Global issues, local responses: Engaging with environmental issues through Languages and Area Studies curricula

Author: John Canning


This paper was presented at the joint LLAS - English Subject Centre event, Enhancing environmental awareness through Literatures, Languages and Area Studies. It provides an overview of possible opportunities for integrating Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) into languages and area studies curricula. It is a much-extended version of the report 'ESD: Report into activity of LLAS'.

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Table of contents


At first it was difficult to identify clear links between the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) agenda and the discipline-specific concerns of languages, linguistics and area studies. Although links to endangered languages and the study of 'indigenous' communities came to mind, it seemed that the ESD agenda was largely the property of natural science and social science disciplines. The language used to talk about ESD uses a largely scientific vocabulary and the focus group convened by the HE Academy researchers revealed that there have been cases of disciplines attempting to take exclusive ownership for the concept of sustainable development for themselves. However, with the aim of the HEFCE initiative to make students 'sustainability literate', the publication of the agenda is an appropriate time to ensure that LLAS practitioners make a contribution to the debate.

In this paper, I explore some possible opportunities for languages and area studies practitioners to integrate ESD into their curricula. Firstly I explore a definition of sustainable development and how it may translate into other languages. Secondly, I look at ESD from the point of view of residence abroad, the disengagement between tourism and languages and the process of getting to the residence abroad destination something usually neglected in discussions about residence abroad. Thirdly I offer case studies from German Studies and Canadian Studies that raise exciting opportunities for discussion about sustainable development. Fourthly, I emphasise the need for an interdisciplinary approach to ESD, then discuss ' learning outcomes' before briefly identifying some of the barriers that remain.

Sustainable development and its translation

As a Subject Centre we were reluctant to settle on a particular definition of sustainable development for two main reasons. First, there is the uncertainty about what sustainable development is and it would be unwise to impose a particular definition which served to exclude individual practitioners who may have an important contribution to the debate. Second, by the nature of the concerns of their disciplines, languages and linguistics practitioners can be excited by the language of sustainability in and of itself. Rolf Jucker, a senior lecturer in German at the University of Wales , Swansea convened our focus group and he helpfully remarked about changes in the German translation of sustainable development (footnote 1). Naturally, LLAS practitioners will not only be interested in the English language understandings of sustainable development, but will also be interested in investigating how these contested discourses translate (or fail to translate) into other languages and cultures.

A lack of consensus about the meaning of sustainability (and all its derivatives) is often the starting point for any discussion. "Almost every article, paper or book on sustainability bemoans the fact that the concept is broad and lacks a broad consensus; this is usually followed by the author's own preferred definitions which in turn add to the lack of consensus!" (Bell and Morse 1999: 9). Perhaps Bell and Morse's 'not cheating on your kids' is the clearest and most useable definition I have seen so far. I suppose Education for Sustainable Development is therefore defined as teaching others not to cheat on their kids or teaching others not to cheat on other people's kids or teaching others not to cheat on your kids tick all that apply.

As an inherently international conception, the translation of ESD into other languages is probably the most interesting place to begin. After all, if we can invoke a debate in the English language about the words 'sustainable' and 'development', how much more is it necessary to understand how these concepts are viewed in other languages? McKeown and Hopkins remind us:

Those of us who speak more that one language know that precise translation between languages is not always possible... As a result international documents, which are written in five languages, cannot convey the richness of the concepts bought to the UN body. However, when local cultures interpret and implement the international agreements, they develop a local interpretation and a fuller meaning. The term sustainable development does not translate well; the same is true of education for sustainable development (McKeown and Hopkins 2003: 125).

Critiquing the possible variations in understanding between different languages and cultures is both useful and critical to our understandings of other cultures. Do we take the view that since we share one world we will all come to a mutual understanding about what needs to be done to stop the degradation? Are we all sharing the same goal? How do we know we have achieved our goals? To what extent do these goals vary according to the language we speak? In the English language the word sustainability is contested to the point that we may be forgiven for concluding that it means whatever we want it to mean. The Bruntland report's emphasis on satisfying human needs is very different from Vandeburg's emphasis on "the ability of a community to create a way of life which is an expression of its values and aspirations" (see Bonnet 2003: 677).

