The Sustainable Literate Graduate - why we need one.

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Benny Goodman 2012.


“In a world characterised by complexity and uncertainty, our long term survival lies less in our ability to ‘apply the grammar’ (of sustainability literacy) and more in our willingness to bend the rules in unforeseen circumstances and even operate beyond our level of knowledge as we make our world view” (Paul Vare).


1. Vare’s point is that the world’s problems requires graduates to have not only an understanding and knowledge of key sustainability concepts but also to be able to act in an emancipatory fashion to engage in critical thought and action beyond merely understanding what sustainability may mean. If indeed ‘climate change is the biggest threat to public health in the 21st century’ (Costello et al 2009) then action is required.


2. We argue there is a ‘sustainability-climate change-health’ triad (Goodman and Richardson 2010) which makes it an imperative that we examine notions of sustainability and climate change in the curriculum (Goodman 2011).


3. Plymouth University itself recognises the issues, and has identified sustainability as a policy objective (a key performance indicator) at all levels of university life (campus, curriculum, culture and community).  


4. The NHS Sustainable Development Unit states on their website that it is working “to help the NHS fulfil its potential as a leading sustainable and low carbon healthcare service…by developing organisations, people, tools, policy and research which will enable the NHS to promote sustainable development and mitigate climate change”. Nursing staff in NHS organisations will be key people helping to achieve carbon reduction targets (NHS SDU 2009) and thus need to have the skills, knowledge and understanding to help their clinical settings achieve this.


5. The NMC standards for education (NMC 2010) explicitly outlines that nurses  should engage in promoting the health, not just of individuals, but also of communities and populations. Public Health is also core to the standards. We know that unsustainable lifestyles and practices lead to poorer health outcomes, and we also know that low carbon lifestyles are also healthy lifestyles, i.e. that there are health co-benefits to be had.


6. In ‘Securing the Future’ (DEFRA 2005) the UK government published a strategy for sustainable development and encouraged all education sectors to embrace SD. The HEA (2009) has taken this on, to support ESD in the HE sector across 17 subject centres. The HEA has a dedicated Education for Sustainable Development theme aiming to provide strategic leadership for ESD in the HE sector. HEFCE (2009) also support sustainability practices across the sector.


7. David Orr (1994) argues that current education practice is not the solution, it is the problem. That is to say graduates who lack an eco-perspective, or who are illiterate in sustainability matters, become part of the problem as they engage in ‘business as usual’ activities. A nurse who cannot make the links between clinical waste, resource use, carbon reduction and health inequalities will not be able to devise solutions because they are not asking the right questions.


8 Nurses are about health (in theory at least), understanding health requires understanding the social determinants of health, which includes the interdependence and interrelatedness of many factors including the physical and social environment. This is core to sustainability thinking.


9. There is increasing evidence that students themselves demand their universities encourage and develop sustainability across their programmes. Bone and Agonbar (2011) argue that first-year students believe universities should be responsible for actively incorporating and promoting sustainable development to prepare them for graduate employment.


10. The challenges to current and future global health (Rao 2009) that result from high carbon and unsustainable patterns of living require nothing short of mobilising healthcare professionals to not only understand but to act upon the various factors that result in disease and misery for billions on the planet. Not to do so is an abrogation of our ‘moral responsibility’ (Morrall 2009) as healthcare professionals to prevent suffering.


As we reflect on the challenges to earth’s natural resources and the planetary boundaries that scientists are now beginning to reveal (Rockstrom et al 2009), we realise that we are running a huge experiment on a global scale. The time scale for evaluating the success or otherwise of this experiment, based on high carbon lifestyles of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, is some time in the future. However we are having measurable adverse effects now on both the planet’s climate and upon the ecosystem services that we all depend on. Nurses, as people, are part of the problem. We need to be part of the solution.


Bone, E, and Agonbar, J. (2011)  First-year student attitudes towards, and skills in sustainable development. HEA. York.


Costello, A. et al (2009) Managing the effects of Climate change. Available online at


DEFRA (2005) Securing the Future. Delivering the UK sustainable development strategy.


Goodman B., Richardson J. Climate Change, Sustainability and Health in United Kingdom Higher Education: The Challenges for Nursing In: Jones P., Selby D., Sterling S. (2010) Sustainability Education: Perspectives and Practice Across Higher Education. London, Earthscan.


Goodman, B. (2011) The need for a ‘sustainability curriculum’ in nurse education. Nurse Education Today. Nov  31 (8):733-7


HEFCE (2009) Sustainable Development in Higher education [online] accessed 24th may 2010.


Higher Education Academy (2009) HEA Sustainability Project


Morrall, P. (2009) Sociology of Health. Routledge London.


National Health Service Sustainable Development Unit. (NHSSDU) (2009), Saving Carbon Improving Health. NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy for England. NHSSDU. Cambridge.

Nursing and Midwifery Council (2010) Standards for Pre-Registration nursing education. NMC. London.

Orr, D. (1994) Earth in Mind. On Education, Environment and The Human Prospect. Island press. Washington


Rao, M. (2009) Climate change is deadly: The Health Impacts of Climate Change. Chapter 2 in Griffiths, J. et al (2009) The Health Practitioners Guide to Climate change. Earthscan  London


Vare P. (no date) Sustainable Literacy: role or goal [online]








references are there

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apologies for the long gap untill you get to the refs!


The 'Sustainability Lens'

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In this paper we describe and justify a framework for curriculum development that uses the concept of a sustainability lens. This is based on an understanding that we construct our social worlds and create a reality based upon what Gadamer (1977) called ‘prejudices’. The social world of nurse education has its own prejudices, referred to by Scrimshaw (1983) as ‘ideologies’. These form often taken for granted assumptions and values about what education is. The framework bases itself on how sustainability conceptualises health, and 4 approaches to health care delivery, along two continua of individual–society and illness–wellbeing. Further, we argue that in response to a wider education for sustainability agenda, nurse educators could develop their own sustainability lens and bring it to bear on this framework to interpret professional standards in a new way. see:


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