New Economy Journal

Our Environment and Our Economy – Rethinking Sustainability Education for High School Students

Volume 3, Issue October 2022

October 31, 2022

By - Phil Jones

Piece length: 1,194 words

Article Theme : Regenerative Economics

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For at least 10 years, ‘sustainability’ has been a compulsory theme throughout Australian school curricula. According to Living Sustainably, The Australian Government’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability (2009), this educational initiative aimed to equip people to understand connections between environmental, economic, social and political systems. However, simply making ‘sustainability’ a compulsory theme failed and continues to fail to achieve that important objective.  Simply ticking sustainability boxes in teaching programs does not allow students to make those vital connections. While mass demonstrations such as SchoolStrike4Climate are a positive sign of successful education, developing a ‘shared vision for the future’ has not yet emerged as an outcome.

To redress this situation, nine online lessons have been created in conjunction with the New Economy Network Australia, (NENA) and the advice of members of the NSW Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. The lessons integrate Science and Economics and focus on the need for a steady state economy. The online lessons are now freely available to all but specifically designed for the entire cross section of Year 9-10  high school students. They fit neatly into the ecology component of the Science course. The Moodle website entitled “Our Environment and Our Economic System” is available at In a two step process, students and teachers register then self enrol. Each lesson consists of an introductory video followed by interactive consolidation activities.

Lesson 1 introduces two famous ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Forest. Students learn about the producers, consumers and apex predators, discover how they relate to one another and gain an understanding of trophic levels, food chains and food webs.

Lesson 2 looks at the biomass and energy pyramids and how matter and energy flow through ecosystems. Students get a glimpse of the Yellowstone National Park and the role of apex predators. They become familiar with terms such as autotrophs and heterotrophs and see how the stability of ecosystems can be easily and drastically changed. The expansion of the human agricultural ecosystem into natural ecosystems as a result of meat eating is featured.

The carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus “cycles” are studied in Lesson 3. The impact of increasing quantities of the compounds of these elements is considered with reference made to the acidification of the oceans and the problem of  eutrophication. Students can then understand why the term “cycle” might not be completely accurate.

The concept of a steady state system is the key focus of Lesson 4. Stable natural ecosystems  are described as a steady state system. Other examples of steady state systems are featured such as a pot on a stove being heated, an overflowing sink, a blast furnace and an aquarium. They enable students to clearly define and understand a steady state system. . There is a flow of energy through the system enabling processes within the system to continue at a constant rate. There is a steady flow of inputs and outputs. The question is then raised as to whether the Earth is a steady state system.

Lesson 5 briefly describes key features of the modern economy beginning with the shopping centre, the sale of goods and services, consumption, waste, the flow of money, the extraction of energy and natural resources, pollution, the role of banks and superannuation companies and governments. The investment decisions of financial institutions are highlighted as decisive. The significance of rules affecting bank lending are included as a factor affecting economic growth. The advantages and disadvantages of economic growth are also included in the lesson. Factors promoting economic growth are listed. However the Great Acceleration Graphs make it clear that there is a limit to economic growth.

Lesson 6 takes a more detailed look at the Great Acceleration Graphs, the Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome, the global ecological boundaries, the threat of extinction of a growing number of species, the expanding global ecological footprint and the growing proximity of the annual Earth Overshoot Day help to establish the need for a steady state economy.

Lesson 7 looks at  the risk of safe ecological boundaries being exceeded at the local/regional level: the high CO2 levels affecting the sea level, bush fires, floods, rendering land uninhabitable or unsuitable for habitation. Other examples of safe boundaries being exceeded in regional areas include, pollution from metallic mining affecting the availability of fresh water, the biodiversity loss  resulting from the expansion of farmland and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services and the ocean pollution from waste plastic. The indistinct nature of boundary limits is also considered.

Lesson 8 addresses the question, “What Will a Steady State Economy Look Like?”  Total reliance on renewable energy, no fossil fuel extraction, complete recycling of non-renewable resources,  human population at a sustainable level, half or more than half the world’s natural ecosystems preserved, enforced environmental laws with the far greater level of recycling, repairing and reusing of products leading to different forms of employment. A wider involvement in the “Voluntary Simplicity” movement,  a greater level of job sharing and reduced working hours, more time for recreation and the arts, a fairer distribution of incomes, (both within and between countries), greater financial transparency, more Local Exchange Trading Systems, the “Circular Economy” without growth, greater shareholder activism, a mechanism to manage the debt between countries, more “Farmers’ Markets”, and possibly a greater reliance on tourism are described as features of the Steady State Economy. Unknown developments in science and technology may continue to improve human lives.

Elements of progress towards the Steady State Economy are looked at in the concluding, Lesson 9, beginning with the fact that a clearly defined goal has been established. Climate Change is now taken seriously by world leaders, the change in meat eating habits, the growth of the renewable energy industry, systematic recycling by local councils, recycling of sewage, greater awareness within the younger generation resulting from education, businesses and financial institutions supporting action to preserve the environment, growth of community recycling and recovery centres, declining fertility rates in most countries, measures to ensure fairer taxes are been fought for, a better understanding of the causes of poverty including purchasing choices and shareholder activism are all positive signs. This lesson also looks at the need for a just transition, the challenges that still need to be contended with, including the implementation of international agreements, our own personal values and how they are decided upon, deciding if species and ecosystems have the intrinsic right to be protected. Limitations of notions and ideas such as “decoupling”, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Circular Economy are also explored. . The inspiration provided by a range of leaders, advocacy networks and organisations  provide students with the opportunity to develop a sense of empowerment and for teachers to help manage the increasing problem of student eco-stress and eco-anxiety.

It is hoped that these lessons may help students design the society, economy and natural environment of the future based on a recognition of the intrinsic value of all living things and of the beauty of the natural world. They may help provide a vision of the inevitable changes that must occur in the coming decades and the confidence that our present system can be changed in a way that safeguards a desirable way of life for all.

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