The Inner Contradiction of Sustainability

The Inner Contradiction of Sustainability

Paper presented at a workshop for research-group “Nordbild”, Copenhagen, May 13-14, 2024.

Thomas Aastrup Rømer, Senior Advisor at Think Tank Prospekt


In this paper, I examine a certain aspect of “sustainability”. I want to argue that there is an inherent conflict in the concept: A contradiction between an ecological-pedagogical concept of place and a certain global-technological discourse. The first of these two understandings points towards the purpose of educational institutions, while the latter aligns with learning outcome-driven mindset introduced in educational reforms from 2006 and onwards. I will refer to these two versions of sustainability as Sustainability 1, which is linked to pedagogy, and Sustainability 2, that is rather associated with globalization and technology. After presenting this contradiction, I will reflect on how these two discourses interact in a particular publication on the subject[1].


1. Sustainability 1: The place of Bildung and education

Education as Bildung is concerned with the self’s historic-poetic transactions with an already existing world. Education is for ‘life on earth,’ as Hannah Arendt put it. Hence, education has both a local and a worldly dimension, i.e. an earthly place for people that both live together and interacts with other places on Earth in spiritual and practical exchanges. However, education does not concern life in space. Arendt viewed the Soviet Union’s Sputnik during the Cold War as a threat to “the human condition”. Already here, we sense the outlines of Sustainability 1, the place of places, and Sustainability 2, which ends up in global space.

Theories of Bildung, broadly conceived, is sometimes accused of being anthropocentric, i.e., narrowly tied to the dominion of human reason over nature. Originally, the Anthropocene was a geological term for the period during which humans have influenced the Earth, but the concept has gradually moved into the humanities and social sciences, where the Anthropocene often go together with a rather simplified critique of the Enlightenment’s focus on human reason. Thus, according to these critics, education becomes an excuse for humans to dominate and exploit nature.

Some of these critics abandon Bildung altogether, which has dire consequences for the institutions and forms of coexistence that was created over centuries, such as universities, kindergartens, folk high schools, and other kinds of associations. Other critics tend to somehow expand the Bildung that they oppose, by granting “rights” – which are indeed a concept of Bildung – to non-human things.

From an educational perspective, that is, from the perspective of Sustainability 1, one cannot assign rights to animals and nature, i.e., to non-rational beings. But this does not give humans the right to exploitation; on the contrary, reason should be used to protect, educate, and preserve the ecological connections of places. From an educational standpoint, one would therefore advocate for ecology and balance between nature and humans without granting rights to animals and plants. One would celebrate human duty and care in the world.

This synthesis of world, reason and care is supported by a range of philosophical and theological traditions. For instance, the Danish 18th century-thinker, Grundtvig, linked church, people, and school community to a grand religious and historical synthesis. And one of Grundtvig’s followers, K.E. Løgstrup, who wrote after the second world war, was very interested in ecological issues, based exactly on a mix of phenomenology and the idea of creation.

The same applies to Løgstrup’s own student, the theologian Ole Jensen, who has argued that the sustainability crisis is an expression of a misunderstanding of the Bible, where Man is sometimes considered to be the master of nature without a duty of gentle caring. His critique even led to some changes in the Danish translation of the Bible, as far as I know.

Instead, Jensen advocates for a theological-ecological conceptualization of sustainability. Jensen calls for a kind of “spirit” in his poetic and Løgstrup-inspired ecology, which opposes both pantheism and rights of nature. Instead, he calls the human-nature relationship a “center of reverence,” where care, cosmology, and enlightenment go together[2]. Ole Jensen’s approach resembles the ideas of educational philosopher Gert Biesta, who also builds his pedagogy on a series of ambiguities in the Bible’s narrative of Creation[3].

The theologian and philosopher, Peter Kemp, presents a similar kind of humanism in his book “The World Citizen as an Educational Ideal”. He advocates for an ethics of sustainability to be generalized in to legal-philosophical forms. Thus, there is a Løgstrup-Jensen-Biesta-Kemp stream connecting pedagogy, sustainability and philosophy, developing from the inside of both Danish and European educational traditions.

