For those engaged in discussions about the challenging future that lies ahead of us, sustainability is fast gaining momentum as a critical issue our global community can no longer ignore. As a direct result of: depleting natural resources, man-made pollution, global climate change and growing, more demanding populations (Gore Jr. 2013), widespread attention and immediate action are required.
But yet, as we continue to rely so heavily on electronic technology and the networked systems of our digital age, it may be that we further exacerbate this problem. And often in the aforementioned discussions, technology is regarded as being the main cause of environmental problems.
21st Century Consumerism
It seems inevitable that each year, digital technology is being replaced with smaller, faster and more sophisticated substitutes. International conferences, saturated in media exposure, such as CES (Consumer Electronics Show), MWC (Mobile World Congress) and Apple’s WWDC (World Wide Developers Conference) aim each year to entice consumers into purchasing the latest offerings from global technology giants such as Apple, Samsung, HP, Dell, Huawei and LG. And while these devices are promoted as tools to improve our experience, our productivity and our status (but not our self-esteem), the wider implications of technological consumerism are overlooked, if not ignored completely. But how much longer can we continue to ignore this problem?
A Balancing Act
The position of those who actively engage with technology may seem at odds with those who engage with sustainability and efforts to save our world from self-destruction. After all, in this debate many may argue that you are either for sustainability and against technology; or vice versa. But when thinking about my own position, as both someone who is passionate about technology, and someone who wants to live in a world free of suffering, tragedy and poverty, I feel as though it is possible to want both: a sustained future in which the consequences of my own (and others) actions support global, long-term survival and prosperity alongside perpetual technological innovation. Therefore, by exploring and embedding sustainability cultures and practices in schools, a new direction for our future can be created.
Schools for Sustainability?
After watching the videos produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on YouTube and visiting their website (www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org) about the need for a circular economy, I realised that educational institutions maybe guilty of hypocrisy. On one hand, the schools that do promote recycling and encourage ‘being green’ are seemingly playing their part. They accept that children and young people need to be taught about the consequences of their actions and lifestyles and do so to encourage them to take practical steps to achieve this both today and in the future. Pupils are generally taught to recycle where possible, switch off lights and electricity, use less water and to reduce carbon emissions – by walking, cycling or taking public transport.
On the other hand, many more schools overlook issues relating to energy efficiency, the consumption and waste of resources and of course, the disposal of obsolete or defective IT equipment. As these are all thought to impact on teaching and administration, many organisations prefer to ignore these issues in favour of more practical and less disruptive strategies such as those outlined above. What is worrying is that, for these schools, replacing obsolete resources and ethically disposing of them is always an afterthought.
I believe there are three main reasons for this: one being that many leaders within these organisations simply do not know enough about these issues or about measures they can take to limit the environmental impact of their actions. The other being that institutional change requires two premiums: time and money – and organisations such as schools are limited in both. And lastly as a result of the current accountability culture within schools, in which leaders feel under pressure to perform, strategies that will ‘get in the way’ of teacher or pupil performance are often resisted altogether or subjected to intense scrutiny by stakeholders. This is also echoed by Matthewman and Morgan (2013).
As a result of this difference, schools remained locked in this conflict, requiring technology to operate but not fully engaging in environmental or sustainable practices in the way that they should.
As a primary computing teacher, I sometimes plan opportunities for pupils to consider wider ethical issues surrounding technology, in the hope that they will one day become responsible digital citizens. Previously we have explored issues such as: the use of Photoshop in the media, net neutrality and whether artificial intelligence is a good or bad thing.
But after reflecting here on the issues surrounding sustainability, I believe it is more important to help pupils understand how their devices are made, where they go when they are disposed of and the consequences of our collective global actions. By doing this, I am certain that pupils would be shocked to find out about how children of a similar, or even of a younger age, are used to mine for cobalt used in phones (Amnesty International 2016), or about the third-world landfill sites used to dump our electrical waste (Vidal 2013). Therefore, it is hoped that by educating pupils about this, they will become more mindful of their own choices and actions – becoming agents of change themselves.
Despite speculation surrounding the inclusion of climate change in the revised 2014 National Curriculum, statutory opportunities to learn about environmental and sustainability issues seem to have been whitewashed within programmes of study (Department for Education 2013). Therefore, it is up to teachers and schools to embed these themes into the curriculum, going beyond the expectations of the National Curriculum. This then led me to consider: could it be that the Department for Education, or perhaps even the government are resistant to change or the disruption its inclusion would cause?
As electronic technology and networked systems are an unavoidable part of our everyday lives, I believe it is important that we continue to demand this innovation and progress. This also extends to education, as both have become undeniably necessary for our communication and workflow.
But more importantly alongside this, we must demand manufacturers address environmental and sustainability issues too. We simply cannot ignore these issues any longer. Nor can organisations such as schools, who must seek fairer, more responsible organisational change and education about these issues.
Companies like Apple have begun to address some of these issues in innovative ways (www.apple.com/uk/environment), but the depth and breadth of this corporate change must extend to the entire consumer landscape and offer solutions needed to secure our survival. And until others do and we globally take notice of these issues, both technology (and technological advancement) will continue to be in conflict with sustainability.