We are obsessed with growth. And education is there to produce it. Whether schools, colleges or universities - their top priority is helping young people to be well equipped to fit in well with the skills requirements of employers. They have a remit to engage with employers, to find out their needs and then to target qualifications and skills development accordingly. Messages by the prime minister, the chancellor, the business secretary and many other politicians tend to focus on growth. We have a Skills for Growth Strategy, January saw the launch of a growth strategy for mid-sized enterprises. In fact growth is so closely linked to our psyche that it has almost become unchallengeable. Growth has turned into society?s holy cow.
We need to remind ourselves that the growth we have become addicted to is not linear but exponential. That means we expect that the economy, and linked to it our personal financial prosperity, grows by a certain number of percentage points annually. According to figures by the World Bank the Chinese economy, i.e. its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), grew by 10.4% in 2010, the Brazilian by 7.5% and the German by 3.7%. If these percentages remained stable, the size of the Chinese economy would double in just over 6.5 years, the Brazilian in just over 9 years and the German in under 19 years. If an economy is dependent on resource and energy input and produces waste and greenhouse gas emissions then we can assume that these will increase exponentially too.
This means we need to consider at least two societal and political assumptions that are ill founded. Firstly that exponential growth can carry on forever and secondly that GDP is an adequate measure for a country?s success and prosperity.
In fact growth that depends on physical resources cannot grow exponentially forever and must at one point turn into steady-state or lead to collapse. This has been described very eloquently by M King Hubbart?s in his article Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History.
And a measure that counts selectively simply does not sufficiently reflect reality. Herman Daly says “The free market does not price bads, true - but nevertheless bads are inevitably produced as joint products along with goods. Since bads are un-priced, GDP accounting cannot subtract them - instead it registers the productions of anti-bads, and counts them as good.” The “joint products along with goods” are termed externalities. So the pollution of a local river by a carpet factory is considered an externality; so is the destruction of ecosystems, a frequent byproduct of extracting fossil fuels or other resources. Neither consumers nor producers are paying for the short or long-term costs. Corporations are not held accountable and in a global economy production and consumption tend to be distant in space. Payment is made by other species, local people and particularly future generations.
In addition, money, which is the means of exchange for many of the business transactions counted in GDP, is largely based on debt rather than real assets. The times when our national banks held gold of equal value as the money in circulation are long over. For the debt to be serviced one therefore needs more growth. The faster we grow, the more growth we require. The more growth we require the more quickly we deplete and destroy the natural resources and the ecosystem services that the very growth depends on. Despite the drive towards energy efficiency this is not an equation that will result in a net decrease of energy demand or of climate change accelerating emissions of greenhouse gases. Physicist Dr Alan Bartlett explains it this way “No plan to substantially reduce
greenhouse gas emissions can succeed through increases in energy efficiency alone.” The reason for this, “is that continuing population growth, even at the level of approximately 1% per year, will likely overwhelm the annual savings that can be achieved nationally or globally through improved efficiencies.”
So we can see that this unquestioning behaviour towards growth is something that is there to haunt us. Now what role does education have in the questioning of the concept and the development and communication of alternative economic models? What role does it have in reinventing itself and standing for a set of different values?
Mass schooling and education are relatively recent phenomena. They were made possible and desirable by developments of the industrial revolution. Large quantities of people were needed to be part of the production process - they needed to be equipped to complete precise and repetitive actions. Famous systems thinker Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg in their book Turning Learning Right Side Up state quite bluntly “In the first decades of the nineteenth century, it became clear that the only way to succeed with industrializing (and hence modernizing) this country was to find a way to break the inherently free human spirit during childhood. This was no secret, sinister conspiracy against humanity. On the contrary, it was a project discussed openly and candidly by the leading American thinkers of the day, who set out to create an environment for children in which they could be forcibly trained to be obedient, to follow orders, and to perform highly monotonous tasks without rebelling.”
Requirements may be slightly different now but education is still tasked with producing workers who will fit the business model of the day, which as we know from our exploration earlier in the article is based on some false premises.
The love with academic qualifications that are taught out of context, out of relationship to each other and which are not based on what we have learnt through scientific discoveries of quantum physics i.e. that we cannot understand the world accurately by breaking its physical constituents (as we perceive them) into smaller and smaller particles but rather by understanding patterns and self-organising behaviours, equips many with qualifications but not the necessary awareness and skills to operate in the highly complex and ambiguous world of today. University students still leave university having learnt the wonders of globalisation and the neoliberal models of economics. On the other hand vocational education, based on an even greater tick-box mentality of core competencies has not much more to commend it.
So is our education system fit for the 21st century and the challenges we are facing. Do we as educators need to take a lead role in transforming education to give future generations a chance? Instead of trying to tinker with reforming education I feel we need a true transformation. To do this we need to think about what we want our lives to be like? What is the life we want to create for ourselves and future generations? What does it mean to flourish? In anticipation of the Rio-Conference 2012 the UN has started a project called the Future We Want. The contributions of citizens from around the globe make interesting reading and most ideas are very different from the world we have created to date.
If the economic models within which business operates is built upon a whole set of false assumptions, is education as it is, contributing to a faster journey towards collapse rather than a reviewing of values and the teaching of knowledge, skills and attitudes for a different kind of future? When we are helping learners excel in the current economic
environment are we in fact supporting them to navigate the hamster wheel just that more proficiently? So maybe it is time instead to help them increase their resilience, have the courage to jump off and deal with the ambiguity of landing at a crossroads, not quite knowing which path to take.
Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter Change that Matters is hosting a workshop on Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils a change process developed by Jim Rough who will be facilitating the three-day professional training 5-7 March 2012 in London - for details and registration please visit www.changethatmatters.co.uk
(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)