Chapter 3
Description of My Study
re Transformative Environmental Education for Adults

During my master's research in environmental adult education, I discovered that sustainable development learning can serve as an enticement to environmental learning and action. This chapter of my thesis is a description of the study that I undertook, which will be of interest to anyone working in community development or with older and adult students learning about sustainability.

Johnston, J. D. (2003). Sustainable development learning as enticement to environmental action. Unpublished master's thesis. Antigonish, NS: St. Francis Xavier University.

Chapter 1 - The Focus of Inquiry

Chapter 2A - Review of the Literature on Barriers to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 2B - Review of the Literature Enticements to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 3 - Description of the Study

Chapter 4 - Discussion, Implications, and Recommendations

Several participants see sustainable development as "our only hope," as an important new paradigm that is worth considering because it can be achieved in small increments and have lasting effects.... My qualitative analysis evolved some considerations for facilitating transformative environmental adult education using sustainable development learning.
— Julie Johnston

Chapter 3 - Description of the Study


The Story of My Project

Origin of the Project

What I Learned About What Matters

Research Methodology

Barriers to Learning About Sustainable Development

Facilitation Barriers to Sustainable Development Learning

Enticements to Learning About Sustainable Development

Facilitation Enticements to Sustainable Development Learning

Participants' Transfer of Sustainable Development Learning to Practice


This chapter presents the story of my project, my research methodology, and the findings of my research. The findings are in five major categories: participant barriers to learning about sustainable development, barriers in facilitation, participant enticements to learning, enticements in facilitation, and transfer of learning to practice. The participants in the study introduce themselves, using fictitious names, early in this chapter.


My research project went through many transformations before it serendipitously presented itself to me in its current form. My initial intention was to offer one short workshop (1 to 2 hours) on environmental citizenship to several community groups as their guest speaker of the month, with transfer-of-learning follow-up 1 and 3 months later via questionnaires and testimonials from workshop participants who volunteered to respond.

If adults did not come to environmental education, I was going to take environmental education to them, wherever they met on a regular basis. But this idea took a long time to gel because I was new in the community and a bit shy about phoning organizers to invite myself as a guest speaker.

When I did finally get up the nerve, this first research project, as designed, turned out to be not only unwieldy but also unwelcome (or, let us say, unembraced) in the community. Cross (1981) suggests that using membership groups can be a powerful device for encouraging greater participation in adult education (p. 140), but I experienced definite difficulty negotiating access to membership groups in my community.

My offering (a workshop/presentation called Environmental Citizenship) was greeted with what appeared to be bewilderment, skepticism, or complete indifference––not the responses I expected (but perhaps should have). Most groups told me that their agendas were too full to include a workshop (this did not change even after I offered to customize the workshop to fit the time slot available, down to 20 minutes), and some felt their membership would not see the relevance of an environmental theme.

I became discouraged and dropped this project. It was my husband who pointed out that for my master's, I could examine more closely the surprising success of the Community Forum on Sustainable Development that I had organized and hosted a few weeks earlier, which is why I think of it as my "accidental" research project.


The idea of a community forum on sustainable development was hatched in response to what I perceived as a rather terse letter I received from a local politician in October 2000. His reply was to a letter drafted by the community's conservation group (and written and sent by me in my role as then vice-chairperson) concerning a controversial proposed land-use bylaw.

Our letter was a series of questions to the politicians to determine whether their decision-making process was based on a sustainable development framework. When the reply came, I reread our letter and realized that I had not mentioned the term "sustainable development" until well down on the first page, after the politician must have already taken offense. I set about then and there to educate my community on sustainable development so that further misunderstandings could be avoided. To this day, these local politicians and the conservation group have a somewhat tense and tenuous relationship, but the forum seems to have been the start of an era of rapprochement.


Time and Place Matter

The Community Forum on Sustainable Development finally took place (we had postponed it from June 2001 to avoid coinciding with a court case involving local politicians and another environmental group in the community) on Saturday, September 22, 2001 after the farmers' market packed up. We began at 1:30 p.m., finished around 5:30 p.m. and then shared in a potluck supper, open mike event, and dance (with music on an ecological theme).

We held the forum at the new community hall, which was not the cheapest venue, but which our conservation group regarded as a local example of sustainable development and a symbol of community achievement and pride. We knew it was large enough to hold the size of group we had originally hoped for, and a kitchen was available to make the potluck easier. Participants were pleased with the venue, commenting that the ambiance was good in part because the hall is "a really good space" and "a wonderful forum to hold a forum in ... a clear, good example of what it's all about."

