Relevance and the 3 R’s

I’m a slow learner: it took me four years and 100,000 words to discover that relevance is a major factor for high school students learning science. Of course I knew this already from 14 years of teaching. It is just that academia required a little more evidence before it put a D and an R before my name.

For the sake of saving another four years I will go out on a limb and say that relevance is also a major factor for adult learners. In other words, “grown ups” do their best learning when they can recognise how that learning will impact their professional or personal lives.

In my experience as a sustainability educator working with adults I see this all the time. Over the last four years I have organised over 60 free or by-donation presentations and workshops in Wanganui on topics ranging from eco-renovation to growing food to permaculture to solar energy to programming a heat pump.

Why would 35 people recently crowd into the Wanganui Garden Centre on a Sunday afternoon to learn how to grow ripe tomatoes before Christmas without a glasshouse? Because they see its relevance.

An influential thinker on my doctoral research was Stephen Sterling from the University of Bath. He suggests that for sustainability learning to be sustained, it must be owned by the learner. In other words, the learner must want to learn.

Sterling also identifies different levels of change regarding an individual’s thinking about sustainability. First order change is doing more of the same but doing it better. Recycling is an example of this because it allows us to carry on our regular habits but just put the ‘waste’ into a different bin afterward.

He describes second order change as doing better things, such as reusing bags for shopping. The big step, however, is third order change: seeing things differently. An example of this from the 3 R’s would be reducing our consumer habits altogether.

Some of this may be relevant to those Chronicle readers who recently commented on Wanganui District Council’s decision on curbside (kerbside?!?) recycling. From what I read, many of the respondents appeared to see the relevance of curbside recycling to their lives and to our community.

Paul Brooks of the Midweek certainly recognizes the relevance of Referendum 06 and what he called “a clear mandate to go ahead with kerbside recycling” (Time to Recycle Result?, Midweek, 15-10-14). Brooks identified that “Councillors have said they want to save Wanganui ratepayers the extra cost of recycleables’ collection.”

Fair enough, but if the ratepayers voted for this service in 2006, would not that be an indication of the willingness to pay? On the other hand, I’m curious where the desire to save ratepayers money was when council decided to spend over $700,000 on a useless odour fence around the treatment plant.

As a researcher I look for patterns in ‘data’, and a consistent body of evidence suggests that WDC distances itself from exhibiting commitment to weighty sustainability initiatives. For example, in all of the articles about the new recycling centre council spokespersons consistently emphasized that no rates were spent to build it. Likewise, when insulation was put in some council housing the same emphasis was made – no rates were used.

It got me thinking: Is supporting recycling in our community a bad thing? Is helping low-income seniors live in warmer healthier homes a waste of money?

On no other types of projects have I observed such a consistent emphasis by council to distance itself from the appearance of financial commitment. For example, the arts are supported whole-heartedly with significant council funding with no apologies made. Of course I am not against the arts, I am just presenting patterns easily observable in our community.

Top eco-designers will tell you that money is rarely a barrier in projects, and more often the limiting factor is human will. I tend to agree with them. Here are a few examples.

The Second Annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend held two months ago involved hundreds of people and dozens of workshops and presentations. It had no budget.

Zero Waste Events, recently administered through Sustainability Whanganui, had its origins four years ago at the YMCA’s Connecting Families Day. It had no budget and saved the Y money.

In both cases human will carried more currency than cash.

Peace, Estwing

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