The link between creation and pedagogy also plays a role in a book from 1979 by the folk high school teacher, Holger Kjær, who writes about the legal and philosophical foundation of schools[4]. Here too, there is reference to Creation, which Kjær identifies with the primary right of families, assembled in love, to choose the school and teaching they prefer; a right also found in the Danish constitution, in the “school-paragraph”, §76, which itself has roots in the freedom of assembly, §79, and freedom of speech, §77. This basic view made Denmark a very liberal country in terms of the minorities’ opportunity to influence both free and public schools in the 1920s and again after the occupation. Politically, these ideas were carried forward by two ministers of education rooted in the folk high school movement, namely the headmaster for Askov folk-highschool, Jacob Appel, who was a liberal minister of education twice, before and after World War I, and another minister, Jørgen Jørgensen, who was author of both the school reform in 1937 and the reform-pedagogical Blue Report from 1960. Both Appel and Jørgensen were deeply involved in the history and effect of Grundtvig’s philosophy. The just mentioned Ole Jensen was also influenced by this Askov-spirit, especially by principal Knud Hansen, who was active in the 1950s and 1960s.

These theological and educational connections are linked to Denmark as a place in Europe, an essential spiritual and linguistic place that itself draws on historical-poetic processes in European history and enlightenment. It is these processes that make up a large part of the essence of the educational laws, especially for kindergartens and schools, but also for high schools and universities. There is no contradiction between sustainability, natural philosophy, or humanism in these ideas, even though enlightenment, romantic Bildung and democratic ideas flows in and out of the horizon.

The more fundamental reason why theology, sustainability, and pedagogy are interconnected is that the existence of creation outside human powers of construction turn both humanity and nature into a kind of enigma, a sort of inscrutable essence, i.e., something that can be investigated but which constantly withdraws its ancient and overlooked layers. Humans carry a special responsibility for this philosophical process to emerge. I derive the metaphor of “enigma” from the famous Italian pedagogue, Maria Montessori, who (at least in the Danish translation) called one of her books “The enigma of Childhood”[5]. For Montessori as well, the “enigma” of childhood was grounded in the inscrutability of Creation.

These essentialist theses align both well and poorly with developments within modern phenomenology, where a post-Heideggerian movement, the so-called “speculative realism”, also works with the physicality of independent objects that have a distant and mysterious inner life[6].

However, this interesting philosophical idea splits in two. On one side, we may try to extend the new phenomenology in the direction just mentioned, where physicality interacts with spiritual themes, making each “thing” a home of historic-poetic life[7]. This interest aligns well with Sustainability 1 and also, I think, with recent school philosophy, where the school is conceptualized as “suspension”, i.e., a Greek Scholé[8].

On the other hand, there are those who relate speculative realism directly to a threat of climate disaster. Here, “the thing” is conceptualized as a discursive disaster-object. For example, this happens in the publication “Dark Pedagogy”[9]. Here “sustainability” is equated with “climate”, which is placed outside physicality and place and made into a scientific hyper-fact, which all other objects in the world must bow to. The common and withdrawn physicality of the world thus returns as “darkness”, meaning monsters, rejection, terror, madness, and death, which certainly is not a sustainable basis for neither pedagogy nor nature. The cosmological aspects of Bildung are reduced to a quantitative and global climate science, under which pedagogy must subsume itself in darkness and death. There are hardly any references to the spirit of Sustainability 1 and to a life near the things of the world. Rather, this new and radical realism is often associated with post-humanist and feminist research approaches such as Karen Barad and Donna Haraway. Thus, human essence is dissolved into technology and form. “Dark pedagogy” is a post-structuralist anti-pedagogy, ending up as a philosophical and post-humanist form of what I call Sustainability 2, which I will discuss in a moment.

With these remarks, I try to say that a theological, open, and place-sensitive cosmology is connected to pedagogy and education in many different ways. Sustainability, understood as the connection between place, culture, and nature, springs relatively easily from such ideas, but this form of sustainability has nothing to do with the climate as a hyper-fact.

