by Arjen E.J. Wals & Michael A. Peters

We have every reason to think that whatever changes may take place in existing democratic machinery, they will be of a sort to make the interest of the public a more supreme guide and criterion of governmental activity, and to enable the public to form and manifest its purposes still more authoritatively. In this sense the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.

–John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927)


When democracy can be hijacked, power corrupts and capitalism penetrates deeply into society, including into our schools, what prospects still exist for education for a more sustainable world? Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities. In this paper, which is a short version of a more comprehensive chapter published in a book edited by Ariane König, titled “Sustainability Science: Key Issues” published by Routledge[1], we seek comfort, inspiration and support from emerging forms of ecological democracy, civic science and transgressive education.  The latter invites conflict and disruption as mechanisms to break with stubborn, unsustainable routines, that encourage people to leave their comfort zone. The resulting discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true. Learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones amidst a plurality of ideas, can help us interrogate and rethink the way we frame – or are made to frame – our experiences, as well as our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions.

Introduction Post-Paris and post US-election challenges

After the diplomatic achievement of the 2016 Paris agreement on curbing climate change, the international green agenda has taken suffered a major set back with the election of Donald Trump and the immediate US withdrawal from the accord. His election signals how much painstaking effort is required to engineer a small concerted global step forward and the asymmetries of power involved when, at least on first sigth, one man excercising executive power can overturn twenty five years of effort in a single day. There is little doubt that Trump’s ascendancy represents the triumph of the world oil and gas industrialism that makes sworn buddies of old Cold War enemies to threaten pristine environments like the Arctic region in a regime of unrelenting oil exploration, drilling and oil production.

Economically and politically, the shift represents a reassertion of oil and gas global capitalism where Trump’s presidency provides the perfect vehicle for the robber barons to take back what they consider they have lost under the reign of global liberal internationalism. It is a calculated assault on the institutions of liberal environmentalism, although the courts still remain a vehicle of maintaining the green public interest.  This represents a fundamental axial shift that makes oil buddies of Trump and Putin, signified by the appointment of ex-CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State.[2] The policies of the Trump administration could set back the environmental cause a generation. Like the era of the Vietnam War, we may experience a flowering of global resistance against Trump’s anti-environmentalism that works to galvanize and consolidate a variety of groups in a rainbow coalition to strike new values, “soft skills” and forge a global action agenda.

A major problem is the lack of formal accountability structure in global civil society linking agencies to the publics they directly affect especially in a system where accountability is derived from the consent of states. The international system of nation states seems somewhat outmoded in dealing with global problems that spill over national boundaries and does not effectively recognize either sub-state actors or differentiated and emerging global publics such as the world’s indigenous peoples. The new protectionism that is the heart of the rise of far-right inspired national populism is a wild contagion against all outsiders, refugees and migrants that mitigates against the liberal international order.

The structural imbalance in global governance between democracy and the market, especially capital markets, is part of the frustration felt by those scientists who believe that the sustainability paradigm has failed because while the science of climate change has firmed up against organised and well-funded climate-deniers, the governance of climate change is painfully slow, cumbersome and open to “buy-off.” Thus, in terms of grassroots democracy local participation within the nation state has been compromised by neoliberal reforms that substitute the market for the state that forces green politics increasingly outside the realm of electoral democracy and badly compromises the capacity of public schools under the threat of privatization and charterism, to critically engage students on issues of sustainability.

This fragile situation–some would say, ‘inherent contradiction’–has led the likes of Ingolfur Blühdorn and Ian Welsh (2007: 185) to talk of the era of post-ecologism and its eco-politics the politics of unsustainability. They made this assessment before the American electorate – and other forces – enabled the forming of a Republican cabinet that is collectively anti-environmental and pro-oil and gas. Post-ecologism is reminiscent of diagnoses of the ‘end of nature’ (e.g. Carson, 1962; Merchant, 1980; McKibben, 1990) and earlier announcements of ‘post-environmentalism’, the ‘fading of the Greens’ and the ‘death of the environmental movement’ (Young, 1990; Bramwell, 1994; Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2005). The question in this new political environment is, in face of concerted attack on the environmental movement; how to imagine a rallying resistance that harnesses all global forces, including education for sustainability, future green decades, green litigation, and rainbow green coalitions?

