Teaching it Forward Toward a Sustainable Future

Are we training our best new minds in the worst old ways? Or are we pointing them forward, aiming them at the new questions and innovations that must be discovered if education and science are to serve us well?


Confronted again and again by dire accounts of ocean deterioration worldwide, it is hard for any of us to remain optimistic. As I talk about the ocean future, I hear more and more despair: there are just too many people for the earth to support; there is too much consumption and greed for sustainability and change; there is too much complexity and strife at every level of social behavior for us to govern ourselves wisely and equitably and well. I would be lying to you if I denied such feelings within myself, but acquiescence to those feelings, even those facts, is not in my nature, nor do I believe that retreat or defeat are acceptable alternative options.

This situation has become more acute as a result of the many presentations I have been making about THE ONCE AND FUTURE OCEAN: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society in which I argue for a new paradigm for how we value, structure, and behave in the 21st century. The argument centers around the urgency and inevitability of the ocean and the movement of water as a new guiding principle for human behavior, transcending the dire accounts by suggesting a way forward that is essential to survival no matter what other conflicts and challenges present.

I am asked at every lecture what any individual can do to make a difference, and my answer always comes down to individual belief, commitment, and action expressed in daily life and habits — in the workplace and other institutional associations; in engagement with local government; and with the upward impact of such endeavor on other individuals, communities, and higher levels of political organization. There are many examples of success through such a process: the banishment of plastic bags in many cities and towns, the increasing demand for recycling, the opposition to regulations and legislative initiatives that are clearly promoted for corporate or private gain that are against the best interests of our communities. Yes, there are many defeats, and these campaigns may be long and frustrating, but each and every one adds to the larger movement away from the old paradigm of unlimited growth through consumption enabled by fossil fuels. Thus, in this spirit, I urge everyone in every audience to take one action as their own, implement it at home, and extend it by example into the populist stream of initiative and public engagement.

Doubt is a form of denial, and denial these days can only be explained by vested interest in the old ways or fear of change. If we understand that vested interest only maintains a dying organizational structure, then we are left only with the prospect of what’s next, which we must face with courage, energy, imagination, and action. It is an exhilarating prospect.

Recently, I presented at an academic conference on sustainability and the environment, a gathering of distinguished professors, research scientists, and their students to hear four days of papers and reports on various key questions about the environment, ocean and otherwise. It was impressive, the range of subjects for inquiry, the detail of the investigations, the enormous amounts of data collected, and the cautious conclusions suggested, usually tempered by the need to ask more questions, do more research, accumulate more date, and move forward with caution.

In the midst of this, I suddenly realized what I was seeing in this process was a vast schematic of marginally useful searching to answer questions posed by the old paradigm. This work for the most part was all directed toward solutions to questions or conditions already extant — none of them pertained to the idea of the new, to a new schematic that demanded justification and foundation through science to enable better understanding and adaptation to the possibilities of the future.

My presentation challenged not the premises of their work but the retro-prospective of its direction. “Teach forward,” I exclaimed. “Provide your students with research skills, but don’t hinder their direction based on your past direction.” I put the question: “Are we training our best new minds in the worst old ways? Are we pointing them backward, as perhaps our teachers did for us? Or are we pointing them forward, aiming them at the new questions and innovations that must be discovered if education and science are to serve us well?” “Stop teaching the past,” I am afraid I shouted. “Stop researching the present. Teach to the future, exercise, extend, and exemplify the curiosity, skills and necessary knowledge that we will need to invent our way out of the dire present and into the collective, sustainable, surviving stream of a future to be realized for the betterment of us all.”

- - -

“Teaching Forward” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio feature on World Ocean Radio that can be heard here. Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org. Peter Neill is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available now.