tell hens that, unfortunately, due to a hangover you could not get out of bed. They learn that they have to beware of planting too early, for any frost can ruin all their seedlings. And they learn that there is not always just one way to tackle a problem but that they are many and various, and that sometimes a host of mistakes have to be made before reaching an end result – and that all of this is a natural part of the process.

And they learn that there is not always just one way to tackle a problem but that they are many and various, and that sometimes a host of mistakes have to be made before reaching an end result – and that all of this is a natural part of the process.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

The process is often what the students find the most frustrating thing: the business of dealing with doubt and the possible failure of a project. They sign up for the sub­ject because they want to know more about the solutions to problems and they are, therefore, often frustrated at the complexity they encounter when they start digging a little deeper. One thing we often work with is the issue of waste. We start with waste sorting, which is part of the answer. But when we go on to look at the next step, we find out that, for example, plastic is difficult to recycle. The problem is not solved simply by putting your shampoo bottle in the correct dustbin. This leads to an examination of the jour­ney of plastic waste to China, the globalised waste market, and technological barriers to recycling, when plastic is not completely clean or made of different kinds of plastic. What started out as an easy and obvious solution, which was going to let them sleep with a good conscience, ends up exploding into complexity. How, then, do we avoid giving up in despair and abandoning waste sorting? The answer is by embracing the complexity of the problem and continuing to act even though we do not know what the complete solution might be or what the future might hold.

How, then, do we avoid giving up in despair and abandoning waste sorting? The answer is by embracing the complexity of the problem and continuing to act even though we do not know what the complete solution might be or what the future might hold.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

When we practise, we get better, and this goes for the students, too. Out of the frustrating process, the pro­jects grow – and the students grow with them. When they overcome the difficulties and make choices along the way, a sense of ownership is generated and pride at the result, even though it might not have ended up as they had expected. During the process, the students get better at making decisions, at cooperating, and at keeping their spir­its up when their projects do not go according to plan, and they get better at navigating through complexity.

This is the point Jonas Lysgaard singles out as the core of sustainable education in his article “Højskolepæd­agogik og det (u)bæredygtige samfund” (Folk High School pedagogy and an (un)sustainable society) in Højskolepæda­gogik (2015):

“… a fundamental part of being an edified person is to accept that paradoxes and dilemmas will always arise. Faced with such paradoxes and dilemmas, we cannot always leave it to others to adopt a view on which direction in life we ought to choose. Instead, we have to act as best we can, knowing full well that action will neither solve nor remove them. When we have to work towards creating a sustainable society, the significance of paradoxes and dilemmas takes on a special importance. There is no easy solution that would make life good and sustainable for everyone across the entire earth.”

Faced with such paradoxes and dilemmas, we cannot always leave it to others to adopt a view on which direction in life we ought to choose. Instead, we have to act as best we can, knowing full well that action will neither solve nor remove them.

Jonas Lysgaard, 2015

The road towards a green economy is a complex and tire­some journey into the unknown. It is not easy to set off on that journey but practising dealing with the unknown can lead to brand-new possibilities cropping up.

The individual and the wider community

When they set off on the journey, students have all sorts of thoughts about their role as individuals as opposed to the role of the wider community. What difference does it make to sort waste when global capitalism keeps rolling out its demands for continued growth? As individuals, can we do anything at all when the system presents so many problems? This is an archetypal issue when we talk about the green economy, and the answer once again lies in an irritating yes-and-no riddled with dilemmas. One impor­tant lesson for the students is that, yes, they have to take responsibility, but they should not take the entire respon­sibility on their shoulders. When they take responsibility, they can see that it is possible as an individual to influ­ence the wider community and to create change. Taking the entire responsibility upon themselves ends in climate change anxiety and powerlessness because they as indi­viduals cannot solve the climate crisis alone. This lesson is learnt in an interplay between personal reflections about their own actions and insights into the dynamics of society.

One impor­tant lesson for the students is that, yes, they have to take responsibility, but they should not take the entire respon­sibility on their shoulders. When they take responsibility, they can see that it is possible as an individual to influ­ence the wider community and to create change.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

A recurrent project on the Green Guerrilla course is the political campaign. Students often end up in the clas­sic dilemma: should the campaign be about home-knitted dishcloths, or should we take issue with a society based on economic growth? On the one hand, they want to make inspirational homely campaigns about how people indi­vidually can live more sustainably, the risk being that such changes are not sufficiently radical because the system fundamentally does not undergo any change. On the other hand, they want to talk about a systemic crisis and the need for immediate radical action, the risk here being that they will appear to be holier-than-thou and end up mak­ing the recipient feel paralysed and helpless. The difficult and dilemma-riddled answer is: both one and the other. And this is where the Green Guerrilla students’ campaigns become interesting: when they encompass possibility for action that involves both the individual and the wider community. When the knitted dishcloth and the capitalist growth model are part of the same conversation.