Blühdorn and Welsh (2007) go on to argue “the compatibility and inter-dependence of democratic consumer capitalism and ecological sustainability has become hegemonic” and “faith in technological innovation, market instruments and managerial perfection is asserted as the most appropriate means for achieving sustainability” (p. 186). Is there a form of sustainability education that can chart a course that helps to unhinge the easy accommodation between consumerism and sustainability, and that encourages a more critical mode of education of market solutions to environmental problems?

Where prominent environmental scientists see the failure of the sustainability paradigm as a failure of democratic governance at the global level—that is, a failure to act on the basis of strong and increasingly incontrovertible evidence, Blühdorn and Welsh (2007) emphasize the incompatibility of sustainability with the dominant neoliberal economic system and the culture of mass consumption it generates. What is more they take the argument into the realm of subjectivity when they hypothesize that “western practices of individualized, consumption-oriented identity formation” and “the axiom of individual self-responsibility” cascading through “the institutions of market-oriented governance” condition citizens to accept an environmental precariousness on the basis of a popular hegemonic set of relations between the fruits of consumer capitalism and “feel-good” sustainability.

At the same time, living unsustainably has become the default (‘normalized’ on the Planet) ‘unsustainability is made easy, sustainability is made hard.’ There are clear trends and manifestations representing global systemic dysfunction including rising inequality, loss of biodiversity and top soils, changing climates and weather patterns, and the continued toxification of water, air, soil and bodies. Education-as-usual much like business-as-usual, is no longer an option. Education and science have become an extension of the globalizing economic system. We are preparing young people to become hard working, lifelong learning, flexible workers, who want to consume all the time. Education and science are both at risk of being hijacked for instrumental purposes that do not serve the well-being of people and Planet. Education and science are not for profit, to paraphrase Martha Nussbaum (2010). When education and science become tools to prescribe how people should live their lives both become fundamentally undemocratic and, indeed, unsustainable. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities.

Ecological Democracy

From its development in the 1980s and 1990s Green Political Theory (GPT) or ecopolitics founded on the work of John Dryzek (1987), Robyn Eckersley (1992), Val Plumwood (1993) and Andrew Dobson (1980), participatory democracy has been viewed as a central pillar and key value, often associated with descriptions of decentralization, grassroots political decision-making and citizen participation, “strong democracy” (Barber, 1997) and increasingly with conceptions of deliberative democracy. The value of participatory or grassroots democracy also seemed to gel with a new ecological awareness, non-violence and the concern for social justice. Green politics favoured participatory and more recently deliberative democracy because it provided a model for open debate, direct citizen involvement and emphasized grassroots action over electoral politics.

John Dewey (1916) as perhaps the arch defender of participatory democracy proposed an “ecological” system over a hundred years ago that was based on a form of Darwinian naturalism that understood that knowledge arises from the experience of the human organism in the process of adapting to its environment. For Dewey democracy is not just a means of protecting our interests or expressing our individuality but also a forum for determining our interests. It was above all an account of democracy as social inquiry that emphasized the importance of discussion and debate as a mechanism of decision-making with the institution of education at its heart. Democracy is a form of “organized intelligence” and “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness” as he says in My Pedagogical Creed (Dewey, 1897: 15), as the only sure means of social reconstruction and reform. Dewey is the foremost philosopher of education in the twentieth century and perhaps also the most concerned for developing an account of education and democracy–of education as essential democratic institution in building civil society and citizenship. As such it might be argued that Dewey proposed the ideal “ecological” model of grassroots participation that cultivates green citizenship.

