At the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Plan of Implementation adopted by word leaders declared that “fundamental changes in the way that societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development” (UN, 2004).
Whilst there is no doubt that government and business must move to implement more sustainable production systems, it is important to recognise that the way goods and services are produced can be strongly dictated by consumer demand. In Australia, we are afforded a great deal of choice in deciding what to consume and, more importantly, when and what not to consume. Though many people may not be directly involved in systems of production, they still have a powerful influence on patterns of both production and consumption.
We are continually making choices about the things we consume – but how many of these choices are actually informed decisions made with the real consequences of those choices born in mind? People today are generally disconnected from the ecological and social consequences of their consumption, and so are often ill-equipped to make ‘better’ choices. For this reason, there is currently a vital need for educational tools to re-connect people with the impacts of their consumption and help them develop the values, skills and knowledge to make better, more informed consumption choices.
The first step in educating young people to adopt more sustainable consumption patterns is to help them understand and appreciate where the things that they eat, buy and use come from. This means providing a basic foundation of information on primary production in Australia. Traditionally thought of as ‘agricultural education’, this content needs to be incorporated with environmental education in order to effectively tackle issues of sustainable production and consumption. The Ollie’s Island Program draws on this and an arsenal of encyclopaedic information on natural resource use, ecological systems and social issues to look at the everyday choices we make and how this affects our world.
A unique feature of the Ollie’s Island program allows students to interactively examine the ‘chain of production and consumption’ for a range of everyday products. The user can break down the entire life-cycle of a product – from primary production to its various stages of processing and transportation, to consumption and finally disposal. At each of these stages, all of the inputs and outputs are examined, including all the embodied resources, water, energy and labour inputs, as well as production of wastes. This process gradually builds up a holistic image of the product and all of the impacts of that process of production and consumption on the environment, on society, and on individuals.
The desired outcome is that users begin to see the things they consume in a different light. They will be able to look at a product in an advertisement or on a supermarket shelf and see ‘beyond the hype’ to recognise the embodied resources and impacts within that product – and then make their decision whether or not to consume that product based on that new perspective.
As educators, we need to help young people become aware of their connection to that which sustains them: to the natural environment and to the social fabric of the local and global communities in which they live. We need to help them examine their choices as consumers and change their consumption patterns. But more fundamentally we need to help them challenge the very notion of consumption itself.
It is imperative that young people are provided with the knowledge and skills to be able to determine for themselves ‘how much is enough’. In fact, we all need to learn to question whether the short-term and sometimes superficial benefits that some forms of consumption bring us are indeed worth the long-term detrimental impacts on our environment, people and our planet.