The sustainable society

A Common Threads project

Illustration of wind mills and oil pumps

We are at a pivotal moment in history. We face an epidemic of short-term thinking which prioritizes profit above all else. Distressing evidence reveals the toll our voracious modern lifestyles have on the earth. The consequences of our seemingly insatiable desire for newer, better, and more, can no longer be ignored.

The organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. (Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind)

The challenge for education is how to switch from the nation-state focus that currently dominates the system, to a planetary consciousness that is not focused on globalization and trade (O’Sullivan, 1999). The key many feel to developing this new ideal is education for sustainability or environmental education. If handled carefully, environmental education could bring about “ecological literacy” or eco-literacy in humans.

The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities—communities that are designed in such a way that their ways of life, businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavor is to understand the principles of organization that ecosystems have developed to sustain the web of life. This understanding is what we call ecological literacy. (Centre for Ecoliteracy & Capra, 2000,

Ecosystems, water, and nutrients all rely on cycling to maintain sustainability. There is no waste in an ecological community as waste for one creature is food for another. Energy from the sun drives the cycles that run the earth and the diversity that exists on earth provides resiliency and strength to its communities. To be eco-literate requires one to have an understanding of these basic principles and of the organization of life in ecosystems and how they relate to human communities. Ecological literacy would enable students to understand how the basic metaphors and processes of the past influence their current ways of thinking and acting, and explore the culturally reconciled nature of technology.

The project
Fear for the future has ignited demand for a more balanced, holistic approach to growth and development models. People across the globe have begun questioning dominant paradigms of success and progress. This project seeks to provide students with a different lens through which to see the future of society; to empower them by learning that there is another way.

The Sustainable Society, our sixth Common Threads initiative, brought together a dynamic team of six educators from across the province. They travelled to Venezuela and Norway, two uniquely different countries, to explore different approaches taken to maintain social justice, equity, fairness, and democracy. The goal was to investigate the interconnected relationships between people, planet, and profit. The team met with numerous diverse stakeholders, immersed themselves in local culture, and had many unforgettable experiences.

In July of 2014, the team went to Venezuela to discover how the social system, media, education and distribution of wealth work in the country. They met with several community leaders in Caracas to listen to their history and understand their points of view. Knowledge of the workings of the oil industry were defined through meetings with Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) (Petroleum of Venezuela), the state-owned oil and gas company. The team learned about several of their social programs through first-hand accounts from students and social organizations that ranged from local collectivos to national publishers and media networks. This was expanded upon by a visit with the ALBA bank to understand their system of trade with other member countries based on social needs. The socialist model used in Venezuela demonstrated the strength of people working together to bring improvements to the lives of many.

Then in August 2014, the team went to Norway to research the success of the revered Nordic Model. Each day thought-provoking meetings were held with different organizations and
government representatives, including; Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, Institute for Labour and Social Research, and Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. Norway’s research-based, tripartite approach to natural resource management and prioritization of a strong social welfare system illustrated the benefits of long-term planning and systems thinking.

Throughout this project comparisons and contrasts are made between Canada, Venezuela, and Norway; the common denominator of this atypical cohort is petroleum. Managing the extraction, production, and distribution, of this precious non-renewable resource has a direct and indisputable impact on the ability of a society to be sustainable.

Models of development

The two countries chosen for the project both have distinct models of development. These models offer Canada a variety of options to examine as we move towards a sustainable society.

The two models examined in this project are:

  • The Nordic Model as seen in Norway
  • The Bolivarian Revolution as seen in Venezuela

The Nordic Model
This model of development incorporates free market capitalism and social benefits. These benefits are paid for via taxes and managed by the government for the good of all citizens. This creates a mixed economic system that reduces the gap between the rich and the poor through redistributive taxation and creates a strong public sector while preserving the benefits of capitalism. Norway nationalized their North Sea petroleum resource. This permitted them to utilize a percentage of the proceeds to enhance and extend their social programs, mainly health and education. Development of the petroleum resource was not dictated by the needs of “quarterly returns on investment,” but rather by the needs of society. The majority of the profits from oil have been placed into a reserve fund, taking the value of the “Natural Bank” and transferring to economic security for future generations.

The Bolivarian Revolution
The “Bolivarian Revolution” refers to a leftist political process and social movement in Venezuela initiated by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The “Bolivarian Revolution” (named after Simón Bolívar, an early 19th-century Venezuelan and Latin American revolutionary leader) seeks to create a mass movement to realise Bolivarianism (popular democracy, economic independence, equitable distribution of revenues, and an end to political corruption) in Venezuela. This policy (Chavismo) has nationalized several key industries, including the petroleum industry, with the proceeds from such development intended for improving health care and education, reducing poverty, and improving the literacy of the population. Chavismo policies include nationalization, social welfare programs (Bolivarian Missions), and opposition to neoliberalism (particularly the policies of the IMF and the World Bank).