The difficult and dilemma-riddled answer is: both one and the other. And this is where the Green Guerrilla students’ campaigns become interesting: when they encompass possibility for action that involves both the individual and the wider community. When the knitted dishcloth and the capitalist growth model are part of the same conversation.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

This points towards the radical political reorien­tation that we are facing, according to Bruno Latour in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018). We have to rethink our entire political compass as regards left and right orientation, or national states and our relation to the planet on which we live. This is a massive task, which is very difficult to get to grips with if we are afraid of upsetting anyone, and if taking action consists of individual lifehacks in the form of sorting waste and digging a kitchen garden. On the other hand, however, waste sorting and kitchen gardening can function as a starting point for thinking about the consumer society and about our blind dive down the steep slope of growth. And these, in turn, can generate thoughts about a larger political reorientation.

Fortunately, students on the Green Guerrilla course are not alone in having such thoughts and in trying, test­ing and failing. There are masses of people all around the world doing the same thing.

As a purely practical measure, as a subject teacher of the Green Guerrilla course, I ask every semester’s class to put together a written report for the next semester’s class, as experience has shown that several projects have run over a prolonged period – so much so that new classes have even had to take on the activities of the previous class. To be, so to speak, completely down to earth, for example, one class will sow seeds in the spring and another harvest veg­etables in late summer. Nor was there any need to reinvent the practical set-up as regards the hens each time. Here, passing on knowledge and gathering experience made good sense.

As a purely practical measure, as a subject teacher of the Green Guerrilla course, I ask every semester’s class to put together a written report for the next semester’s class, as experience has shown that several projects have run over a prolonged period – so much so that new classes have even had to take on the activities of the previous class.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

Documents and projects passed on in this way also provide the opportunity for students to take on, reassess and adjust the failed projects of others. Students can both build on the experiences of their predecessors and hand on their own (at times failed) attempts to the next class. And recipients can then complete and take them further. These transfers of knowledge and experience have proved to give students much more than just practical instructions in the way garlic bulbs should be planted or how the hens prefer their food. These documents give them a sense of being part of something they contribute to and feel owner­ship of but nevertheless only have on loan. They are part of something larger, and the burden of having to find a new way of living on the earth together in the future is spread across many shoulders.

My hope

As teacher on the Green Guerilla course, I allow students access to a laboratory where they have to explore the world. I give them the tools and fragments of knowledge, but the rest is up to them. In this training lab, I hope that they learn to cope with uncertainty, to navigate through dilemmas, to act despite not knowing what the result will be, and to continue even though a proportion of their attempts fail.

I hope that they learn that they are not alone, that they stand on the shoulders of others who have been there before them, and that they will pass something on to those who come after. I hope they will learn that action is both individual and takes place as part of a community, as a togetherness.

I hope that they learn that they are not alone, that they stand on the shoulders of others who have been there before them, and that they will pass something on to those who come after. I hope they will learn that action is both individual and takes place as part of a community, as a togetherness.

Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

As a teacher, I am subject to the same dilemma-riddled uncertainty as my students, for I am also in the dark as to what the result will be. But I can offer help, can shout hur­ray, and can have hope that together we will find new ways that can carry us into an unknown but sustainable future.

On Nana Gerstrøm Alsted

Alsted has an MSc in Sociology from University of Copenhagen. She is vice-principal, co-founder, and teacher at Jyderup Folk High School , and board member of The Association of Folke High Schools in Denmark.

Jyderup Folk High School is a standard folk high school founded in 2014. The school’s subjects include the Green Guerrilla course. The course aims to equip students to play an active part in the transition to the green economy, which inevitably lies ahead.

10 Lessons from The Folk High School

This story is published in "Take responsibility" by Bjørn Hansen, volume 3 in the book series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School, 2019.

10 Lessons from the Folk High School is a series of 11 short books published in the occassion of the 175th anniversary of the danish folk high school movevment celebrated in 2019. Each of the subsequent volumes examines one characteristic of the folk high school – its origin and its relevance for the past, for the future, for Denmark and for the world at large – and shows how it finds expression in folk high school practice today.

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