This lack of precise translation is made more important when we recognise that thousands of the world's languages are not represented on the world stage and few of these are taught in UK higher education. As the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) states on its website developed for its Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) Languages of the Wider World.

Every language is unique in the way it orders, describes and understands the world. Every language underlies a way of being and living a culture that cannot be comprehended wholly through translation and interpretation. Every language expresses its speakers' vision of the world in the form of a literature that is fully accessible only to those who have mastered it (SOAS website). (

Some language scholars have seen linguistic human rights as an inalienable human right (Patrick 2005: 372). These notions of 'vision of the world' and 'linguistic human rights' demonstrate that that any discussion of education for sustainable development is unable to take place without reference to human values. If we refuse to acknowledge how people of cultures (and languages) other than our own construct their view of the world (and thereby their environment) then we are unlikely to engage with education for sustainable development through our disciplines the study of sustainable development is not a technical issue for natural and physical sciences or even for economics. Later in this paper, I demonstrate through the use of a case study how technocratic solutions to environmental problems fall short. As noted by Footit (2005: 64-66) in a recent report for the DfES, it is a matter of concern that so many courses in UK Higher Education employ titles involving the words 'International' or 'Global' without a requirement (or even an opportunity) to study languages. ESD offers an opportunity to address this.

Travel, tourism and trade

When talking about residence abroad in languages and area studies we speak of the preparation aspects in the home institutions and addressing issues about the experience of being there. However, I think it is fair to say that we spend little time thinking about the geographical space between the origin and destination in other words the process of getting there.

The disengagement between languages and tourism is a cause of concern, but the changing nature of the tourism industry offers many opportunities and challenges for the study of LLAS. The rise of cheap flights across Europe has brought countries and cities once rarely visited by people from the UK into the realm of the weekend break. However, with the advantages of cheap (and quick) air travel, in many respects the challenges for students are much greater. Arguments about the erosion of authenticity must be made with the greatest amount of care (I will return to this matter later), but destinations that were once the preserve of a privileged few (who included languages and area studies students) are open to all. For instance, ten years ago the beaches of Bulgaria and bars of Tallinn were barely known to Western Europeans. Whilst one must be cautious about seeing the democratisation of travel to these places in the negative, is there the danger that students will become less concerned about becoming embedded into the culture of their study? Will students in Spain and the south of France feel less attached to their place of study when they are a cheap two-hour flight from home, than in the days when only a real emergency warranted an expensive flight or long overland trip home? The implications for ESD are not simply related to the large ecological footprint that air travel leaves, but how this impacts upon the development of intercultural competence. Does this make students less concerned about the people in the localities in which they study, now that they can come and go more easily? Moreover, friends and family are more able to visit the host country than previously possible, but at what educational cost?

I think that most practitioners of languages and area studies would agree that they would like their students to come back different (and positively different) after their period of residence abroad. At the minimum we seek to see students attaining higher levels of language competence, but the notion of intercultural competence demands much more than this. The year abroad has a profound ethical dimension. To some students visiting certain countries this may appear obvious, especially in parts of the world with high levels of poverty or social conflict. However, the concern about UK students spending all their time (speaking English) with other UK students in cities throughout Europe raises questions about attachment to a place and a concern for its people. There may be the danger of students being parachute tourists, rather than becoming interculturally competent individuals. A critical engagement with other cultures ought to lead to a critical engagement with one's own. What we put into our rubbish bins and what we recycle are choices that can be informed in accordance with, or in opposition to, cultures other than our own (see presentation by Alison Phipps). It has been noted that high levels of environmental awareness do not necessarily lead to high levels of action (in terms of recycling for example). A truly sustainability literate graduate will understand that it is action, not knowledge that is critical to the health of the world and hopefully they will learn this, in part at least, during their time abroad.