Both Norway and Venezuela used their petroleum resource for the benefit of society but with differing impacts on social sustainability. This is in contrast to the North American approach where development of the petroleum resource does not consider long term social, environmental or economic sustainability, but instead prioritizes maximizing return on investment. Interestingly, the idea of using the profits from oil for the benefit of society originated in Canada.

The Canadian Model that never was
Both Alberta and Norway began extracting oil in the early 1970s. Since then Alberta has extracted approximately 54 billion barrels to Norway’s 38 billion barrels. In 1976, the Premier of Alberta at the time, Peter Lougheed, created the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, and began depositing 30 per cent of oil royalties. Lougheed hoped to diversify the province’s economy and devoted much of the funds to hospitals, education and rail transport for grain. However, when oil prices sank and provincial revenues dropped Alberta stopped adding new royalty money to the Heritage Fund. In the mid-1990s, the province created general revenue by withdrawing yearly investment income from the fund. Alberta turned management of the fund over to the new Alberta Investment Management Corp. in 2008.

Norway hoped to build a domestic oil industry in 1972 with the creation of Statoil, which is now the 10th-largest oil company in the world, and still 67 per cent state-owned. In 1990, Norway created the Petroleum Fund, based on the model of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust, and began depositing tax and licensing revenues from private oil companies, as well as the interest and dividends from Statoil. Now known as the Government Pension Fund Global, it is currently the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and is valued at
7300 billion Kroners or approximately $1.2 trillion Canadian Dollars. In contrast, as of March 31, 2015, the Alberta Heritage Fund’s assets had fair market value of $17.9 billion.

The curriculum
Initially conceptualizing of what this project would look like proved challenging for the team. Determining all the factors which compose a sustainable society was no easy task. However, the vision of empowering students with the knowledge that there is another path to choose was the primary driving force. Poverty and environmental degradation are not inevitable if we embrace sustainable lifestyles and demand sustainable policies.
The lessons in this project have been organized into four units which conceptually build on each other, but also work as stand-alone lessons. Students will engage in a range of independent and collaborative activities. All lessons were designed using the inquiry model to facilitate intellectual curiosity and critical thinking, in-line with recent Ontario curriculum revisions.

Unit 1: Introduction to sustainability
The concept of sustainability encompasses multiple intersecting elements. Positionality and location are fundamental ideas in sustainability discourse. Acknowledging our place on planet earth is a necessary starting point. Introductory discussions about non-renewable resources and our fixation with economic growth are also essential.

Unit 2: Individual choices
What difference can I make? This is not an uncommon teenage sentiment. Youth and adults alike need practical avenues to live more sustainably and contribute to making society more sustainable. Individually reflecting consumption habits and food choices provides opportunity to consider possible changes that contribute to a sustainable lifestyle.

Unit 3: Community choices
Taking a step outside of oneself and investigating how decisions are made in society is a step toward freedom, autonomy, justice, and sustainability. Finding a voice through participation in the democratic process or artistic expression allows citizens to raise awareness in the public sphere; increasing transparency of government actions at the local and national level.

Unit 4: System choices
The big picture of sustainability illuminates the interconnectedness of sustainable resource development, sustainable environmental practices, and sustainable economies, as explicitly clear equally important tenets in developing a sustainable society, promoting vital systems thinking.

Examining the state of the planet and its environment can be a daunting task. Often these topics can leave students feeling overwhelmed and depressed. One of the main means of overcoming these feelings of despair is finding hope. It is vital that students feel empowered to change the systems that determine our future. By giving students opportunities to actively engage with social, environmental and economic issues we hope to empower them to act for change. We hope that they will see themselves as agents of change and that through their actions they can find hope for a better tomorrow. The Sustainable Society focuses on how countries need to change in order to be sustainable. This requires a change in mindset. This action-based project is designed to give hope to both teachers and students. Students need to think for sustainability today, we all do.

The interdisciplinary Common Threads The Sustainable Society curriculum package will be available to teachers in 2016. You will be able to find the resource information here.

About Taina Kanerva and Alison Rimell
Taina Kanerva is a teacher at RH King Academy and Alison Rimell is a teacher at Dr Norman Bethune CI, both are in District 12, Toronto.

1 Comment on The sustainable society

  1. Tracy Webb // June 20, 2016 at 2:14 pm // Reply

    A wonderful initiative Taina and Alison! Good to see this gaining momentum!

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