What is worthy of consideration is the ready acceptance by Dewey of the argument of social ecology when it comes to a democracy – of “organized intelligence” (what we might call “collective intelligence” today). There are also good grounds for interpreting Dewey’s naturalistic theory of experience as a fundamental ecological perspective and that takes us in the direction of the definition of ecological democracy as sustainability in action – not merely a set of biological processes but simultaneously an orientation of grassroots social and political forces shaping the ecosphere.

The paradox is that although the global spread of democracy in the post-war has been remarkable there has been considerable “backsliding” and the creation of a “democratic deficit” in the long established democracies as neoliberalism has come to prevail leading to public scepticism of electoral politics and loss of faith in parliamentary authority. Economic liberalism has crowded out political liberalism and reduces democracy to market principles: policies as products, voters as passive consumers, politician as producers, elections as markets.

As Justin Turner (2015: 8) argues “Being Young in the Age of Globalization” is increasingly precarious in a world where “over one billion children [are] living in poverty, 400 million lacking clean drinking water, and 165 million under the age of five experiencing stunted growth because of malnutrition.”  Neoliberalism as an economic project relies increasingly on privatization of public education (“school choice,” vouchers and charter schools)[3] as a political project tends to involve the deliberate shrinking of the government’s role in the development and protection of civil society:

The state experiences a redefinition of its responsibilities, shifting away from the interventionist and welfarist models toward a system more conducive to the accumulation of capital on a global scale … and more reliant on privatization. As a pedagogical model, this historical project reshapes the social, not simply by influencing economic policies or modes of governance but by manufacturing a specific neoliberal subject (p. 6).

Turner’s conclusion, in our arguably ‘elitist’ words, is that “neoliberalism submits youth to the logic of hyper-individualism and disengages them from community and society in general” that in turn makes them less prepared and less able to cope collectively with the consequences. So youth are the most critically affected “by this exclusionary form of governance” and ultimately their privatized and individual schooling experience disbars them from natural participation or engagement in civil society or even of developing faith in collective decision-making or direct forms of political action.

Against the climate change-deniers the scientific consensus is now almost complete and the evidence seems unassailable, yet political action is slow, open to policy reversals such as those initiated by Donald Trump. Achieving reductions in target emissions is notoriously difficult to police. Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. Does it provide the appropriate decision-making mechanism and vehicle for political action at either the level of the nation state or at the extra-state level?

Nico Stehr (2016) asks under exceptional circumstances “Does Climate Change Trump Democracy?” He refers to a number of climate change scientists and political commentators who have lost faith in the ability of the democratic process such as James Hansen who sounded the alarm on global warming in 1988 before Congress and James Lovelock (2009) who in his book The Vanishing Face warns that we need to go on an emergency war footing with temporary suspension of democracy in order to cope with the challenges of climate change. In also turns to Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental law at New York University and author of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – and What it Means for our Future (2014) who warns
that climate change presents us “with the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced, [but] evolution did not design us to deal with such problems, and we have not designed political institutions that are conducive to solving them,” adding “Sadly, it is not entirely clear that democracy is up to the challenge of climate change” (cited in Stehr, 2016, pp. 38-39).

Tim Forsyth (2014) in an article “Deliberative Democracy and Climate Change” reviews five significant contributions from leading scholars and emphasizes how the traditional International Relations approach has been recently supplemented by approaches from other disciplines that focus…

…more upon how different sub-state social actors such as citizens and businesses contest climate change politics, and how their actions are governed by underlying discourses, rather than on the analysis of national interests alone. A key theme of this analysis is deliberative democracy – or the achievement of political actions through open debate, and the consideration of differences between actors (p. 1115).

These approaches that favor deliberative democracy explore “how consensus might be achieved among different actors” who operate on the basis of different understandings and how developing countries can become involved in discussions. This is a process that depends upon clear communication of the findings of climate science to different public arenas and allows multiple levels of engagement (Dryzek et al, 2013). Other approaches tend to emphasize the normative and political dimensions of climate change and include it within the realm of deliberative rather than something given once and for all. Forsyth (2014) writes:

Dryzek and Stevenson [2014] define deliberation as “communication that is non-coercive, capable of connecting expression of particular interests or positions to more general principles, induces rejection on the part of those both speaking and hearing, in which participants strive to make sense to those who do not share their own conceptual framework” (p. 12).