Case studies in Germany and Canada


Environmental issues have often inspired student year abroad projects in LLAS. Conflicts over the location of nuclear power facilities or wind farms bring what are often framed as global issues in the local arena. Language and area studies students are well placed to observe human responses to environmental concerns. After all, the explanations for how climate change is taking place are scientific, but the local, national and global responses are profoundly human. Culture plays an important role in informing our understandings of why scientists may be believed, ignored or dismissed. LLAS students, we presume, have a strong interest in understanding other cultures. This has a strong ethical dimension about the concern our students have for 'distant others'. Language learning and the study of other cultures places students into a social and geographical space where they engage with these others. On becoming sustainability literate, students will gain a greater understanding of the implications their choices may have on others.

In the UK it is evident that, amongst those we may broadly describe as linguists, who have interests in Germany have engaged with environmental issues much more than those with interests in other countries. In the former East Germany writers and poets were amongst the leading thinkers in environmental movements, for example Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf and Volker Braun (Goodbody 1994: 325). Goodbody links the work of these writers (and others) with the policies of the East German government. Pollution was not foreseen by socialist production theory (ibid, p.328) and despite a policy of improving air and water quality in the early 1970s, by the time of German unification, the level of sulphur dioxide in rural regions of the East were at about the same levels as those of the industrial regions of the west (ibid, p.333). Although primarily concerned with literature, Goodbody's article demonstrates that a whole range of disciplinary perspectives could be brought to the study of environmental issues in the GDR including politics, economics, the physical and biological sciences as well as religious studies (many activists in the unofficial green movement were church groups). Churchman Geino Falcke brought together concerns about the environment, peace, human rights, the Third World , democracy and ecology (p.333). Many writers contextualise their discussion of Naturgedicht [the nature poem] in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War, though "It could also be argued that Naturgedicht was an indigenous strain so deeply rooted in the German poetic canon that it would have flourished with or without the stimulus of foreign influence" (Bushell 1989: 235). This is not the place to debate the exact origins of the post-war nature poem, but it does beg the question as to whether the study of some societies brings about more natural opportunities for engaging with ESD than the study of other societies. The German example with a number of practitioners research and teaching on environmental issues perhaps tells us more about the nature of the discipline of German [Studies] in comparison with French or Spanish (for example) than it does about the actual possibilities. Classic twentieth century texts can be read as environmental texts. For example Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo raises crucial questions about the social responsibilities of scientists as well as offering opportunities to critically engage with notions of scientific progress and the relationships between science and faith (Arons 2004). Of course many UK practitioners from other disciplines are studying environmental issues in France and elsewhere, but those who would call themselves linguists do not appear to be among them. German Studies therefore can be viewed as an exemplar for other language studies in this regard.


Canada is an example of a society that it is difficult to study or teach about without reference to the conflicts that can occur between culturally sustainability and sustainable development as widely understood in the West. The maintenance of biodiversity in Canada 's northern regions is often in conflict with the protection of Aboriginal cultures. In 1996 an aboriginal woman Van de Peet was prosecuted under the Fisheries Act for selling salmon. The case for her defence rested on the protection given to Aborginal peoples under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the customs and traditions of aboriginal groups. She lost her case on the grounds that selling fish was not 'integral' to the to the culture of her group. As Patrick observes, the idea of culture is fixed in the past, prior to the group's contact with Europeans (Patrick 2005: 374). In the US state of Alaska a similar judgment was made against two Yu'pik boys who shot a musk ox out of season. The boys lost the case on the grounds that Musk oxen were not 'traditional' game in that area (see Patrick 2005: 376). These cases remind us that ideas about what constitutes traditional culture that ought to be protected are complex. The protection of the environment is not a straightforward case of judging right and wrong practices. In the cases above, it was Canadian and US laws that decided what constitutes a 'legitimate' cultural practice of an aboriginal group.

There is also the temptation to seek a faux authenticity about foreign countries in much the same way as may seek an authentic experience of life in the past by visiting a living history museum. Horace Miner, (a University of Chicago anthropologist) who undertook a study of the village of St Denis in Quebec inspired within me an image of the French-Canadian village that I have never seen. The book contains details about remedies the French-Canadians had used for certain illnesses, the role of the clergy, population pressure and the growing influence of the Montreal on rural life. The book was published in 1939 so it was foolish of me in many regards to expect to find such a place at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but the book's power persists in my imagination. Its relatively recent translation into French adds to this power (footnote 2). St Denis serves a rebuke to me about the desire to 'preserve' other people's culture, museum like.

