Education for Sustainable Development: Human Geography (Agriculture and Rural Development)

Author: Guy Robinson


A relflective article by Guy Robinson, Kingston University, as part of the Subject Centre's Education for Sustainable Development Project.

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Table of contents

Human geography seeks to understand the interaction of complex economic, social and environmental processes, examining how aspects of human, social, natural and built capital impact upon human well-being. It also studies the perspectives that other societies adopt in addressing these issues. Hence the content of human geography engages directly with sustainable development, dealing with the economic, social, institutional and environmental dimensions of sustainability. HEFCE's proposals for ESD can be addressed by human geography as follows (primarily using rural examples):

Embed the principles of sustainable development

Readily adopted within a range of Geography courses, with an emphasis on seven inter-related concepts: interdependence; citizenship and stewardship; needs and rights of future generations; diversity; quality of life; sustainable change; uncertainty and precaution. Particular emphasis has been placed on understanding human impacts on the environment (e.g. global warming, pollution, factory farming, destruction of non-renewable resources, deforestation, 'fast' food production/ consumption, genetic modification of organisms) and policy-related dimensions. Contrasts are drawn between policies advocating 'technology-fix' solutions (e.g. GM foods) and those embracing ecological principles (e.g. organic farming) and local knowledge.

Develop curricula

Several new degree courses with a direct focus on Sustainability have a strong Geography component (see Appendix). Concern for sustainable development is now built into most Geography courses, e.g. drawing on the work of the IGU Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems. Rural content stresses sustainability indicators, philosophies and ethics underpinning sustainability, the positive role of indigenous peoples' knowledge, impacts of globalisation (e.g. 'food miles'), policies for conservation/sustainability, analysis of commodity chains, the characteristics of sustainable agriculture and rural land use systems, sustainable rural communities, sustainable services, and the principles of rural community renewal.

Strengthen links to business and the community

Geographers have been at the forefront of liaisons with businesses to embed sustainable development principles and promote environmentally friendly actions, e.g. developing environmental standards, environmental audits and toolkits, often through links with professional bodies, e.g. Institute for Waste Management. There has been widespread development of links to organisations promoting sustainability, e.g. Soil Association, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Food Ethics Council, Centre for Alternative Technology, Centre for Sustainable Energy.

Build new skills

Geography has responded through work on indicators of sustainability. The RGS's school curriculum initiative in ESD focuses on ecological footprints and carbon footprints, which are useful tools for communicating sustainable development to a diverse audience. These demonstrate that personal lifestyle choices impact on the natural environment whilst emphasising the interdependence of the four dimensions of sustainability. Most work on indicators stresses the need to develop a systems approach that analyses the state of the system (e.g. farming) and identifies the types of intervention required to ensure the health of the system (e.g. emphasis on 'bottom-up' planning, adoption of appropriate technology, valuing local knowledge).

Improve impacts on the environment

Geographers are directly involved in institutional sustainability audits and guides to staff/students on sustainable living, e.g. as applied to eating and shopping, managing waste, energy and water, and travel alternatives. Actions include waste recycling initiatives, promoting 'green' transport and consumption of local and organic foods, and greater use of renewable resources.