School and teacher-training reforms from the beginning of the 2010s were established in explicit confrontations with Sustainability 1. The reforms were justified solely with reference to OECD reports, test results and an extremely technically oriented sociology, and, once again, often with poststructuralism and posthumanism as frequent  and affirmative companions to theories of a competitive state and to essentialization of the concept of learning.

The current interest in climate and sustainability therefore falls at a very unfortunate time, where we – seen from an educational point of view – have no opportunity to frame a more fertile and educational version of the sustainability problem. Instead, influenced by the collapse in educational politics, politicians and scientists turns to technical and identitarian nature-human conceptions, which are subsequently brought into contact with the instrumental concepts of school reform that was developed ten years ago.


2. Sustainability 2: Management of a hyper-fact

The second form of sustainability is stripped of spiritual and pedagogical ideas, primarily adhering to climate statistics, often coupled with a vocabulary of doomsday and eternal crisis. The effect of this is a statistically and quantitatively conceived “climate” that is placed above all other considerations, treating sustainability as a global hyper-fact. Under current pedagogical conditions, this often leads to a reinforcement of the reduction and instrumentalization of societal plurality, that was drafted by neoliberalism in earlier decades. Here are some examples of an almost logical process where the fact of climate challenge pedagogical depth:

First there is the issue of democracy: The first time I noted how climate challenged democracy was during an interview with researcher Steen Hildebrandt. He believes that democracy is too slow as a decision-making mechanism when it comes to climate issues. He describes democracy as “beautiful but powerless”[10]. Similarly, ideological climate-movements like “Extinction Rebellion” (extinction meaning “destruction”) initiate an impatient radicalization of the climate fight, resorting to civil disobedience, establishing Leninist-inspired control groups, and tending to disregard common political and moral rules in the name of the climate. Also, I have observed suggestions that the media should refrain from publishing critical articles about climate issues[11].

Previously mentioned Ole Jensen finds himself caught in this “serious dilemma” (my translation) between climate and democracy. Fluttering under the banner of the hyper-fact, he ends up—somewhat shaken—standing with democracy[12]. Peter Kemp is not shaken at all but simply maintains democracy as a starting point along with his idea of a “Danish world citizen”[13].

Second, there is the matter of existence and pedagogy. One major problem for Sustainability 2 is the existence of humans themselves. The world has too many people, who all produce too much CO2. A prominent climate scientist even advises his students to carefully consider the climate situation before having children. He even proposes a global one-child policy[14]. In this view, a child is not welcome in the world. Each individual is a climate sinner by his mere existence. In this sense, pedagogy itself becomes a problem. Every human is a climate sinner, living in an atmosphere of “dark pedagogy”. A likely effect of this is a detailed CO2-morality, where even the smallest behavioral parts are measured with quantitative data and noted in big technological systems, is that every action is associated with shame, facial recognition, guilt, and surveillance, resulting in a new universally applied diagnoses like “climate anxiety”. In the worst case, we face a moralistic and life-hostile dictatorship, which might be linked with what American sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls “the age of surveillance capitalism”[15].

Thirdly, there is the matter of ecology: Some researchers believe that ecological production is a climate problem, primarily because organic processes occupy too much space. The climate-scientific response to this problem is technologization of society at large, involving plenty of gene-engineering, nuclear power, and global management—essentially the opposite of Sustainability 1 and what we traditionally understand by sustainable forms of life.

A similar problem concerns architecture. Within architecture, the new climate approach has been criticized for ignoring the rich traditions of design and architecture that was developed to enrich human development. This results in a sort of aesthetic uniformity that scores high on the CO2 indicator but is ugly and grey, leaving residents in a new kind of darkness[16]. Furthermore, often these buildings can only come into existence through big capitalist corporations, marginalizing sustainable ways of living together.

Some of these proposals have a strong technological aspect. For instance, British engineer James Lovelock, known for his biotechnical concept of an extensive earthly biosystem “Gaia”, posits in his latest book that the only salvation from the climate crisis is for humanity to create a new species of artificial intelligence, termed transhumanism. This brings him close to the radical transhumanist ideas of the American Singularity University-movement, that has deeply influenced Danish politics and education through the so-called Disruption-council.