Impacts of globalisation

German environmental movements, French Canadian identity and aboriginal cultures could be viewed as merely examples. However, in a globalised world these three concerns have been highly integrated. In 1975 Cree and Inuit aboriginal peoples were persuaded by the government of Quebec to exchange their ancestral rights for financial compensation under the terms of the Convention de la Baie-James et du Nord québécois in order to build some of the world's largest Hydro-Electric dams in James Bay (Courville 2000: 418). From the 1960s onwards there was a political consensus between the Liberals and the emerging separatists that this was a good way forward though the latter saw the dams and water power stations as an important symbol of a potentially sovereign Quebec (see Schäfer 2000: 48). In the 1980s European researchers joined the Quebec government in a project with a view to importing renewable energy from Quebec in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Europe. More damns would be necessary, further impacting upon the lives of Cree peoples of the region. The European researchers had perceived the project as "working for a better and ecologically friendly future" ( Schäfer 2000: 48) but German NGOs, through contacts with US and Canadian environmental groups and the United Nations protested along with members of the Cree nation who also spent time touring German towns (Schäfer 2000: 52). The net result was unfavourable coverage of the project in the German press in the early 1990s, resulting in some German companies withdrawing from the project (Schäfer 2000: 49).

The complexities of this case reveal that sustainable development cannot be seen with an entirely scientific context. Failure to address sustainability in our languages and area studies curricula can only increase the likelihood that solutions to environmental problems are seen as the answers to wholly technical questions which are conceptually divorced from a concern for (sometimes) fragile cultures. Schäfer is not very charitable in his criticism of the activity of Western environmental groups in Northern Canada:

More often that not, these activities were patronizing (e.g., Greenpeace activities against seal hunting that ruined the income of many Inuit families) and bore witness for a certain hubris that deemed their own set of values (and ideas of land use) not only superior to the moral values of big companies but also to the world view of the people living in the region in question. (Schäfer 2000: 45)

Education for sustainable development cannot afford to fail to address cultural ideas about values, morals and land-use. If we use the use the Gaia metaphor seeing the earth as living organism then we need to ask if culture is a part of this living organism. Surely it is through culture that we recognise the value of taking care of the earth. Without addressing questions of values, the question is not even about the need to 'save the world', but why we should even care about the health of earth. Technically, the European researchers recognised a problem and believed they had found a valid solution (morally as well as scientifically one presumes). However, the cultural costs to the Cree people were eventually deemed too high.

Interdisciplinary engagement

Intercultural competence is not only concerned with the engagement across geographical space, but it can also be a bridge to translate the disciplinary gap between the humanities and the sciences. LLAS practitioners undoubtedly have a role to play in investigating how scientific observations about climate change (for example) are translated linguistically and culturally into human response. In pedagogic terms sustainability literate graduates will have a critical understanding of how discourses of environmental issues are created for public consumption and how the framing of these discourses impacts (or fails to impact) upon human responses. Although the melting of the polar ice caps can be empirically observed using satellite technologies, to what extent do we really understand what the implications of this process are? Science itself is highly contested discourse, but the language used to encourage action on the part of individuals, governments, business, non-governmental organisations, individuals and other agents is even more so.

The social responsibility of scientists is a potentially explosive topic to introduce into the classroom. The morning I was writing this section, the main headline on the news was about a government proposal to review the laws governing the availability of fertility treatment to make it more available on the NHS and to more groups of people. Is having a child a right when the world is overpopulated? Is the world indeed overpopulated? Isn't that the reason why we are in this mess in the first place? From a personal point of view I think I would be reluctant to lob this pedagogic hand grenade into a classroom of students, but this strikes me as a problem. Am I then restricted to telling students that sustainable development is basically about recycling in order to make sure that I don't evade a student's right not to have to hear a viewpoint different to their own? Is this a parallel to the saris, samosas and steel drums view of multiculturalism, which attempts to evade questions about how individuals and groups of people with very different values and cultural practices can live together? We would hope that languages and area studies students, with their understandings of cultures other than their own, will be aware of the dangers of a 'pick 'n' mix' approach to sustainable development.