Promotion Matters

Publicity began 7 months before the forum in the conservation group's newsletters and climaxed with 2 weeks of local cable television advertising, newspaper listings and front page story, an article and listing in the community newsletter/calendar, space on the grocery store's weekly advertising flyer, a notice in the school newsletter to parents, a three-dimensional display at the shopping plaza, personalized invitations to several community groups, and handmade paper posters posted around the community. Three months before the event, I had made a short presentation on sustainable development to the regional council of political representatives and invited all 23 to attend.

As far as I know, I used every available form of promotion in the community. Every mention of the forum asked people to phone me to register, to volunteer, or to sign up for childminding. I asked conservation group board members to talk up the forum with friends, and twice I visited the upper grades at the local school. Despite all this publicity, the day before the event I had only 17 names on my list of registrants. I was disappointed. Optimistically I made 30 copies of the handouts.

The day of the forum was sensationally sunny and warm for the first day of autumn. I mention this because nice weather has been known to negatively affect turnout in this rural community. I greeted the first few participants as they arrived but quickly became overwhelmed as an astonishing 60-plus people showed up. (This represents a significant percentage of our small population!)

Flabbergasted and panicking as my handouts ran out, I turned to a friend who had come purely to support our endeavour. Her whispered response, "Quit your bitching and look on the bright side," helped calm my panic and I scrambled to set out more chairs. One participant later commented how much she appreciated the "hodgepodge" of our seating arrangements: "I always look for that, Julie," she said, "because if chairs are arranged in rows, forget it, the meeting's gonna be just awful." I must admit that the hodgepodge was completely unintentional.

Content and Process Matter

I designed the forum to comprise an introductory presentation on sustainable development by me, a keynote speech by a visitor, a short video, a nature break, roundtable discussions, roundtable presentations, a closure activity, and a friendship circle. My introductory presentation gave the history, definition, and principles of sustainable development, using overhead slides. Using computer-generated slides, the keynote speaker (from a nearby coastal community) highlighted his town's experience with the process of sustainable development. A 15-minute World Bank video illustrated success stories from Curitiba, Brazil, a city that has chosen a sustainable development path. The nature break (during what is normally called a coffee break) was to have been a simple sensory awareness activity outdoors, followed by refreshments.

Following the break, participants returned to choose their table topic, choosing from forestry, energy, transportation, water, agriculture and food security, youth and recreation opportunities, seniors and health issues, small business and commerce, housing, and tourism.

I had arranged a facilitator for each of the 10 topics, and had given each facilitator a dossier containing background material on their topic and a facilitator's copy of the agenda, which explained the "three hats" activity. I had made three brightly coloured construction paper headbands for each table to represent each of the three pillars of sustainable development (environment, economy, and society).

My hope was that the hats would be seen as a playful reminder to consider all three pillars during the roundtable discussions. After participants settled in, I explained this activity to the whole group and became timekeeper as well as facilitator of my own group (transportation, which had combined with the energy group due to small numbers at both of these tables).

The 45-minute "three-hats" roundtable discussions were followed by group presentations on their discussions. This was to have been followed by a simple closure activity whereby each table group would present three ideas for sharing what they had discussed and learned at the forum with community members who did not attend.

Here I must admit a regrettable mistake; I had left the piece of paper describing the closure activity in a dossier in a stash of materials at the side of the room, and at 4:50 p.m., after each group had presented, I simply could not recall what the final activity was supposed to be. I then wrapped up the forum with a friendship circle, a First Nations traditional way for each participant to give greetings and thanks to every other participant.

Participants Matter

As a shorthand to the community demographics of the research participants that I interviewed and to their pseudonyms for this thesis, the participants will introduce themselves by way of their responses to the question I posed on what motivated them to attend the forum.

  1. Donnica, a female secondary student, laughed and said, "You!"

  2. Uriah, a male secondary student, responded, "Um, probably just trying to give other kids and other people more of a chance, like later on in years, for more stuff to do 'cause [this community] doesn't have much right now."

  3. Sheadon, another male secondary student, said, "I heard there was going to be a youth table and we might be able to get some sort of recreation, anything for us to do so that we don't have this whole 'bad teen, bad youth' thing going around."

  4. Fiona, a female upper elementary student, said, "I was interested in it, so I thought, come and learn more about it."

  5. Newcomer Ingrid, female Gen Xer, carpenter, seeker, and music lover, exclaimed, "Ah, I was so thrilled that somebody was organizing such an event and I wanted to meet the people [in this community] that were into that and support the initiative."

  6. Kathryn, a female environmentally minded artist, explained, "To support the [local conservation group]. Out of curiosity, and a real desire to understand this term that's so used but so, I think, misunderstood, or is not understood at all. And how do we, once you understand the term, how does that translate into my personal life, how do I make it translate into my personal life?"

  7. Aislinn, a female environmentally minded musician, social activist, and former lawyer, said simply, "Wanting to learn more about sustainable development, and wanting to support my community learning more about sustainable development."