The authors usefully identify different spheres of deliberative systems including private sphere, public spaces, empowered space, transmission of influence, accountability, meta-deliberation, and decisiveness.  Deliberative democracy involves the articulation of reasoned argument in public spaces that is non-coercive, open and transparent as well as progressively transformative, that is, moving toward some accepted and effective resolution.  What is important about this approach is that it is not cased within the International relationship framework that it tied to an analysis of interest at the level of the nation state and is thus able to focus on “deeper origins of disagreements other than interests” and “presents a framework for resolving differences through processes of discussion and engagement” (p. 1123).

The model of deliberative democracy philosophically springs from its pragmatist roots that suggest over and above the mechanics of voting and representative democracy, that democracy needs to take a deliberative or participatory form as a social way of life that supports, builds and protects civil society (Florida, 2013). In Deliberative Democracy and Beyond John Dryzek offers this perspective:

Deliberation as a social process is distinguished from other kinds of communication in that deliberators are amenable to changing their judgements, preferences, and views during the course of their interactions, which involve persuasion rather than coercion, manipulation or deception.  The essence of democracy itself is now widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government (p. 1).

Some scholars embrace deliberative democracy for its educative power and its pedagogical force in teaching students to reason about ecological issues and to accept responsibility for their daily practices and actions. The deliberative nature of ecological democracy has strong roots in grassroots participation in civil society. In philosophical terms it is indebted to John Dewey’s (1916) Education and Democracy and more recently to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ (1984) theory of communicative rationality based on the ideal of “a self-organizing community of free and equal citizens,” coordinating their collective affairs through their common reason. Free and open debate in society and the classroom is a necessary condition for the legitimacy of democratic political decisions based on the exercise of public reason rather than simply the aggregation of citizen preferences as with representative or direct democracy. Education, especially when based on action pedagogies, can play a significant role in joining up a deliberative ecological democracy with new forms of activist science and the rapidly growing forms of citizen science that encourages the use of empirical evidence and logic in a post-truth world driving community-based science projects and encouraging linked-up international scientific agendas that promote collection of data and careful evaluation based on systematic observation and experiment.

Entering citizen science / civic science

Muki Halkay (2015) provides a comprehensive report on how citizen science can significantly contribute to policy formation especially in environmental monitoring and decision-making. He makes the case this way:

The past decade has witnessed a sustained growth in the scope and scale of participation of people from outside established research organizations, in all aspects of scientific research. This includes forming research questions, recording observations, analyzing data, and using the resulting knowledge. This phenomenon has come to be known as citizen science. While the origins of popular involvement in the scientific enterprise can be traced to the early days of modern science, the scale and scope of the current wave of engagement shifts citizen science from the outer margins of scientific activities to the center—and thus calls for attention from policymakers.

An emerging challenge of citizen science is its deployment in education at all levels to promote participatory scientific practices integrating school, STEM education and environmental science and green studies at university to promote DIY science for local communities that encourages committed and objective, disinterested research based on rigorous and systematic data collection on the one hand, and, on the other, environmental responsibility for an action agenda—an indissoluble link carrying an ethical and political obligation to act on results. Indeed, we might better characterize the action imperative as a result of the shift from the industrial science model to an ecological systems view that recognizes the interconnectivity of all things and problematizes the disinterested scientist and spectator theories of knowledge.

The European Commissions’ Green Paper on Citizen Science entitled “Citizen Science for Europe: Towards a better society of empowered citizens and enhanced research” (2014) puts the argument powerfully in terms that readily carry educational and pedagogical possibilities:

ICT facilitates a shift of paradigm, with a more open research process sharing good and bad experiences through digital media and collaboration reports. These new participative and networked relationships promote the transformation of the scientific system, allowing collective intelligence
and new collaborative knowledge creation, democratizing research and leading into emergence of new disciplines and connections to study emerging research questions and topics. While doing this, participatory approaches contribute to long-term inclusive education, digital competences, technology skills and wider sense of initiative and ownership.

