Sustainability through experience

July 8, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedwoodsYou are deep in the woods at nightfall and it has started to rain.

With you are three colleagues from work: the girl from reception you nod hello to in the mornings who is complaining now about her damp hair and no straightening iron; old so-and-so from accounts who is two years off retirement but knows his knots and lashings from when he used to run a Scout group; and some young intern you’ve never met before who actually seems to be enjoying himself and you have privately christened ‘Rambo’.

You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t been ‘volunteered’ for some sustainable-team-building-thingummy-whatsit that you only agreed to because you’ve just applied for a promotion. And now you are bracing yourself for a long uncomfortable night in a make-shift shelter a bit too up close and personal with your three unlikely companions.

When it comes to it, none of you can sleep and the young intern keeps shining his torch at rustling noises just outside which are definitely different to the rain pattering on the tarpaulin roof. So you chat to one another about work, then home and family to pass away the time. You finally drop off just before dawn and wake up not much later to bird song and glorious sunlight filtering through the trees.

Old so-and-so from accounts whose name you now know is Edward and is a recent widower has already made a brew of tea and Saleem the intern who says his girlfriend looks like Victoria Beckham (though you couldn’t see it in the photograph he showed you) and Charlene from reception (Chas to her friends) whose younger sister has Down’s syndrome and a birthday tomorrow are cooking up porridge on the stove. You stretch your stiffened limbs and amble down to the stream to splash yourself awake.

You check your watch and, to your surprise, you feel quite good at not being stuck in traffic now as you run the kids to school on your way to the office and you close off the fleeting thought of the back-log of emails that will await you on your return. You sip smoky tea and smile with Chas and Edward at Saleem’s lively retelling of the terrors of the night. You are looking forward now to heading back for a hot shower and make-up and the morning session to discuss some guy called Maslow. But what you really want to know out is how the other groups have got on…

Sustainability through experience – a programme proposal

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is an approach to learning and development involving active participation in challenging and unfamiliar learning experiences, followed by a process of reflection and review to draw new insights and knowledge from them.

It is a ‘facilitated’ rather than a ‘taught’ approach so that participants are willingly motivated to take part and are responsible for their own learning and the relevant meaning they draw from it.

Most of us naturally reflect on the various experiences, good and bad, that we have in life. But, in order to draw out and apply constructive and beneficial learning outcomes, we need to be able to review these using appropriate analytical and decision-making skills.

So the process of facilitation is directed at critical and relational analysis of learning experiences, opening up consideration of wider contexts for their learning outcomes, and enabling the transfer of knowledge and insights gained into other more usual life settings.

Facilitation also attends to the dynamics of the group, discouraging domination by individuals and motivating uninhibited participation and contribution by all.

Importantly, facilitation is neutral in terms of learning outcomes and the pace and scope of learning are determined by the participants themselves.

Why an experiential learning approach to sustainability?

We are living at a time of urgent and escalating ecological crises and a widespread human response is required. But the consequences of ecologically unsustainability are still largely unfelt in the West.

This lack of direct experience is cited as a significant reason why, after more than a decade of behaviour change campaigns and increasingly grave evidence of life-threatening environmental deterioration, Western societies have not yet been motivated to shift to sustainable ways of living.

Our own first-hand experiences are usually the most direct means by which we learn to adapt and modify our personal beliefs and behaviours to changing circumstances in the world around us.

For example, people in the UK who have experienced flooding have expressed themselves less uncertain of the threat of global warming and more willing to take action to avert its impacts than those who have not [1].

Much larger numbers of people are currently responding to their first-hand experiences of on-going economic uncertainty by curtailing their expenditure and modifying their consumption habits [2]. But few have yet been caused to reflect on the conflicting requisites of economic recovery and environmental recovery or on the likely connections between recurring economic upheavals and living beyond our ecological means.

A growing minority of people who have become well aware of the sustainability crisis have gravitated towards taking active part in a range of local and communal sustainability initiatives. But these people represent only a tiny fraction of Western populations and the vast majority remains largely ambivalent about issues of unsustainability and continues to prioritise more evident everyday concerns.

So in the absence of directly perceivable impacts that could conceivably engender the necessary mass scale of social change, the ‘metaphorical’ approach of experiential learning provides a means to motivate hitherto uninvolved people to engage more meaningfully with the issues.

Experiential learning is psychologically engaging…

Research studies increasingly indicate that in order to motivate such engagement, people need to become personally involved with sustainability at a psychological and emotional level [3].

Image RemovedThe physical and psychological engagement of experiential learning makes the learning outcomes much more memorable and relevant to people than conventional ‘taught’ approaches that require us only to receive information passively. Active participation in shared learning experiences that are purposefully challenging and committing but also enjoyable and personally fulfilling can be a powerful means of stimulating new interest in issues that otherwise might seem irrelevant to our present lives.

