If you go down to the woods today, you’ll learn about sustainability.

If you go down to the woods today, you’ll learn about sustainability – by Robert Cook and Roger Cutting

Dr Roger Cutting is an Associate Professor in Education at Plymouth University. His primary teaching interest is in Education for Sustainability and he is the Programme Leader for the MSc in Learning for Sustainability. Dr Robert Cook is a Lecturer in Education, also at Plymouth University, who teaches Outdoor Education and Environmental Philosophy at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

Although the nature and meaning of the term “sustainability” remains contested, rcblog1the transition away from high consumption, carbon based economies to alternative environmentally benign systems will undoubtedly present significant challenges. While technological models of adaptation may provide the most straightforward option as well as our most reassuring there is also a concern that we cannot achieve such a transition without some major social and economic adjustments. Those of us involved in Education for Sustainability (EfS) therefore need to equip students with the ability to respond to this uncertain future. In an educational context an understanding of theory and the creation of speculative models of what sustainability might offer us will provide little individual understanding or motivation for change by themselves. For EfS to be effective, opportunities for experiential engagement with these alternative visions of the future, and to explore their defining principles, must be available.

The opportunities for experiencing ways of life in which values and personal consumption levels are significantly different are very few.  Where can we go to contextualise these ideas and to demonstrate such values in action?  What can we show to students as an example of a “sustainable lifestyle”?  How can they experience a social system in which personal security comes more from the mutual support systems of the community than from individual economic wealth?

Well, across the South West there are groups of people attempting to live in more sustainable ways, in so-called ‘low impact communities’. These young people live communally, often with the common intention of living in environmentally benign ways. reducing resource demand to so called ‘one-world’ levels (WWF, 2006; Knight, 2007).  This means that they have the level of resource demand that could be sustained by the entire planetary population, and that they are consequently the nearest examples we have in the U.K. of “sustainable living”.rcblog3

However, these groups are scarcely acknowledged, despite being potential pathfinders in the transition to sustainability and it is therefore surprising that little has been done to evaluate the considerable experiential learning and skills development that accompany and are provided by such initiatives. What insights do these communities provide in terms of identifying the broader skills required for sustainable living?

Recent work at Plymouth University has attempted to redress this, using two L.I.C’s, Steward Community Woodland http://www.stewardwood.org/index.ghtml and the Landmatters Co-operative, http://landmatters.org.uk/ both in Devon. Students visits were arranged to provide first hand experience of low impact living. The visits not only involved a tour, but also land-based work (working in the gardens, chopping firewood, repairing equipment etc) was also encouraged. This project is now written up and published and the findings were intriguing in that the visits at the very minimum provided the basis for far deeper discussion and debate on a range of issues relating to sustainability.rcblog2

Find out more at

Cook, R. and Cutting, R. L. (2014) ‘Low Impact Communities’ and Their Value to Experiential Education for Sustainability in Higher Education. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning 14 (3) p247-260

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