We are at the beginning of a new era characterized by the cooperation of amateur and professional scientists where enhanced computing and computation power along with big and linked data signal an exciting mix of local and global, humans and machines, humans and nature in the transgressive pedagogical paradigm that moves beyond the industrial scientific model of applied science.

In the introduction to a special issue on citizen science in Conservation Biology Dillon et al. (2016) introduce a particular strand of citizen science that fits well with the idea of ecological democracy. They speak of ‘transition-oriented civic science’ to emphasize that not the questions and concerns of scientist are the point of departure of collaborative inquiry but rather those of concerned citizens. In other words it is not so much about citizens supporting science but rather about science supporting citizens. The ‘transition-oriented’ suggests a normative stance towards a shift away from unsustainable routines and systems that tend to lead to the earlier global systemic dysfunction (e.g. planned obsolescence, built-in inequality, fossil fuel dependency, loss of identity and sense of place, etc.). This relatively new approach can be traced back to a post-normal science perspective (see for instance Ravetz 2004), which assumes that: citizens have or need to have agency, there are multiples ways of knowing and different types of knowledge that all are relevant (e.g. indigenous knowledge and local knowledge) and that improving a ‘wicked’ sustainability challenge requires social learning between the multiple stakeholders/actors affected by an issue (scientists being one of many). In their conclusion Dillon et al. write: “…our civic-science version of citizen science calls for expanding public participation beyond the volunteers who normally populate citizen science projects, shifting the role of scientists to one of the stakeholders (but with recognized important technical expertise), and engaging all stakeholders as co-creators and co-learners in a deliberate and systematic process of knowledge building. An important part of this process is treating emerging goals and knowledge as tentative and subject to revision based on ongoing critical and collaborative dialogue, inquiry, and action” (Dillon et al., 2016 p. 454).


The transformative power of conflict – towards transgressive education

As it is difficult not to, let us return to Trump again, albeit briefly. The people who voted for him are not a homogenous bunch but turns out to be quite diverse. They include people who actually detest everything he represents but at the same time are deeply troubled by hegemonic structures of power and exploitation that are highly resilient (e.g. capitalism). These people, at least some of them, feel that the only way this resilience is broken is by creating a disruptive even that will create chaos and a new dynamic that might germinate a new society based on alternative principles, values and structures that they feel are more desirable. Any moderate consensus-seeking alternative will only strengthen the status quo. ‘If not Bernie, then Trump to bring about real change,’ so to speak. The election of Trump can be viewed as a disruptive event in that it does upset conventional rules and norms and creates energy, disorder and confusion out of which something new might arise. Of course the normative direction of the transition this disruptive event might lead adds to the uncertainty – it could lead to transition towards fascism, for instance, or counter movements and grassroots sustainability niches might coalesce and create a renewed force towards sustainability. We don’t know at this point. What is of interest here is the potential power of disruption in bringing about fundamental change. In sustainability discourse lots of emphasis is placed on the power of adaptation in responding to the manifestations of systemic global dysfunction such as climate change.

The message is, simply put, that the world is changing and we must learn to adapt and to become resilient to survive as a species. Ironically a focus on adaptation distracts from a critical exploration of the root causes of this systemic global dysfunction. Such exploration would reveal some serious flaws in the assumptions underlying modernity that in the end make unsustainability easy and almost our second nature and sustainability hard and almost counter intuitive. Such exploration would also reveal that these assumptions and the structures, systems and lifestyles that result from them are very resilient themselves: changing them is hard if not near impossible.  From a sustainability point of view disruptive capacity building and transgressive acts of transformation seem critical but are given little attention in education and research.  This leads to questions like: what might disruptive capacity building entail? How can it be developed? What does transgressive learning look like? What is the role of schools and universities in supporting it?

