With the arrival of industrialisation, the increased use of fossil fuels has upped the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The effects of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere have long been well known. The late 1970s and early 1980s gave rise to the environmental movement, which increased awareness on both local environmental issues, such as acid rain, and on global problems. Public discourse has emphasised the sufficiency of fossil fuels. Oil decline has long been a topic of discussion. Coal and natural gas are estimated to last longer than oil. Overuse of renewable natural resources also causes environmental issues. Changes in land use, such as turning forests into fields, causes habitat fragmentation. The unarguable fact is that humanity uses natural resources at a much faster pace than they are renewed. Climate change has long been a known fact among the scientific community, and The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has regularly put out predictions on the changes that will occur because of it.
In the future, we might be facing an uninhabitable Earth. Drought, heavy rains, and extreme weather phenomena will become more and more common. Habitat fragmentation, plant diseases, and pests will increase and destroy crops. Radical deterioration of living conditions will cause regional conflicts and people will have to leave their homes. These effects of climate change can now be seen in areas where more direct effects cannot yet be detected. Environmental issues caused by overuse of natural resources pose a threat to the environment, but also to western democracies. European extreme movements are actively opposing immigration. Drought, storms, and other extreme weather phenomena are often part of the reason refugees and immigrants are forced to leave their homes. However, it is only in the recent years that political decisions have been taken in order to try and stop climate change. It seems that people have now woken up to climate change.
Waking up to climate change and its effects has given rise to difficult emotions, described as climate change distress. To many, environmental problems seem enormous and one’s own means of making a difference minuscule. Discussion on environmental issues is often characterised by intimidation as well as hope. “The world’s problems must be taken seriously for people to perceive environmental education as credible and accurate. At the same time, we must emphasise the importance of empowerment and hope as providers of meaning and strength” (Pihkala, 2017, p. 11). There is still hope, as it is not yet too late to adopt a more sustainable way of living (see, for example, IPCC, 2018). To guarantee a sustainable future, it is important to ensure that children and teenagers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to help them feel empowered and to make sustainable decisions in their lives. Putting the blame on individuals for consumption can paralyse people, if no room is left for hope and empowerment. After all, the solution is not to do nothing at all!
When faced with difficulty, people want to act. In order for those actions to be sustainable, individuals must possess the knowledge and skills required. It is important to realise the relevance of different actions. Children often suggest that we should avoid buying food in plastic packaging. However, the packaging is there to protect the food from spoiling, so that it can be consumed later. Plastic packaging is recyclable, and it is in fact normally the contents of the packaging (for example, food) that have a bigger effect on the environment. We must, thus, adopt a new way of thinking and acting.
Sustainable development, covering ecological, social, cultural and economic sustainability, has long been a topic of discussion. In educational sciences, ecological sustainability is a popular topic. Social and cultural sustainability have also been on the forefront, more than economic sustainability. Western democracies rely on established institutions, such as social and healthcare institutions, education, and judiciary, and in order to maintain these establishments, economic actions are required. We must ask ourselves this question: How can we decrease our natural resource consumption without having to give up too much of what is important to us?
Circular economy provides one answer to the challenge of sustainable development. It encourages us to think about what is truly important to us and how we want to use natural resources. In a publication by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a foundation promoting European circular economic thinking, Ken Webster (2017) gives the following definition for circular economy:
”A circular economy is one that is restorative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, at all times.”
To ensure that products do not go unused and that the value of raw materials is maintained throughout the products’ lifecycle, a rethinking of resource usage is required. This rethinking can be looked at from four angles describing a transition: 1) from waste to raw material; 2) from product to service; 3) from ownership to sharing; 4) from disposable to fixable. The first transition relates to a product’s life cycle and can be described with the metaphor “raw materials are a mere loan to us”. The second transition relates to a service-based economy. Instead of owning all products one needs, the benefits of the product can be obtained as a service. The third transition has to do with platform economy, whereby an information system enabling sharing is used to streamline the usage of resources. The fourth transition emphasises the usage of the same natural resources for as long as possible.
These transitions, which are in line with circular economic thinking, help us think about our lifestyle and consumption habits while also considering economic profitability. Transitions 2 and 3, in particular, make use of digital technology. Various applications are needed in order to bring the service to the consumer and enable successful sharing of resources. This is part of the first phase of digitalisation, whereby material turns into digital.
The promotion of a sustainable future requires new ways of thinking, acting, and inventing. A mere knowledge of a sustainable lifestyle is not enough – one must also know how to put that knowledge into practice. The transversal skills described in The National Core Curriculum for Basic Education emphasise the importance of knowing how to use knowledge. For example, in the section describing thinking and learning skills states the following: “They are inspired to formulate new information and views. As members of the learning community formed by the school, the pupils receive support and encouragement for their ideas and initiatives, allowing their agency to be strengthened.” (National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, 2014.)
The ability to invent is, thus, a learning objective encompassing all subjects in the National Core Curriculum. As all skills, those relating to inventing require practice. Inventing skills cannot be learned independently from the other subjects and disciplines. One of school’s missions is to help build a sustainable future. The circular economic transitions provide a natural context for the merging of different subjects and integrative instruction.
An ecologically, culturally, socially, and economically sustainable future is an important goal. There are, however, multiple conflicts between values and actions. Simply meaning well is not enough – sustainable actions are paramount.
One of the realisations behind the Inventions for Circular Economy in the Classroom project was the following: recycled materials are often used in art and crafts classes in schools. In art and crafts projects pupils often make use of materials such as metal, plastics, cardboard, wood, ceramics, and hot glue. However, despite good intentions, these projects often produce trash as byproducts and the raw materials used cannot be reused. If we looked at pupils’ artworks as not something to last forever but, rather, as tools for learning and self expression, it would be easier to think of the raw materials as “a mere loan to us”. The idea of the life cycle of the final product would thus become part of the craft project planning: how do we ensure reuse of the raw materials after the project at hand has finished?
Conflicts like this exist in all activities aiming to further a more sustainable future. This is why we must be critical when developing inventions for circular economy. Car sharing is a prime example. The usage of shared cars aims at decreasing the number of cars, and, if implemented successfully, there would, for example, be no need to own a car in a city. People would be able to take their children to their hobbies and drive themselves to work using a shared vehicle. However, it seems that as services based on digital systems, such as Uber, become more common, there is also an increase in car traffic. At the same time, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the longer term, as people are no longer acquiring as many driver’s licences. It is simply not possible or viable to recycle everything. Each transition includes conflicts of this nature.
- IPCC. (2018).
- National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, 2014. Helsinki: Finnish National Board of Education.
- Pihkala, P. (2017). Kuinka käsitellä maailman ongelmia? Traagisuus ja toivo ympäristökasvatuksessa. Ainedidaktiikka 1(1), 2–15.
- Webster, K. (2017). The Circular Economy: A wealth of flows (2nd ed.). Cowes: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.