Finally, a remark on UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: Upon close examination, these consist of a series of goals and sub-goals and quantitative indicators that in their entire structure and philosophy will result in instrumentalized learning goal management in private and public systems, serving as candy for both a new level of management forgetting all about education and for increasingly weaker nation-states losing sense of the philosophy of their institutions. These thoughts on global goals have materialized both in a Danish government document from 2017 and in a major analysis from the Ministry of Finance, transforming sustainability goals into new management structures[17]. They are also structuring  the life of schools and universities. These global goals form part of the Sustainability 2 system, risking conflict with the UN’s system of human rights which is based on the philosophy of Sustainability 1.

These examples all point in the same direction, namely that the climate agenda tends to marginalize humanity’s finest achievements, such as democracy, education, ecology, and aesthetics, and there is a strong tendency for this marginalization to go hand in hand with new, all-encompassing technical-efficient-economic discourses, against which advocates of Sustainability 1, like Peter Kemp and Ole Jensen, are critical.


3. Sustainability 1 and 2 at work

I have previously touched briefly on how both speculative realism and other concepts can move towards either Sustainability 1 or 2. Now, I will examine a more down-to-earth pedagogical publication. A few years ago, Mads Strarup, vice-principal at Copenhagen’s open gymnasium, published the book “What Now? – Education for Sustainability in Kindergarten, Primary School, and Secondary Education”[18]. The central premise of the book is that climate threat is the sole and overwhelming problem, which immediately sets the stage for a Sustainability 2 scenario, accompanied by “dark pedagogy.” However, Sustainability 1 also plays a significant and interesting role.

The book is framed by a foreword and an afterword, each demonstrating the contrast between the two sustainability models. Steen Hildebrandt, that I mentioned earlier, wrote the book’s foreword, which is an uncritical tribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, referred to as “the new education”. The foreword lacks a sense of place, and sustainability dissolves into climate-statistics that subsequently turns into technological governance in accordance with the principles of Sustainability 2. Hildebrandt’s background in soft and slightly new-age management models like Otto Scharmer’s Theory-U, where there is no sense of the purpose of public institutions and political tradition, may lead him—perhaps unconsciously—towards Sustainability 2.

The book’s afterword, however, is written by Carolina Magdalene Maier, who was the political spokesman for the Alternative party (the Danish Green party) at the time of publication. Maier is closer to Sustainability 1. She speaks warmly of Hannah Arendt’s philosophy, which is both cosmopolitan and place-bound, and she talks about a “sprout of nature” that resides in all children. Maier refers to the preamble of Danish primary school and its mention of “interaction with nature,” and she describes schools as “democratic communities.” In this sense, she speaks from a broad cultural conservatist and reform-pedagogical point of view with  fundamental virtues related to place and creativity. But again: Maier does not believe that Arendt’s concept of freedom is sufficient. She also wants to grant rights to nature. It is in this remark that a challenge to the humanism, which are central to Arendt’s concepts, lies. In her afterword, Maier prepares a jump from Sustainability 1 to Sustainability 2, but her potential for pedagogical moderation is better than Hildebrandt’s, who moves more constantly within Sustainability 2.

These contradictions are confirmed in the book itself. Mads Strarup describes the climate threat as a “biological Holocaust” and states that “we are all a kind of perpetrators” (p. 97). He also claims that there are only two views of humanity: those who have understood the true context, and those who have not. The implication is, that there is only one view of humanity, which happens to be Strarup’s own, namely that each individual is a kind of climate soldier. But isn’t there a totalitarian germ here? We immediately end up in “dark pedagogy”, in Sustainability 2.

But in the book’s pedagogical ideals, we find much more interplay between Sustainability 1 and 2. Let’s look at Strarup’s three ideal pedagogical institutions, which are all empirical examples: Strarup starts with a forest kindergarten on the island of Funen. Here, children and pedagogues live in harmony with nature without discussing climate and apparently also without technology. This sounds like a mix of Rousseau, Fröbel, and a hippie-community. There is both care and a kind of unity between cultural and social life. The kindergarten’s founder, an old farmer, is also celebrated. This is ecological humanism of the finest caliber. A synthesis of past and future. But it has nothing specifically to do with the climate. Thus, there is no “dark pedagogy”, rather life in nature. This is a kind of Sustainability 1.