Here we wish to connect to the ISSC-funded t-learning transformative knowledge network mentioned in the opening paragraph of this chapter. In this network learning as been identified as an important driver of change towards sustainability. Yet, little is known about the type of transformative, transgressive learning (t-learning) that could potentially enable such change. The T-learning transformative knowledge network, focuses specifically on transgressive social learning for social-ecological sustainability in times of climate change. The network seeks to uncover and enable t-learning processes at the climate-energy-food-water security and social justice nexus and aspires to generate, surface and describe qualities of such learning processes, and their role and contribution to sustainability transformations. Specifically its objectives are to:

  1. Investigate and expand the emergence and qualities of t-learning processes in selected food-water-energy-climate-social justice nexus contexts in diverse niche level settings,
  2. Investigate and identify potential ‘germ cell’ sustainability activities and engage these in potential expansions within a multi-levelled perspective, and trace how this is done, and
  3. Develop generative t-learning methodologies for informing social-ecological science research and praxis, and extend current theoretical work on t-learning within the social-ecological sciences (source:

Central in the T-learning network is the transformative potential of disruption and transgression in reframing dominant narratives in education and learning spaces (Lotz et al., 2015). The network seeks to strengthen commitment to the commons and the common good, to decolonisation, the good life, ecological economics, real sustainability and will seek to bring environmental and social justice into being.

Let us look as disruption and transgression a bit more closely. In a sense a disruption represents a discontinuity of the ordinary of the usual of the expected. It forces people to leave one’s comfort zone: a state of disequilibrium. Such discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true for instance but can also be regressive when it numbs people, makes them more susceptible to blindly follow others or leads to withdrawal. In other words the dissonance that arises out of acts of boundary crossing (leaving ones ordinary world) and being exposed to alternative ways of seeing and being in the world can both drive and block learning, co-creation and innovation. Dissonance and disruption entail conflict that might be destructive or constructive depending on when, where and who. The crux is how conflict is dealt with. Too much conflict may lead to break in interaction when people are too far out of their ‘comfort zone’ (and some people have bigger comfort zones than others with respect to being challenged), while too little of it is just as likely to prevent any significant learning from happening. In transgressive learning people are learning on the edge of their comfort zones with regard to dissonance. When facilitators of interactive processes manage to strike a balance between comfort and tension, creating ‘optimal dissonance’ by skilfully stretching comfort zones as needed (Schwarzin and Wals 2012, p27), transformative disruptions can occur that push participants away from the ‘comforting bubbles’ of their own (potentially privileged) position and perspective, and challenge them to view the world from the vantage point of (perhaps marginalised) others (van Gorder, 2008). When dissonance is addressed as ‘oppositional discourse’, in which participants embrace tensions between different positions and seek to uncover and probe paradoxes and contradictions, it can play a critical role in realizing transitions towards sustainability. The is not new: constructive approaches to conflict have long been shown to play a key role in individual learning (Berlyne, 1965, Festinger, 1957, Piaget, 1964) but from the perspective of transitions and social movements they need be studies and understood at the collective level as well.

In his book Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, ecologist Marten Scheffer (2009) refers to the role of ‘tipping points’ in creating drastic shifts in ecosystems, and points out that this can also be the case in human societies. When dissonance is introduced carefully and dealt with in a proactive and reflective manner, it can help participants reconsider their views and invite them to co-create new ways of looking at a particular issue. Such ‘mental’ tipping points appear necessary in order to generate new thinking that can thaw frozen mind-sets, and break deeply entrenched systems and routines.

