My souvenir is two cups
Full of creek water.
I couldn’t take it with me
So, I tipped it over my head,
Re-baptised myself
Because I’m going to be different
From now on.

(cited in Gray & Pigott, 2018)

The notion of individuals as planetary or environmental citizens – citizens who have a right to a sustainable planet – is not new. It dates to at least the 1970s and the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. Instrumental in driving the global agenda for Education for Sustainable Development, it was this belief that education (knowledge), as ‘a prerequisite to action’ (Hawthorne & Alabaster, 1999), would encourage environmental citizenship and serve as an ‘innovative motivational force for behaviour change’ (Seyfang, 2006).

The lack of transformative progress over decades, however, demonstrates the inadequacy of this approach, and highlights that what we know arises through interaction, negotiation and collaborative activity in authentic ‘real world’ challenges, transforming experience into new, culturally valuable capabilities – this is learning. This shift in perspective expanded the notion of an ‘environmental citizen’ to that of a more systemic, interconnected ‘ecological citizen’. Defined by the Ecological Citizen’s Project as ‘someone who accepts the connected nature of life and takes individual and collective action to build a better world’, ecological citizenship is premised on the existence of knowledge, awareness and concern that is rooted in issues of environmental and social justice. Development of self as an ecological citizen requires learning at the level of cognition (head), emotion (heart) and hands (action). It requires expanding and developing the literacies – ways of reading the world – that are key to generating an understanding of the interconnectedness of our social and natural worlds, and to finding purpose in individual and collective action.

‘Development of self as an ecological citizen … requires expanding and developing the literacies – ways of reading the world – that are key to generating an understanding of the interconnectedness of our social and natural worlds, and to finding purpose in individual and collective action.’

Initiated by the Impact Trust in a unique collaboration with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in South Africa, Routes to Resilience is a social enterprise and known provider of CDP-accredited programmes in sustainability leadership and resilience building.[1] Its Sygnature Award and Resilient Futures programme have engaged over 1,200 young people in the last three years across the UK, Europe and southern Africa. Our work is premised on the belief that socio-cultural, situated (place-based) eco-pedagogies – experiential engagement with the communities of life – is essential for co-constructing knowledge of how we are connected, interdependent and intertwined with the non-human elements of our world. This encourages the development of multiple, critical literacies, and builds the capacity to feel ourselves as part of a larger process where the value code is that which increases the civil commons (Howard, 2018, p. 9).

Daniels (2001, p. 20) warns against the tendency in Western constructivist interpretations of socio-cultural theory for ‘the emphasis on interpersonal interpretation and interaction as a setting for the facilitation of developmental processes [to result in removing] the instructional invective [necessary for mediation]’. The Impact Trust’s understanding of learning is that it is not an unstructured discovery adventure embarked upon by a free-willed novice. Rather, conceptual understanding – for example, extractivism as a form of resource exploitation within a globalised capitalist framework – is mediated through the recruitment of everyday, ‘lived’ experience that enables the meaningful appropriation of abstract concepts to be deeply appreciated and internalised.

With core programme offerings established for teens and young adults as well as their educators, our curriculum is flexible to tailoring for age, audience and purpose. Our overarching aim is to share the view of the world that our student participants have, at whatever age, thereby developing an appreciation of systemic relationships rather than discrete events: of people and place; of ourselves as indivisible from our natural world; of the socio-ecosystems we interact with and support (consciously or not); and of the challenges we face.

One of the most effective ways to recruit the experiential to mediate the conceptual is to provide structured encounters within physical settings that demonstrate both the connection between people and planet, and its complexity – the four-dimensional character of an urban river for example, or the competing and interacting ways in which we utilise, support or exploit ecosystem services. Engaging with multiple perspectives on any concept is key to developing a sense and an experience of complexity in a systems view. In particular, we believe that dialogic and reflective pedagogies are essential to developing the internal language for cognitive development.

Learning of this nature offers the serenity of perspective. It allows us to understand that we belong not only where we find ourselves to be, but also to something much greater than ourselves. By providing opportunities to learn through critical thinking, emotional engagement and collective action, we encourage scholarship on a deeper level, enabling transformative learning and transformative living.

[1] The CDP is a not-for-profit organisation studying the implications of climate change for the world’s principal publicly traded companies. Until 2012, it was called the Carbon Disclosure Project.


Daniels, H. (2001). Vygotsky and pedagogy. Routledge.

Gray, T., & Pigott, F. (2018). Lasting lessons in outdoor learning: A facilitation model emerging from 30 years of reflective practice, Ecopsychology10(4), 195–204.

Hawthorne, M., & Alabaster, T. (1999). Citizen 2000: Development of a model of environmental citizenship. Global Environmental Change, 9(1), 25–43.

Howard, P.G. (2018). Twenty-first century learning as a radical re-thinking of education in the service of life. Education Sciences, 8(4),189.

Seyfang, G. (2006). Ecological citizenship and sustainable consumption: Examining local organic food networks. Journal of Rural Studies, 22(4), 383–395.

This post was written for BERA – the British Educational Research Association based on a presentation at the TEESNET conference in 2020. You can view the original blog here and watch the video of the TEESNET conference presentation here.

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