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Reimagining sustainable development through critical transformative learning

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By Abigail Martinez Renteria

· 5 min read

In recent years, the term 'sustainable development' has saturated our lives, from social media ads to international policies and even school curricula. Despite its prevalence, it often remains elusive, with an obscure relevance in our daily lives. This naturally raises some questions: Why should I prioritize 'Net Zero' carbon emissions when I struggle to put food on my children's table? What incentive do I have to oppose mining and extractive industries, which provide my only source of income? Why choose cycling when safety concerns loom on the streets? These are legitimate concerns that underscore the intricate relationship between sustainable development and the everyday challenges faced by individuals and communities.

From an educator's perspective, gaining a comprehensive understanding of sustainable development is paramount for building dignified lives, and for involving more individuals, including ourselves, in a more sustainable lifestyle. In this context, I offer insights from the realm of critical transformative learning, which can be seamlessly integrated into our educational practices to engage people in sustainable development efforts.

What is critical transformative learning and why is it relevant?

Drawing inspiration from Mezirow's (2012) definition of transformative learning and critical pedagogy approaches, we can define critical transformative learning as a process in which we question assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspectives that were previously unexamined. This questioning leads to a more open, adaptable, and well-justified outlook. This approach promotes critical thinking and empowers individuals to become agents of transformation. Instead of adopting a neutral stance, it actively examines the forces that shape the human condition, as articulated by Kirylo (2013). By embracing these approaches, we can play a pivotal role in guiding both others and ourselves toward a deeper understanding of sustainable development and inspire meaningful action to shape a more sustainable and dignified future for all.

Promoting critical thinking through questioning

Through our everyday life practices, we consistently influence the trajectory of sustainability development, whether positively or negatively. Critical thinking serves as a valuable tool guiding us to transform our routines and make well-informed decisions and actions. From inspecting our clothing choices to evaluating our political beliefs; engaging in self-reflection, and evaluating both ourselves and our context can be instrumental in fostering sustainable development.

For instance, consider questions like: Why do I hold the beliefs I do on this matter? Are there alternative explanations or viewpoints I have not considered? What could be the potential consequences of my actions or decisions, as well as those of others? Am I accepting assumptions that require deeper examination? What additional information or knowledge might enhance the quality of my decision-making? How might individuals from diverse backgrounds or experiences perceive this situation? Are there biases affecting my judgment? Am I making the most ethically sound choices?

The intricate and interconnected nature of sustainable development

Engaging with the intricate and interrelated challenges of sustainability involves recognizing the inherent complexity and interdependence of social, environmental, and economic factors. It requires understanding the entire ecosystem and the cause-and-effect relationships that govern it. Anticipating consequences, adopting a long-term perspective, and taking a multidisciplinary approach are essential aspects of this approach. As individuals, we can apply these principles from our unique positions.

A common example of this is seen in our sustainable consumer choices. When making purchases, we can consider the environmental, social, and economic impacts. For instance, we can choose products with eco-friendly certifications, support fair trade options, or opt for locally sourced goods to reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. Additionally, we can engage in critical reflection on issues like water scarcity, and understanding who controls this vital resource and why. By doing so, we can work collectively as a community and as citizens to foster social justice and equity in access to this essential resource.

Empowering agents of transformation

In addition to fostering critical thinking, actively empowering ourselves and others plays a pivotal role in the pursuit of dignified lives. Empowerment extends beyond mere reflection; it encompasses inspiring individuals to critically assess their own position within sustainability challenges and take proactive steps to make a difference. This process nurtures individual agency, fosters a profound understanding of our roles, and underscores the significance of shared responsibilities within the realm of sustainable development. Importantly, empowerment shifts the perspective from viewing sustainability as the sole responsibility of remote entities to recognizing it as a collective endeavor that we all play a part in shaping. Empowering others involves not only providing knowledge but also enabling them to take meaningful action. By offering practical support, resources, mentorship, and opportunities for engagement, we can inspire individuals to become active participants in creating a more sustainable and dignified future for all.

Dialogue and collaboration for sustainable development

Fostering shared understanding, shared responsibilities, and collaboration are crucial principles in addressing multifaceted challenges. Dialogue encourages open communication, conflict resolution, inclusivity, participatory decision-making, and knowledge sharing. On the other hand, collaboration emphasizes a multidisciplinary approach, pooling resources, and scaling impact. These principles manifest in various forms and contexts, from conversations with neighbors about the challenges of their community to organizations working together to address them through academic research, global climate agreements, NGO projects, and corporate sustainability efforts. By engaging in dialogue and collaboration, stakeholders and communities can challenge and work together to build strategies for transformation.

In our collective journey towards dignified lives, we have explored the transformative power of critical learning, the significance of questioning assumptions, and the need to engage with the intricacies of sustainable development. By embracing these principles, we can transform not only ourselves but also the world around us. Critical thinking, dialogue, and collaboration are the cornerstones of sustainable development, providing a roadmap for building a future that is not only environmentally sustainable but also socially just and economically equitable. As we continue to question, reflect, and work together, we can inspire meaningful change, foster inclusivity, and create a more sustainable and dignified future for all. A dignified life for all is not an abstract concept; it is the outcome of our collective efforts and a testimony to our commitment for a better world.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Abigail Martinez Renteria is the Programme Coordinator for the MY World Mexico #ActionXSDGs initiative, a Ph.D. candidate and UNESCO Chair Scholar at the University of East Anglia, and an educator committed to social justice. She actively promotes sustainable development and is currently conducting research into the role of online learning networks in activism across Latin America.

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