Akkerman and Bakker’s (2011) theory on learning across boundaries adds a new dimension to existing learning theories. Whereas conventional learning theories, such as social constructivism focus on a person’s development of knowledge or capabilities within a specific domain and in a specific context, a boundary perspective adds the dimension of two-sided actions and interactions between learners anchored in different contexts. Whereas in conventional theories of learning, diversity is often perceived as problematic, in trans-boundary learning this diversity is appreciated. Boundaries can be defined as ‘socio-cultural differences leading to discontinuity in action or interaction (Cremers et al. 2016). Boundaries simultaneously suggest a sameness and continuity in the sense that within discontinuity two or more sites are relevant to one another in a particular way’ (Akkerman and Bakker, 2011, p. 133). In the context of sustainability the notion of socio-cultural differences probably needs to be expanded to include socio-ecological differences. Such differences refer not just to differences relating to physical and virtual locations or practices, but also more abstract distinctions, such as different perspectives or perceptions of unfamiliar domains (Engeström, 1999). Cremers et al. (2016), referring to Kerosuo (2004), point out that these differences can be explicitly perceived by diverse actors or they can be more implicit, but still empirically detectable by verbal markers. These markers, they suggest, can be references to synonyms of the word boundary (e.g. border, limit), metaphors (e.g. fences, walls), references to social relationships such as ‘we versus them’, or spatial references to different locations.

So where does this lead us when re-thinking education and research in light of transitions towards a more equitable and enjoyable world where people can live well together while respecting ecological boundaries and the non-human and more-than-human world?  Earlier we referred to research as co-learning and research as activism as generative perspectives for transition-oriented forms of inquiry and change. Here we will expand this by introducing three types of work that seem necessary (Peters and Wals, 2013, p93). The work of determining what is. This includes naming, framing, and setting problems; identifying, observing, and documenting physical, social, cultural, and political realities, phenomena, and behaviors; identifying and documenting views, opinions, and needs; and identifying and articulating ideals, values, and interests. The work of determining what should be, and what can and should be done to close the gap between what is and what should be. This includes public deliberation and debate; the production of public judgment; the running of experiments; and the development and testing of action plans, strategies, and tools. The work of determining, assessing, and interpreting what happened and why, and what to do next. This is done both during and after taking action and running experiments, and it can include both quantitative forms of measurement and qualitative and narrative forms of evaluation and interpretive meaning making.

In light of transgression and disruption we propose to add some activities to the work around determining what should be and what can and should be done to close the gap between what is and what should be: determining what works with the changes that are desired change (enabling forces and conditions) and determining what works against these changes (forces and conditions that work to keep things the way they are). Adding this also implies that the work of determining, assessing and interpreting what happened and why would also need to include work of determining, assessing and interpreting what did NOT happened and why. These additions to what Peters and Wals (2010) call phronesis invite critique of hegemony and expose systemic dysfunction and might lead to transgressive acts that open the door for deep transformation. Table 2 contains an excerpt from their 2013 chapter that seems quite relevant in the so-called post-truth era.

How should educators working in New York State, above the Marcellus Shale (note: a geological formation that contains natural gas that can be extracted for commercial purposes), handle a controversial issue such as this in public classrooms and/or community settings? What position do they take? How do they bring in and treat scientific evidence coming from different sides? Do they take a stance? Do they actively engage in such a complex and existentially relevant issue? Are they able and willing to draw distinctions between rhetoric and reality, and to reduce, using Sandra Harding’s language, the systemic bodies of ignorance created around highly politicized issues such as these? Or should they stay away from issues such as these altogether, and stick to school board–approved textbooks in order to keep controversy out of the classroom? We believe taking one side in the continuum between passive detachment and avoidance on the one hand (“playing it safe”) and active involvement and engagement on the other (“taking a risk”) will not be generative in taking education, learning, and research to a level where we can deal with issues such as these in a more satisfying, less polarizing way.

This is where practical theory building offers a third way forward, as it assumes that learners—including teachers, researchers, policy makers, etc.— do not accept facts as an external given; rather, it requires self-confrontation and joint fact finding as a starting point for learning.

Table 2.