The same applies at the primary school level. Strarup talks about a free school where children learn to pick up trash and think about nature. They also listen to Christmas stories while they sit and knit. Again, these activities have nothing to do with climate. It is pure humanism and care for nature, rooted in various aspects of reform pedagogy and the Danish free school tradition as I described it above. These are examples of Ole Jensen’s “center of reverence.”

Actually, sustainability 2 only comes into play in the description of Strarup’s ideal gymnasium. Here, they have established a CO2 council. The exact function of the council is a bit unclear, but since no other climate initiatives are mentioned, the council’s area of responsibility is presumed to be quite comprehensive. I imagine that the council is supposed to CO2-classify most of the gymnasium’s activities, and that the school’s finances are directed towards enabling the gymnasium to participate in global climate collaborations with organizations like the OECD and the UN. Instead of pedagogy, we end up with “an account”. From here, there is no stopping point, especially not when Strarup also reduces the gymnasium’s own philosophy of education, the so-called neo-humanism, to something he refers to as “subject silos”.

Strarup does not mention the interplay between modern technology and climate issue at all. In this way, he is somewhat old-fashioned and Rousseau-like, and it is actually the remnants of this that I quite like. It is this romantic humanism that leads to Sustainability 1, but which also easily ends up in its opposite, namely the climate technology’s Sustainability 2, when the topic hits pedagogy as “climate”.



[1] Earlier versions of this psper is  “Bæredygtighedens indre konflikt“, KvaN, nr. 115, 2019, and I skolereformens kølvand, Fjordager, 2023.

[2] Jensen, O.: “Agtelsens natursyn”, Fønix, 2019.

[3] Biesta, G.: Den smukke risiko i uddannelse og pædagogik, Klim, 2014.

[4] Kjær, H.: Dansk skolepolitik og mindretalsret – fra Jacob Appel til Jørgen Jørgensen, Lohses Forlag, 1979.

[5] Montessori, M.: Barndommens gåde, Grønbechs Forlag, 1939.

[6] Se f.eks. Harman, G.: Guerilla Metaphysics, Open Court, 2011.

[7] Cole, A.: “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies”, Minnesota Review, No. 80, 2013.

[8] Masschelein, J. & Simons., M.: In defence of the school – a public issue, Leuven: E-ducation, Culture & Society Publishers, 2013.

[9] Lysgaard, J. & Bengtsson, S. & Laugesen, M.: Dark Pedagogy – education, horror and the antroposene, Cham: Palgrave, 2019.

[10] Hildebrandt, S.: ”Demokratiet er smukt men afmægtigt”, Berlingske, d. 28. februar, 2016.

[11] Greve, M. (2019). ”Alle har ret til deres egen holdning, ikke til deres egen fakta”, Berlingske, d. 6. september.

[12] Jensen, O.: På kant med klodens klima, Anis, 2011, s. 94.

[13] Kemp, P. (2015). Løgnen om dannelse – opgør med halvdannelse, København: Tiderne Skifter.

[14] Olesen, J. (2019). ”Dansk professor og nobelpristager: Vi bør som verdenssamfund indføre en etbarnspolitik”, Politiken, d. 27. april (interview).

[15] Zuboff, B.: Overvågningskapitalismens tidsalder, Informations Forlag, 2019.

[16] Kallesø, M.: ”Arkitekt: Det enorme fokus på klimavenligt byggeri har medført dårlig arkitektur”, Politiken, d. 23. april, 2019.

[17] ”Handlingsplan for FN’s verdensmål, Regeringen, marts 2017 and ”Handlingsplan for FN’s verdensmål”, Finansministeriet, 2021.

[18] Strarup, M.: Hva’ nu? – dannelse til bæredygtighed i børnehave, folkeskole og ungdomsuddannelse, Odense: Fjordager, 2018.

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