The notion of an individual response is integral to ESD. Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central England and ESD critic Peter Knight is not particularly concerned about the corporate aspect of ESD and is willing to put a windmill on every building, but he is more concerned about the ideology of, for example, putting sustainability before our own health and welfare "If I was having my leg chewed off by some new MRSA superbug, the fact that I had caught it from a sustainably washed bedsheet would not give me a great deal of comfort" (Knight 2005). Are we satisfied with suggesting that we just need to make sure that our students recycle their bottles and their newspapers and that they compost their food waste? Will we cringe with embarrassment at seeing our students telling some of the world's most deprived people that they cannot carry out their traditional way of the life as its not sustainable or that it is a threat to biodiversity? Or is seeing our students living in self-sufficient anti-capitalist colonies our desired goal? Or maybe our desire that there should be a goal in all of this tells us more about our 'learning outcomes' orientated education culture than it does about the health of our planet.

Discourses of globalisation have been engaged with throughout our subject areas. The emergence of English as a global language, global issues raised by literary texts, and discussions about the intellectual concerns of area studies are issues that have interested LLAS practitioners. ESD has been perceived as being aimed at the action of individuals and it is critical that ESD equips students to see the responsibility of state and corporate actors towards issues of sustainable development, as well as individuals.

In our discussions about the disciplinary identity of area studies, we have reflected on the notion of uncertainty. Generally speaking humanities and social science disciplines have little truck with the idea of certainty and there appears to be a lack of appetite for teaching methods with strong emphases on problem solving. One writer has recently argued that a preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict has meant that scholars have neglected to study Israeli society (Jacobson 2005). Is there a danger that ESD will move us towards a concern for problem solving in and of itself, which will leave us neglecting to help students acquire the very subject knowledge that will be useful to them in discussing ESD?


Despite the opportunities identified above, it is evident that LLAS has a long to go before practitioners recognise the full potential of ESD in our subject areas. The main barriers concern, not a lack of interest in environmental issues, but more a failure to identify ways in which ESD may be integrated into the disciplines. There is a real danger of ESD being seen as something that is 'bolted on' to the curriculum. The prevailing scientific discourse with which ESD has been framed may prove to be a very strong barrier if practitioners see ESD as an issue for sciences, but not for the humanities and social sciences. The space for engaging with ESD through discourses of globalisation, global justice and intercultural competence needs to be widened to ensure that ESD is not seen as a matter for the sciences, but is seen as something for all disciplines. Confusion about ESD in the LLAS community is not always related to a lack of teaching of these issues, but a conflict in the vocabulary used to describe global and local processes and human responses to them. Moreover, we must seek to integrate ESD concerns into existing curricula rather than problematising it in a culture-free context.


As practitioners in humanities disciplines, I think that we can safely say that there are certain values we share. I believe that we recognise the value of studying our subjects for their intrinsic as well as their instrumental value and I think we share this with students too. I hope that I am not wrong in believing that language and area studies students believe in the intrinsic value of the peoples whose languages they seek to acquire and whose cultures they seek to learn about. Like us, our students make sense of other cultures through different religious, political and ethical lenses, but I am optimistic that the ESD agenda will encourage students to think about their own values and the values of others more emphatically than ever before.


The term now used is 'Nachhaltigkeit' which is more or less the literal equivalent for sustainability. Like 'sustain' 'nachhaltig' is used in normal language as well to express something like 'keep something going for a long time'. The other term used, made popular for a short time by a fantastic 'sustainability assessment' of Germany (a short version of which is available in English under the title 'Greening the North'), is 'Zukunftsfähigkeit' which literally means making something future proof, acting in such a way that it enables a (positive, dignified, livable etc.) future. [Rolf Jucker]

Was translated as St Denis: Un village québécois (1985)


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