Disruptive ontological encounters and self-confrontation

In light of the earlier proposed need for boundary-crossing, learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones and the importance of discontinuities and plurality of ideas, it is also critical that education and research explores the phenomenon of blinding insights. It is well-known that the way we frame experiences is closely connected to our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions. This framing gives us comfort on the one hand but can blind us for alternative ways of seeing and being that, from a sustainability point of view, might be more generative. Transformative processes are more likely to occur when those involved are or become aware of the frames or filters through which they perceive their reality and are able to de- and reconstruct them in their joint pursuit of sustainability. This is no easy task as people can become so stuck in their own often taken for granted and normalized ways of thinking and acting that they fail to see how this colours their judgment and narrows possibilities. The success of transformative learning lies in people’s ability to transgress their way of seeing and being in the world. Such transgression is facilitated by the exposure to alternative ways of seeing and being in the world. Such exposure we might call ontological encounters. Chaves et al. (2017, p.4) write:

when deployed in the “transgressive” context of our own sustainability struggles, ontological encounters provide a treasure for learning that unsustainable realities are not destiny.

Through these encounters people can become aware of their own frames, filters, values, assumptions but also of their ideological underpinnings and the resulting tunnel vision that may blind them in pursuit of a more sustainable way of being. When this process takes place in a collaborative setting, where dissonance is properly managed, cultivated, and utilized,

participants are exposed to the deconstructed frames of others, can begin to rethink their old ideas, and are challenged to jointly create new ones (Wals, 2007).

A final word on transgressive education and research, returning to ‘flowers of resistance,’ is to be based on a philosophical understanding of ‘dissident thought’–in its civil and environmental forms–that against the structures of power and repression…

…engender sparks of dissidence that leads to a person, movement, literature, or a form of scholarship that actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution to call out against unlawful violations of “human rights” …

Dissident thought has a kinship relationship with the ecology of concepts that proceed from the concepts of dissent and the very possibility of disagreement as an inherent aspect of discourse. It has taken many different forms in relation to discourse thought and action, and encompassed and cultivated political norms associated with freedom of speech that allows the expression of opposition, protest, revolt, and the expression of anti-establishment thought that takes the form of civil disobedience, non-violent protest and sometimes revolutionary activity (Peters, 2016: 20)

‘The flowers of resistance’ – let a thousand flowers bloom!

About the authors

Michael A. Peters is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato (NZ) and Emeritus Professor in Educational Policy, Organization, and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (US). He is the executive editor of the journal, Educational Philosophy and Theory, and founding editor of five international journals, including The Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy (Springer), Open Review of Educational Research (T&F). His interests are in philosophy, education and sustainability, and he has written some eighty books, including: Wittgenstein and Education: Pedagogical Investigations, (2017) with Jeff Stickney, Paulo Freire: The Global Legacy (2015) with Tina Besley, Environmental Education: Identity, Politics and Citizenship (2008) with Edgar González-Gaudiano. He has acted as an advisor to governments and UNESCO on these and related matters in the USA, Scotland, NZ, South Africa and the EU. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of NZ in 2010 and awarded honorary doctorates by State University of New York (SUNY) in 2012 and University of Aalborg in 2015.


Arjen Wals is Professor of Transformative Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Furthermore, he is the Carl Bennet Guest Professor in Education for Sustainable Development at IDPP, Gothenburg University and he holds the UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development. His teaching and research focus on designing learning processes and learning spaces that enable people to contribute meaningfully sustainability, by creating conditions that support (new) forms of learning which take full advantage of the diversity, creativity and resourcefulness that is all around us, but is rarely tapped?  He is editor and co-editor of a number of popular books including more recently the “Routledge International Handbook on Environmental Education Research” (2013) and “Envisioning Futures for Environmental and Sustainability Education” (Wageningen Academic, 2017). He also contributed as a senior policy advisor to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitor 2016 Report.



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[1] This paper appears in its full version in: König, A. (ed.). 2018.  Sustainability Science: Key Issues.  Routledge.  In Press. Note that some sections have not been included here and that the final text in the actual book will have changed/improved here and there.

[2] Tillerson developed close ties with Russia overseeing Exxon drilling project in 1996 signing a Production Sharing Agreement that became commercial in 2001 He brokered an agreement to drill for oil in the Russian Artic Ocean (even though Obama made sure Alaska remains off limits for the time being) with Rosneft, the massive Russian State oil company headed by Igor Sechin.


[3] These are the exact policies that characterize Betsy DeVos’, the new US Secretary of Education, program of reform under the Trump regime.