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The Hot Seat: Sara Parkin (Forum for the Future)

Tuesday 24-03-2015 - 17:25

At the first ever Student Sustainability Summit, Sara Parkin, founding director of Forum For The Future, gave our closing keynote speech on how we start getting sustainability right, and simply taking action.

After a day of thinking about sustainability as today’s most pressing social justice issue, we caught up with Sara for more thoughts on how students can be part of the solution to our social, economic and environmental challenges.


What have we been getting wrong about sustainability so far?

Number one: we’ve made it just about the environment, which is wrong. The environment knows what to do to live sustainably. It’s us that don’t, so it’s a social project.

Number two: we’ve been very negative. We’ve always talked about what’s going wrong rather than what good would look like, and how great it would be for people if it were like that. It’s very important that we do that because, especially the right wing in America, have it figured out that anyone who’s for the environment has to be against people.

We need to have a good story about how a healthy environment in the future is good for people.


So what does good look like? What is this more positive vision?

We’d be judging our success, our progress, on how we feel about ourselves, our relationships, and the place that we live. That’s what people say constitutes whether they feel happy or not. So why isn’t that why we measure our success?

We need to talk about what an economy with fewer people consuming less stuff would look like. That’s coming. It can either come in a planned, orderly way, or it can come because we’re up against the planetary capacity to support our high consumption levels.

We can have a great economy, if we grow human, natural, social capital. There’s an enormous amount of work to be done in that area that can meet livelihoods, and makes it good to work together. Finance and technology are in support of that. At the moment we’re running our economy as if the only thing that matters is the career of cash. But the money will follow when we get it right.


What role do universities and colleges have in shaping this vision of a sustainable future?

These are big organisations, with a big estate. Not just buildings, but green space as well. They’re situated in localities, and they could do a massive amount not just in the sustainability literacy of their graduates, but they could do an awful lot around how to actually do things.

They could drive community energy by collaborating with local authorities and other universities, and then get people to actually invest in it. I’ve got money invested in a local windmill at home in Scotland, and that’s where I’ve got my pension plan. So there’s no reason why community benefits can’t bring universities together to actually do it.


It’s easy for students to think that our leaders aren’t leading on sustainability. What’s wrong with leadership at the moment?

The problem with leaders now is that they aren’t trained in good leadership. What we need is sustainability literate leadership so that, whatever people are leading, they’re doing it in a way that’s more of a sustainable direction.

That means making sure sustainability literacy is in every leadership course, which it isn’t at the moment. It’s not even in management courses.

Everybody who’s in education and training that’s purporting to build leaderships skills, needs to get sustainability literacy. Because if you’re not leading towards sustainability – where are you going?


What’s just one thing a students’ union can do this year to take a step towards a sustainable future?

Simple: make sure nobody leaves the institution that isn’t sustainability literate.

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Features, Sustainability

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