Rio+20: Calling All Eco Superhero Wannabes

Well, as promised, we’ll be putting the selected and shortlisted Rio+20 entries up on this blog site over the next few weeks.

To kick things off, today we’re featuring the entry by Bridie Appleby-Gunnill (MA in International Development and Education, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences).

Bridie’s entry was praised by the judging panel for the thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis given of the failings in our current educational system and the barriers this presents to engaging young people in issues of citizenship and sustainable development.

We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we all did; we’re sure you will!


Calling all Eco Superhero wannabes: Earth is a damsel in distress, are you up to the challenge of rescuing her?

The theme of the Rio+20 Earth Summit is ‘environmental global governance,’ (Pearce, 2011) we now dominate so much of the earth’s life support systems, that simply using less and reducing our colossal foot print won’t do, planet Earth can’t save herself anymore.

The Rio+20 events at Newcastle University provided the intellectual and physical space for the meeting of minds to debate under the headings; Is Aid Bad? Do You Have To Be Rich To Be Green? & Sustainable Development-Who Pays?

Four collectively decided final areas of importance were; Education, Economy, Societal Change & Balance, which were further discussed asking which actions we wanted taking forward to the Earth Summit. Collectively we identified that the main virulent barrier and conversely enabling power of change of mind and attitude towards sustainability and the associated concepts was education. Education is hence the theme of my report not only is it a passion but also was voted by the majority for importance.

Education: ‘Be the change…

…you want to see in the world,’ (Ghandi, as cited in Stein, 2007).

There could be no clearer a demonstration of the willingness and optimism for change, which I witnessed in the debates with the six form students. The recurring theme in these events was that societal change was at the heart of sustainable change, but the fate of this change lies within the achievements of education worldwide.

The triumph from these events was the interaction and dialogue with the local young people. Bringing the Newcastle University students and Six Form students ordinary learnt intelligence together, seated around a table (with fair trade orange juice) creating a recipe for very interesting dialogue and debate; turning our intelligence into collective extraordinary intelligence.

This experience provided for me personally and I would suggest the majority of the room the proof that, the key to sustainable change lies within the mind of individuals, communities, societies and the collective world coming together.

The tragedy is that this is not ‘normal’ practice. University students learn and interact in a designated place, sixth form students do the same and the general public are not typically involved within these hubbubs of learning and debate. And that’s just it, how can we search for a solution and a new approach to sustainability which will affect us all, when all are not involved in the process?

This was something that my table discussed in-depth and was a recurring theme throughout all the events and the main symposium. It seems oxymoronic to have a select few specialists debating and researching for a way forward that will affect us all, as Surowiecki (2005) said,  ‘many are smarter than the few.’

These ‘specialists’ were discussed in-depth under many topics including; economy, informed consumption, societal change and international cooperation. NGO’s and governments officials (the specialists) who have spent over 2.3 trillion dollars in aid have still not managed to achieve relative progress; questioning the accountability and the corruption within the ‘top down’ approach.

My table strongly felt that everyone has a right to be a part of creating the sustainable bigger picture, we just need the tools, ability and opportunity to be active global citizens and this should be our human right; bringing the debate swiftly back to education.

A society is irrigated and sustained by its common interaction of ordinary intelligence which is conditioned by education. I don’t want to run the risk of assuming that education is everything and the answer to the Rio Earth Summits prayers; conversely in the long run it’s a powerful tool for change, additionally in the short run, which is the run of everyday life involving everyday people, it has huge personal, societal and economically enabling benefits.

One member on the table said that ‘we all have an instinct like love (they blushed at this point), that something is not right with our lifestyle and we can’t carry on like this’. I thought this was simply beautiful and that education has to harness this innate consciousness, then individual and societal change will create a sustainable present and future. With this in mind on the last symposium day my group discussed how education could be harnessed within the UK to benefit our interconnected world.

Our group (predominately consisting of sixth form students) wanted the British curriculum to be more inclusive of the associated concepts of sustainability; poverty reduction, economics, politics and global systems. Additionally they wanted the A-Level in Citizenship to be more academic and project based so that they are involving themselves in achieving the change and not simply writing about it.

The discussions on the symposium day took me back to thinking that education is a lifelong process that isn’t completed, then you start your working life; your education is your life and it is never completed. The table’s discussions led by the local six form students entertained the idea that our current education system, structure and content was infact the enemy of freedom: freedom to think outside the box, freedom to learn what inspires you, freedom to feel as though your mind is free and freedom to feel as though you can make a change. Our table wanted education to equip young people with lifelong skills of sustainable thinking, feeling and willing.

These events were an exciting hubbub of fruitful debates, providing knowledge, ideas and optimism for change of life, which will affect places and people in much broader circumstances than Newcastle University campus or local sixth form colleges.

But who is responsible to harness this consciousness through education? Who’s agenda is it on? What role models and examples do young people have to follow?
I left these events thinking that people especially young people are sat waiting , willing and full of enthusiasm to take up the sustainable challenge; but just don’t know who to look to for guidance or to lead the way; I question if the Earth Summit can provide these answers?

Bridie Appleby-Gunnill, MA International Development and Education


Ghandi, as cited in Stein. P, B. (2007) Being the Change: Becoming Agents of Personal and Cultural Transformation, USA: Pacifica Graduate Institute

Images (2012) Nye James: Eco Superhero, Dorset: Anthony James

Pearce, F. (2011) Rio Engineering, US: New Scientist

Surowiecki, J. (2005) Wisdom of The Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. USA: Abacus

3 thoughts on “Rio+20: Calling All Eco Superhero Wannabes

  1. Fantastic article Bridie! It shows your amazing passion and knowledge involving a very crucial and important subject which should be more talked about. Well done!

  2. Thanks for your comments Tonye and Hanna-Liisa – we’re very proud of Bridie as well and were extremely impressed by her entry to the competition. The second of our selected entries has now been published as well, and the remaining 7 will be published over the coming weeks. You can sign up to receive these automatically by email, if you haven’t already, by using the ‘Follow blog via email’ link on the right hand side of this page. We’ll also be carrying the blogs of the winning students on this site, so you will be able to follow their progress at the Earth Summit in Rio as it happens.

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