For instance, in introducing the theme of water sustainability, an experiential challenge to construct and use a solar still to purify dirty water can stimulate wider consideration of how we presently use and value water, how water insecurity is predicted to impact on our own future lives and how it already effects the lives of increasing numbers who lack access to safe supplies.

On the same theme, an initiative task to improvise a solar shower from assorted junk materials can promote new thinking about the relevance of appropriate technologies, renewable sources of energy and the natural systems and services that we habitually take for granted. Or an exercise to make do on a minimal water ration for a day can stimulate meaningful debate on priorities to be resolved between essential and inessential human needs.

The possibilities for motivating new thinking about diverse aspects of sustainability that can arise from contrived but nonetheless engaging first-hand experiences are many and varied.

Experiential learning fosters positive interpersonal relationships…

Shared experiences of group challenge are frequently reported as promoting strong group bonds and high levels of trust between participants that are rarer in more formal learning settings [4].

Image RemovedThis aspect of experiential learning enables a supportive environment in which participants from a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances can feel free to be themselves and to contribute without fear of being shown up or appearing foolish.

It also encourages unprejudiced consideration of opposing attitudes and opinions held by individual participants and permits deeper exploration of commonly-held ‘core’ values such as empathy and compassion which in turn can stimulate new insights into ethical and equitable dimensions of sustainability [5].

Public views on ‘green’ issues have become highly polarised and research is making clear that publically expressed beliefs and values such as political allegiance, levels of personal autonomy afforded by income, and social identity manifested through consumption have a direct correlation with attitudes towards sustainability [6]. The potential for experiential learning to place participants on an equal footing and to progress beyond surface interpersonal barriers to engage deeper core values is particularly significant in this regard.

It is commonly recognised by campaigners and educators that mass social change towards sustainability depends much more on motivating communal action than on isolated individual efforts. The first-hand experience gained by participants into how mutual trust and inclusive communal relationships can be developed through collaborative learning activities provides high potential for this approach to community building to be spread more widely.

Experiential learning is personally meaningful and relevant…

The learning outcomes that arise from experiential learning are determined by the participants themselves. This self-directed approach helps to ensures that learning is immediately relevant and meaningful to participants in their own lives and circumstances [7].

Image RemovedObjections have sometimes been raised that sustainability initiatives promote moral agendas or seek to engineer ‘green’ values and behaviour [8]. In an experiential learning approach, whilst experiences are deliberately designed to stimulate new thinking about issues of sustainability, facilitation is intentionally neutral in terms of learning outcomes. Because these are identified through an open process of reflection and review, objections about manipulated behaviour change are avoided.

Facilitation does intend to engender ‘sustainability literacy’ skills such as critical thinking, relational thinking and systems thinking to aid understanding of the complexity of human and natural sustainability issues [9]. Participants are encouraged to apply these same analytical skills to reflecting on their own life decisions beyond the programme.

Participants often report that the learning they gain from experiential programmes is personally relevant to their lives and causes them to reflect anew on some personal life decisions and priorities. However, the application of this learning beyond the programme presents them with different and less supported challenges [10]. For this reason facilitation also anticipates problems that can be encountered in transferring learning back to everyday settings where familiar barriers to sustainability and old habits and influences prevail.

Ideally the process of transfer will be aided by opportunities to continue the mutual learning, support and mentoring commenced on the programme through meetings back in the home environment. Where participants are geographically close, (for instance, they work at the same company premises or are made up of local family and friends), the natural desire of participants to maintain contact beyond the programme will encourage this. Individuals might also be inspired to become involved with other community sustainability initiatives that exist in their area or else to start one up.

Experiential learning leads to closer connections with nature…

Experiential learning most usually takes place in the context of outdoor and environmental education or therapeutic outdoor programmes. As a result of this outdoor setting, participants frequently report forming closer spiritual connections to nature and gaining an enhanced sense of place in the natural world [11]. This outcome does not appear to be dependent on improved understanding of natural sciences and systems but seems to arise naturally as a result of close exposure to the natural environment.

Advocates of ‘eco-literacy’ emphasise the sustainability benefits of gaining basic understanding of how eco-systems work and being able to relate this to human systems and human ecology [12]. For participants who are interested to pursue this, the experiential learning approach is well suited.

But for many participants it appears to be sufficient simply to experience a new or renewed emotional connection with nature to inspire deeper reflection on what value human societies and systems place on it and what actions are necessary to conserve and safeguard the natural biological resources that sustain us.

Programme Structure:

‘Sustainability through experience’ programmes could take place over a consecutive five to seven day period or else in shorter periods over a series of weeks or months. All programmes will ideally include one or more outdoor residential periods.

