How to rethink development through the lens of aesthetic formation and action

Report on the Mundus maris panel at the EADI General Conference, York University, UK, 21 September 2011

by Tobias Troll

“We should take the current crisis as an opportunity to rethink and test options for multiple futures, which are more sustainable and satisfying than the current situation”, said Cornelia E. Nauen of Mundus maris, chair and convener of the panel on Sciences and Arts for Sustainability - How to rethink development through the lens of aesthetic formation and action at the EADI General Conference in York, UK, on 21 September. EADI is the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Introducing the NGO Mundus maris, she outlined multiple and dramatic threats to marine life ranging from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution to climate change. The central occupation of Mundus maris is to protect the oceans and the people of the sea. Since the late 1980s global marine fisheries landings are shrinking by approximately 700,000 tons per year as a result of world-wide overfishing. This affects the health and resilience of marine ecosystems and has serious consequences to local fishing communities. Marine fisheries already use about 1/3 of global primary production, almost as much as our exploitation of terrestrial ecosystems. Less and less is left for regenerative functioning of marine ecosystems across the oceans and there is no chance to expand use according to current fishing practices, many of which use unselective and destructive gear, such as trawling. We should realise the urgency of restoring marine (and terrestrial) ecosystems in order to be able to properly feed, dress and shelter a human population potentially growing by another 50% in the next decades.

The panel featured Stella Williams, Charles Hopkins and Sebastiao Mendonça Ferreira. Aliou Sall, who was supposed to act as discussant, was refused the visa to enter the UK – a scandalous practice which was unanimously condemned by the participants in the event.


Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair for “Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability”, York University, Toronto, Canada, using an animation developed by the Sea Around Us Project, referred in his presentation to how the progressive expansion of fisheries since the 1950s was now affecting marine ecosystems in all corners of the oceans. He also exposed that >80% of the biomass of large predatory fishes has disappeared from the North Atlantic over the last 100 years. While the world has always changed, he underlined that current change processes are different in terms of scale, speed and the pervasive role of humans, and will require new answers, in particular regarding education.

Charles arranged his talk around the central issue: what is the purpose of education in the context of enormous unmet needs of populations in many parts of the world and ubiquitous influence of humans on nature, as illustrated by the impacts on marine ecosystems. He suggested that according to Scandinavian ways of framing the issue, a vision of sustainability would be: Well-being for all, forever – including not only humans, but all living organisms. He said that “reorienting our education systems to address sustainability is not an option – it is an obligation.” The current dominant self-orientation of education, aiming at employability and individual careers, should change its focus towards learning about what it means to live in sustainable manners – an approach with can be observed in many indigenous cultures.

While the challenges are immense, there were signs of hope: China had build 1500 special ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) schools, including farming activities and learning of social competences. In today's ESD the motto can no longer be “train the trainers”, but rather needs to place the emphasis on mutual knowledge creation through a “learning with the learners” philosophy. One example of this is the campaign “Hands for change” launched by a girl in India ( complementing the ecological footprint concept.

The powerpoint presentation of Charles Hopkins can be downloaded here (pdf, 4MB).


Sebastiao Mendonça Ferreira from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlined ideas how to capitalise local knowledge for sustainability. He has worked for decades with local communities in Peru and elsewhere and recently returned to his home in Peru. He underscored that language plays a key role in the history of knowledge commons: “Human language can transmit knowledge, while animal language can transmit only emotions and information”. He outlined differences between general (and scientific) and local knowledge, insisting that the latter is rooted in a specific group enabling local social life, based on shared experience, mind sets, culture and values.

Thus, contrary to scientific knowledge which encapsulates general rules of nature such local knowledge can not be transposed easily. However, it is tested and based in experience and works as a “filter” for external knowledge. Local knowledge is usually geared towards solving specific problems, rather than understanding basic principles. While the barriers and costs to access knowledge from different sources are falling, complexity and sophistication are growing.

Based on his long empirical experience Sebastiao suggests that systemic problems can be effectively addressed by using external knowledge to update local knowledge and keep it relevant in a rapidly changing world and thus enable local communities to cope successfully with change.

Sebastiao Mendonça Ferreira's presentation can be downloaded here (pdf, 1 MB).


Stella Williams, recently retired from Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, Nigeria, shared her long-standing passion for the education of young people.

Her goal was to replace memorisation-based learning by one focused on critical learning that fostered young people's confidence in themselves, their ability to dig deeper into a problem and find creative answers through mentoring by experienced adults.

It is in this context that both the sciences and the arts, though having largely different tools to explore the world, are needed in education.

The presentation of Stella Williams can be downloaded here.

The debate featured questions and comments on how to value local experience in the global context.

More information about EADI and its activities is available here.