Let’s talk about sustainability: where in the curriculum is it?

We hear from Aaron de Verés, a current 3rd year Ecology student and the Joint Coordinator of the activist group People and Planet Edinburgh, about why he believes sustainability should be embedded across the curriculum.

Teaching is an opportunity to share important topical ideas and inspire action. So why, as our changing climate hurtles towards chaos, is the topic of sustainability only earnestly being discussed in the few subjects most explicitly related to it? At the University of Edinburgh, humanity’s relationship with the Earth is inadequately addressed in teaching, despite subjects across the board having their own essential roles in sustainability.

I study Ecology. As the science of interrelatedness between organisms and their environment, academics in this field want to talk a lot about climate change. How rapid environmental change is leaving species struggling to evolve and adapt. How humans are not exterior to nature, but an influential instigator in almost every ecosystem. It’s easy to see why subjects like mine have the environment on the agenda, but we’re far from the only ones whose work decides its fate. Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary. It’s not a subject of study, it’s a practice; carried out by societies, regulated by resources and economics, and governed by law and politics which importantly are challenged by activists. The decision-makers in these fields are educated in institutions like ours. Some of our students will take these positions in the future. Considering the urgency of climate change, it seems plain that their education shouldn’t fail to prepare them.

Across the board there are countless missed opportunities to discuss sustainability. In Mechanical Engineering, taught material is heavily weighted towards work in the oil and gas industry. Though this is a well-defined trajectory for engineers, it is also the sector at the root of the emissions we must cut to curb climate change. The companies represented at careers’ events reflect the same narrow coverage. Students simply aren’t presented with equal opportunity to consider careers in renewable energies. They aren’t inspired to.

The lack of representation of sustainability across the curriculum reflects the larger attitude presented by The University of Edinburgh towards climate action. Ask a student what the most prominent thing the University is doing on the sustainability front is- your answer will probably be keep-cups. And while reducing plastic waste is better than not, it’s not an educational epiphany. The University may present a proud green image, with pop-up workshops during Eco Week and Go Green Week, but fleetingly acknowledging the issue isn’t equivalent to prioritising it in the academic curriculum.

Student attitudes towards sustainability are varied. Some are impassionate, but more are simply unaware, as the links between each degree and the current ecological crisis are not equally clear. Those who know these links however are the academics composing the curriculum that incongruently addresses the issue. “The idea that global climate change is an issue for ecologists, climatologists and meteorologists is a pervasive one”, says 3rd year Linguistics student Brandon Papineau. “I wish it were discussed more on our courses as a part of the language loss process”. Brandon explained how in Linguistics they have touched upon the subject. Coastal and island communities are often most afflicted by climate change, and as rising sea levels, droughts and flooding force climate refugees to relocate, regional languages disperse with them and fade under pressures to adapt to new societies. Though its mention was brief in Linguistics, this inclusion is exemplary of how other subjects can begin to encourage their students to recognise the interdisciplinary importance of the issue and how with their careers they can be involved.

A recent move helping to start the conversation was the launch of Be Sustainable, an online tool which all staff and students can use to learn about sustainability and why not just in our teaching curriculum, but in many aspects of our society it is key to prioritise it. Accessible and without commitment, it is a great introduction to the subject. For those keen to be more actively involved, the School of

GeoSciences has developed a course in Social Responsibility and Sustainability open to all students which highlights the multidisciplinary nature of striking balance in humanity’s relationship with the planet. These are steps in the right direction, but the scope for discussion remains wider. Sustainability shouldn’t only be a specialised option. The proportional attention it receives across subjects is embarrassing. Considering its global power and influence, the responsibility of The University of Edinburgh to engage in climate action stretches far beyond the classroom. Prioritising incorporation of sustainability in class is but a small, necessary step the University must take.