An advantage of a single programme of a week’s duration is that it can be entirely residential and the learning progression is continuous and uninterrupted.

Equally, a staged programme over several weeks can provide opportunities to implement new learning in the home environment and to give and receive feed-back on individual experiences of this during subsequent programme sessions.

Programme Participation:

Whilst programmes can be designed for all age groups, abilities and motivations, the principal aim of this proposed experiential approach to motivating sustainability is to attract participation by self-autonomous adults (mid-teens and above) from population groups who are presently largely or entirely unengaged with the issues.

Image RemovedGroups will ideally be made up of between six and twelve participants from a diversity of backgrounds. These might be, for example, employees from the same company but with varying work-place roles or inter-generational groups of families and friends.

The more diverse the composition of a participating group in terms of age, ethnicity, values and social background, the more opportunities will arise for new and challenging experiences and encounters that lead to significantly beneficial learning outcomes.

Outreaching of Learning:

One approach to outreaching the learning from programmes is to attract participation by individuals who are seen as ‘influential’ amongst their peers or in society more generally who have agency to implement their learning in their wider spheres of influence [13].

Another possibility is to provide training for individuals who have an interest in facilitating experiential programmes themselves [14].

Some experiential activities are readily adaptable for use in other contexts; for instance, in youth groups, university campuses, social clubs, places of worship, prisons, or indeed any other group settings in which issues of sustainability are being considered. Whilst these activities will have a lesser impact than participation in a full programme, they still offer a valuable experiential means of exploring issues of sustainability.

Handbook of activities:

With outreaching and extending the benefits of the experiential approach in mind, an on-line and printed handbook describing a range of accessible and adaptable activities and their potential learning outcomes is proposed for wider use by sustainability educators, teachers, youth and community leaders and others. This handbook will also intend to provide guidance in facilitation and reviewing methods and theoretical underpinning of experiential learning processes.

Funding of Programmes:

It is envisaged that a sizeable proportion of the costs of running programmes will be raised by fees. The adventurous nature of the proposed programme will attract some participants to fund their own places on it. In other cases, programme fees will be sought from sponsoring organisations (e.g. staff training and development budgets or corporate social responsibility budgets).

To maximise opportunities for participants to attend from the widest range of population groups, fees will also need to be subsidised by grants and philanthropic and charitable donations. Raised funds will also be required to run an initial series of programmes in order to pilot the approach (which is well-proven in the context of developmental education but as yet untried in the context of sustainability education).


It is hoped to pilot this approach to sustainability in partnership with one or more interested organisations who can bring a wide knowledge and experience of sustainability education to establishing programmes and provide independent evaluation of the efficacy of the approach.

Comments and criticism cordially invited…


[1] Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C., & Pidgeon, N.F. (2001) Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experience, Nature Climate Change

[2] Office for National Statistics (2001) Consumer Trends Briefing Quarter 1 2011 (pdf)

[3] Crompton, T., & Kasser, T., (2009), Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (pdf), Green Books

[4] Barrett, J., & Greenaway, R (1995), Why Adventure: The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in Young People’s Personal and Social Development, Foundation for Outdoor Adventure

[5] Murray, P. (2011), The Sustainable Self, Earthscan

[6] See, for instance: Whitmarsh, L. (2011) Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change; and: Jackson, T., (2004) Consuming Paradise: Unsustainable consumption in cultural and social-psychological context (pdf), in Hubacek, K., Inaba, A., and Stagl, S. (2004) Driving Forces of and Barriers to Sustainable Consumption, Proceedings of an International Workshop, Leeds, 5-6 March 2004

[7] See also, for instance: Oliver, L.P., (1987) Study Circles: Coming Together For Personal Growth and Social Change, Seven Locks Press

[8] See, for instance: Butcher, J., in Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 October 2007, Keep the green moral agenda off campus

[9] See, for instance: Stibbe, A. (ed) (2009) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Green Books; and WWF Scotland, (2005) Linking Thinking: new perspectives on thinking and learning for sustainability

[10] Barrett, J., & Greenaway, R. (1995) Why Adventure: The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in Young People’s Personal and Social Development, Foundation for Outdoor Adventure

[11] See, for instance: WWF, (2010) The Ecology of Experience: Six months on from the Natural Change Project (pdf), WWF report; and: Hine, R., Pretty, J., and Barton, J., (2009) Social, Psychological and Cultural Benefits of Large Natural Habitat and Wilderness Experiences (pdf), University of Essex

[12] Center for Ecoliteracy website

[13] See, for instance: WWF, (2010) Natural Change: Psychology and Sustainability (pdf), WWF Report

[14] See, for instance: Carbon Conversations facilitation and training, and: Transition Network Train the Trainers

Tags: Education