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Practice from my Experience

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Sustainable Development: Practice from my Experience

From my experience:

First-step in the journey toward sustainable development...

In our the collective human journey toward sustainable development (SD), I have found one commonality and see one significant current need to be met:

Education in Sustainability.

Whether when working with politicians, academics, business persons, community leaders, students, or civil society organisations and industrial enterprises located either in Canada or abroad, my own experience is that:

People generally do not have a clue what sustainable development is about.

Most often I find people have either not heard of SD. Or they think it an environmental or ecological idea. Or they think SD has something to do with international or community development. Or they think sustainability and sustainable development are one and the same thing. Or they think any number of thoughts that are often unrelated to SD’s actual concept, approach and practice.

I have met many a business person who talks about sustainability, yet they are either accidentally or intentionally greenwashing (a situation where a person or organisation talks the SD talk in word, but does not walk the SD walk in action). I have met with an public industry representative who for two full years managed a department in sustainable development, but whose department had yet to initiate even one project in SD (in large measure because his company did not know what an SD project would really look like). I have met many academics who “think” they know what SD is about, so they do not even need to discuss the matter. And I have met many politicians who themselves greenwash by thinking SD is simply a way for winning over environmental votes seen as helpful for re-election.

When one has worked in the SD field, you begin to understand the vision the United Nations had in declaring the years 2005-2014 as The United Nations Decade of Education in Sustainable Development.

(For information on the UN Decade for Education in SD, see:
UNESCO - United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development Homepage [online]. UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Available from
[Accessed 02 May 2008].)

Simply stated, it has become clear to me that before human beings can even begin to practice sustainable development, they first need to know what SD is about and why it is needed.

Education in Sustainability is urgently needed on:

  • the available and growing objective science documenting the growing human impacts on earth’s natural environment. (And I emphasise objective science over some of the documented and biased-science - even self-serving science - flowing out of some sectors of industry).
  • why this objective science demonstrates a clear necessity for our human species and its societies to urgently practice SD.
  • how human created societal structures are creating great inequities and inequalities around earth, which then serve to create conditions for further negative impacts on earth’s natural environment.
  • SD as a concept, approach and practice.
  • concrete ways and means humans can practice and live SD in their lives, including by making required changes in their lifestyles.

The order of education seems to me to be important. People first need to be educated in the objective academic science underpinning sustainable development, which provides the reasons for SD’s urgent and even pressing need in human societies. People next need be trained and nurtured in SD as each of a concept, approach and practice. This all will serve to provide people with a required, firm, grounding and background in SD so that they will finally be in a position to practice sustainable development in their lives.

Governments need to take an active role in developing public education / public information programmes in SD, including on the reason for its need and on SD as both an approach and practice. Campaigns need be creatively designed to reach the largest number of people possible through print, radio, television and Internet. Canada’s successful ParticipACTION programme, first launched the 1970s to make Canadians more physically active and healthy, would serve as an excellent model for a SD public education / public information campaign.

Governments also need take an active role by ensuring SD is an integral part of all of its formal and continuing education programmes at all levels. This includes SD education from kindergarten, elementary and secondary school levels, right through to the post-secondary school levels (technical colleges, colleges and universities) and in to adult education programmes.

Education, education, education. That is what I see as the current first-step required for any real human progress toward sustainable development.

From my experience:

My own journey to sustainable development...

Knowing some of my early career history and personal background can help a person understand why I came to immediately appreciate the value of sustainable development and came to work in the field.

In my undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University ( ), I majored in Canadian Politics and minored in Philosophy. At the time of my undergraduate studies, I expected my life career would be in the Canadian political arena. With such youthful thoughts in mind, I eventually came to acquire much more than one decade of paid and volunteer political experience in Canada, including in campaign management at the national, federal, provincial and local levels, and also having served as a senior advisor to a prominent governing party member on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

For me, politics was primarily a vehicle for trying to develop solutions to address the human-created social inequities I perceived as existing in human societies. This personal vision was arrived at after my first overseas trip, taken in 1990 to the Republic of Haiti. In that country, I offered volunteer services as a Layman Nurse with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s operations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was during this trip that I unexpectedly came to understand how human-created “systems” and “structures” are a primary cause of the vast inequities in standards of living found amongst earth’s fast-growing number humans. As a colleague of mine once pointed out to me, “While famine arises from nature, poverty does not. Poverty arises from society.” (Current estimates of earth’s human populations is at 6.6 billion people. See:

(2008). Worldometers - world statistics updated in real time [online]. Worldometers. Available from: . [Accessed: 29 April 2008].)

Yet when working in the political sector, and particularly while working on Canada’s Parliament Hill, I saw the reality of politics as that age-old game played by a select few human beings: a game where often privileged humans willingly compete amongst each other to acquire yet another human-created concept - power. I came to realise that politics is seldom a field where macro-level conversations are held about how a human society can develop fair, equitable and even sustainable structures and systems for humans. It seemed more often an arena for micro-level chats related to power retention and meeting the wants of society’s most powerful over addressing the needs of society’s least advantaged. I came to see that the leaders of our human societies had often come to forget those very beings for which our societies were created: humans.

I eventually left politics for the NGO sector, thinking that it offered a more altruistic environment for people who wanted to work toward helping create socially fair and equitable societies. I soon came to realise and accept the obvious: that power struggles and egos exist in all human environments, whether business, NGO or politics. And I can say I became more contented for this realisation.

It was when in the NGO sector and just prior to my working as Executive Director for the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, the administrative operation for the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, that I was first introduced to the concept of sustainable development (see: ). Up until that point in time I could not have been considered environmentally aware and even often foolishly thought that many environmental discussions came from an extremist point of view.

When I first learned about SD, particularly after my dual background in politics and the NGO sector, I immediately saw its clear benefits for human societies and our interactions in human-created social (including economic) environments. I initially saw SD as a positive tool for creating those win-win-win situations amongst competing human interests that I once thought politics would help achieve. In the Clayoquot / Barclay Sounds region, SD was and remains a valuable tool for balancing the competing interests in the cultural / social, economic and environmental arenas.

Yet while at the CBT, it was the people of the Clayoquot and Barclay Sound regions, including the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, who soon helped me realise how much earth’s environment was being degraded by human development activities and how disconnected human urban dwellers such as I had become from our direct impacts on earth. I remain so very grateful to these peoples for helping lift this veil of ignorance from my eyes. Arising from this understanding of human impacts on earth, the next understanding was then obvious: the importance and benefits of SD for creating a necessary balance between humans and their natural environment. My first practical experiences in SD were then with and among the peoples of the Barclay / Clayoquot.

So it was my professional background and experiences in politics and NGOs, combined with the generosity and wisdom of the people of the Clayoquot Sound and Barclay Sound regions, that all helped nurture and foster my appreciation, interest and growing passion in sustainable development.

(To personally ask me questions about my experiences in SD, you are invited to contact me through the Contact Tom section of this web-site.)