Transformative learning on a dying planet – is there (any) hope? Dialogue with Professor Arjen Wals

Reflections on ResielienceTalks and a workshop with Arjen Wals by Elina Lehtomäki, Caroline Rau, Yared Demssie, Andreas Rogler, Joffy Conolly, Maria Ojala.

Arjen Wals giving a speech at the University of Oulu

Researchers Elina Lehtomäki, Caroline Rau, Yared Demssie, Andreas Rogler, Joffy Conolly, Maria Ojala wrote a this blog post as a dialog with key take aways from Arjen Wals´ ResielienceTalks and a workshop held at the University of Oulu in April 2024.

Elina: “In this chaotic world, hope is so much needed”

When Professor Arjen Wals suggested the topic, Transformative learning for socio-ecological resilience on a dying planet for our FRONT research workshop at the University of Oulu, we knew that the title would attract attention and cause distress while also suggest hope, at least some hope. In this chaotic world, hope is so much needed.

The participants were invited to look at what in higher education can be and should be changed to make learning transformative. We discussed curriculum, teaching and learning methods, study materials, community engagement and leadership. One of the main findings in the group works was the importance of connecting these elements and understanding their interplay in transforming a university. We talked about what would be the main starting point, considering that we can’t manage changing all at once, and is there something valuable that we wish not to transform.

Caroline: “Research as activism aims at transformation, systemic change and transition”

The Resilience Talks with Arjen Wals provided many highlights. His talk and workshop aimed to equip people with the "abilities to sustain, disrupt and transform". Arjen Wals focused particularlyon the responsibility of global society, but also on each individual as a member of the global community – in the context of sustainability. In concrete terms, he addressed the following questions: What are the concrete needs for action in my immediate environment? What can I do to improve this immediate environment? What can I do in my immediate environment to make the world as a whole a little better? What impetus for transformation can I give? What are the characteristics of transformative learning and what has enabled me to engage in transformative learning?

In this context, Arjen Wals also shows the different uses, purposes and functionalities of science. From a philosophy of science perspective, he showed that scientists could take on very different roles in the research process. A characteristic of good science is the self-reflexive choice of the role, so that the research process can be organised accordingly. When scientists take on different roles, they gain different forms of knowledge. These forms of knowledge serve different noble purposes. In light of this, science can also be reconceptualised differently: 1) Research as evidence provides improved efficiency and 'truth-finding'. 2) Research as co-learning enables improved sensitivity and ethics of care and 3) Research as activism aims at transformation, systemic change and transition.

Yared: “Reflecting on factors in our past that contributed to our current lives helped us relate to sustainability issues”

During the keynote lecture and the workshop, Arjen Wals covered important theoretical and practical issues related to sustainability. He addressed, among others, different approaches towards a more sustainable future.

He used practical examples and questions to help us critically think about our experiences in the context of sustainability. Among the examples he used in his lecture were the role of activism and the example of a student who tried to critically look at consumption and sustainability by collecting the plastic waste they generated in her household. During the workshop, he used group activities and questions to help us relate sustainability issues to our lives. He invited us to reflect on factors in our past that contributed to our current lives.

Relating complex sustainability issues to participants’ lives and physical and social contexts helped to present sustainability issues in a concrete and relatable fashion.

Andreas: “We need to embrace the discomfort that comes with a critical examination of our unsustainable practices on a personal and institutional levels”

Every day after dinner, I watch the news. It has become somewhat of a ritual for me, not because of my innate curiosity to learn of what is happening in the world, but rather because I dread it. The news seems to make it clear that we are living in a very unsustainable way, that we are on a path that we can clearly not continue. And yet, change seems to happen very slowly if at all. And yet, even if I talk to members of my family, they don´t believe in climate change or worse, don´t care. And yet, even if we see some of the action, it can seem superficial at best. Another sustainable food sticker anyone? Or maybe if we ask companies very nicely and politely one more time to self-regulate their environmental impact, that will do the trick. It is those times that I am happy to be living in Oulu which can feel safe and so far away from the chaos of the rest of the world.

But unfortunately, we cannot leave the world alone. Therefore, I was really appreciative of the FRONT workshop with Arjen Wals that felt very honest and authentic and thus empowering. The focus was on transformative action with practical examples of unsustainability, frameworks on how to discuss and analyze unsustainability and potential paths forward. The topic that resonated most with me was a discussion of disorienting dilemmas and disruptive competencies. We simply cannot put all of our faith in future technologies to solve the problems of today. Therefore, my main take away from the guest lecture and workshop is the need to embrace the discomfort that comes with a critical examination of our (daily) unsustainable practices on a personal and institutional levels (e.g. food waste at cafeterias). I hope that education can embrace this discomfort and dilemmas that have no clear right or wrong answers because, just like the guest lecture and workshop by Arjen Wals, I strongly believe that they can lead to fruitful discussions and deeper thinking.

Joffy: “What I most appreciated about Arjen’s talk and workshop was the emphasis on how to initiate more transformative action”

My main interest and take-away from the FRONT workshop was a better understanding of how to approach more radical changes to sustainability in a practical way.

As a wicked problem of immense complexity, scope and impact, sustainability can often overwhelm us, leading to either paralysis (“I don’t know what to do, so I’ll do nothing”), or denial (“I’ll pretend it’s not happening”). A third response, which is perhaps just as unhelpful, is to undertake ’weak’ sustainable actions – those which do not address any systemic issues, but make us feel (or look) like we are doing something, whilst continuing with ‘business as usual’. This is Nero’s ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ approach - look busy, make some nice lists of things we’re doing to be more sustainable … but don’t rock the boat.

What I most appreciated about Arjen’s talk and workshop was the emphasis on how to initiate more transformative action.He gave us a series of excellent tools to help evaluate institutional degrees of response as well as encouraging us researchers to understand how we can be part of the problem or solution, through resistance pedagogy and conceiving research more concretely in terms of activism. There were also practical pedagogical examples, such as using extrapolating issues from a simple example (the ‘one teabag’ exercise).

Ultimately, we cannot effect radical change without changing mindsets, which is incredibly difficult, especially at an institutional level. Arjen did a good balancing act, as more often a call for radical change comes from those ‘outside’ the system – the revolutionaries & ground-up leaders. Although there is obviously a need for critique from the outside, here I felt we were invited to promote radical change from within ... and given tools to do it, such as the ‘petals’. I look forward to putting them into action.

Maria: ”What factors are vital to be able to learn from these difficult emotions evoked by sustainability problems and transform them into an active citizenship?”

Sustainability problems, like climate change, are complex existential threats that evoke feelings of anxiety, discomfort and ambivalence. Not least can these emotional reactions be activated when cherished values, attitudes, and habits are disrupted in the process of learning for transformative change. One of Arjen’s key messages was that we need to include disruptive competency building in education for a sustainable future. In many of the posts above, the authors imply this means that we need to learn how to face and live with these difficult emotions without losing hope.

A core part of the future research in the FRONT program will focus on exactly this: What factors are vital to be able to learn from these difficult emotions and transform them into an active citizenship? How can we promote, not only resilience, but also transformative learning? What role does constructive and critical hope and trust play in this process? How can we encourage hope and trust in a world that is characterized by a bleak outlook on the future and many difficult conflicts? How do competencies to critically ponder about and evaluate one’s emotional reactions to sustainability problems, including false hope and uncritical trust, develop?

In this regard I argue that critical emotional awareness is important to not be manipulated into inactivity or extremism. I am looking forward to working with all these aspects, and more, in my future role as full professor in socio-ecological resilience in the FRONT program.