Education and Sustainability

In a sustainable world order, education would be practically free.

With Climate Change capturing public attention and making advances onto the political agenda, we should expect to hear policy proposals for significant reductions to the cost of education.

While the connection has yet to become clear to policy makers, grasping the dynamics of this change will provide a durable platform for promoting the tremendous advantage that a well-educated population provides in whatever sort of world we face.

Revolution is a change of accounting practices. The following example reveals the same sort of misperception that says we have to raise tuition fees to make universities viable.

Canada's east coast fishery was a classic "success" story in the old accountancy. Every year more fish were being caught, more money made and, as a consequence, more money was available to invest in more fishing to make more money and so on to expand the process. Then, totally off the radar, the fish stocks collapsed and the many communities that were dependent on fishing met with disaster.

The situation brings to mind Plato's cave. Prisoners who had never seen the creatures casting shadows upon their cave wall believed that the shadows were the whole of reality. In the same way, today's accounts see money figures as the only valid indicators of the well-being of businesses and society. The underlying principle is that the only things that count are what people actually pay for. (How else can one prove value, except by producing actual receipts?)

Clearly conventional accounting was far from adequate in gauging the well-being of the East Coast fishery. Had accounts also been kept of the ecological viability of the fish stocks and the nature of the fishing communities that depended on the fish, decisions would have been made to limit fishing rather than to subsidize the expansion of fishing fleets.

Likewise, when accounted for with the triple bottom line (environmental, social and economic) education is practically free. From the environmental perspective, education consists primarily of knowledge and good will. Both of these "resources" are limitless. They require no greater draw on the natural world than the food and shelter necessary to sustain teachers and students. With some ingenuity around the use of sunshine to heat buildings, these material necessities can be maintained within sustainable cycles forever.

From the social perspective, well educated people tend to contribute more to society than less educated people. They are more likely to understand the challenges of our times and have a potential for greater self-fulfillment, making them less likely to be sucked into the notion that they have to purchase new consumer goods to be happy.

The triple bottom line shows education to be an excellent place to invest public resources.

What will it take for such sustainability accounting to replace conventional practices? It requires that, as a society, we acknowledge that we have grown to a mature size and that long-term well-being has to replace perpetual economic expansion as our primary goal. It is a Question of Direction. Once this reality has been acknowledged, we will begin to see, not the shadows on the cave wall, but the real world of people working together with limited planetary resources to make way for successive generations to enjoy their place under the sun.