  8. Norah, a community-minded retired businesswoman, thought about it and said, "Hmm, I feel that it's important for communities to work together on many aspects of community problems, and I felt that this was a very important area."

  9. Francis, a politically minded semi-retired businessman, replied, "My motivation primarily was based upon urgency, to understand the mechanisms, the true mechanisms of sustainability, the three pillars in fact, the three pillars being economic, social, and environment."

  10. Neil, a very busy local businessman, said, "I wanted to see what the community had to say, and wanted to see what the community reaction would be to it, and I, as a part of the business community, I wanted to see what effect it would have on me."

  11. Dyanne, an environmentally minded renaissance woman, put it simply: "Just, I believe in it and it's something that's important to me."

  12. Quinn, a retired female biological scientist, very involved in the community, admitted, "To some extent, interest in the subject, but also support because many people that I knew were involved in the forum and I was a little afraid that no-one would go and I thought I would go in order to make sure that there was somebody there."

  13. Dick, a male environmentally minded retired public sector worker, said, "Well, because I'm interested in sustainable development — well, sustainability, let's put it that way. And I think it was a good cause, so why not go?"

  14. Mary, a guest from another community and a female professional who uses sustainable development in her work, stated in an e-mail response: "I guess my interest may be a bit more 'academic' than some other participants. I was interested in seeing what [your] community was doing/thinking regarding sustainability and in getting some ideas about implementation, etc. Also in getting to know some of the people in the [region] with an interest in this topic."

Participation Matters

How did people come to be at this forum? And who, exactly, came to be at this forum? Dick said the forum "had a reasonably good cross-section of people in the community," but Quinn believed that "some of the people who would have benefited most by going didn't attend." Although the community's politicians had received personal invitations, it was still a shock to me that three out of the four local politicians showed up. Kathryn, as someone who considers herself an environmentalist, also felt "really quite surprised at the people that were there, particularly the [politicians] and some of their cronies." She was acutely aware of the people who were there and the range of attitudes and perceptions, and she said:

  • There're developer types there, and etcetera. And I was a little, that made me a little uncomfortable. But then as we got into it, and I would say that your leadership helped dispel some of that initial, um, feeling of, "Oh my gawd, what's he gonna say, what's he gonna do?"

Francis, someone involved in local politics, was similarly surprised. "It was very interesting for me to look around and feel very surprised that that person was there in attendance, and that lady was there in attendance. So yes, there was some surprises." Aislinn, pleased at the turn-out, said:

  • It was good to see a bunch of people there, some of whom I might have felt as being more conservative, of the more conservative anti-environmental ilk, so it was good to see them there and go, "Oh, this looks like a person who might support sustainable development. Maybe there's more of them in the community than I thought."

Having noticed that there were not many people representing the social groups in the community, I asked Dick, a long-time resident, to give me some insight into who attended and who did not. "Social would be, well, seniors' housing or housing, and stuff like that. People that came from areas of social concern ... like the church wasn't represented, the [social awareness group] people weren't there."

Dick also speculated on why some of the people from an economic perspective did attend. He thought they might have been saying to themselves, "Is this going to affect our business?" and, "We have to get in on this, otherwise we might find ourselves shortchanged." Norah whispered to me that "some people — businesspeople — felt that it [sustainable development] might be a threat and they came and realized that it wasn't," and she thought that was "wonderful."


I had not encumbered the actual learning event with the paraphernalia of research, and I credit this for the forum's flowing so smoothly. However, my qualitative research then had to be based on post-forum observations I made in my fieldnotes, informal conversations I had with several people soon after the forum, and in-depth interviews I conducted with 13 forum participants individually, 6 to 8 weeks after the forum. (A 14th participant who lives outside the community sent short responses by email.)

I was able to interview at least one community representative from each of the roundtable discussion topics but one, and all four of the students who attended. I included all the youth because I wanted both to respect an important principle of sustainable development (intergenerational equity), and to discover how to honour the participation of youth in adult learning events.

However, I was unable to achieve a balance in representation from the three pillars of sustainable development, for two reasons: (a) I came away from the forum without a list of participants' names (because, at the time, the forum was not the subject of my research) and, therefore, I could only ask those I knew personally or heard about from others to participate in interviews; and (b) two people who could have represented economic interests (one from the missing topic) told me that they were too busy with their businesses to be interviewed.

The interviews, which lasted from 30 minutes to 2 hours (some people were chattier than others), were based on an interview schedule that changed very little from interview to interview. However, I did add more questions after piloting the schedule with Quinn, and I found myself starting to emphasize certain phrases to clarify questions and to distinguish between environmental learning and environmental action.

A summary of the final interview schedule is included in the Appendix. I commented in my fieldnotes that during the initial three or four interviews, I sat and did nothing but pose the questions. Those participants were the ones who remarked that the timing of my interviewing was poor — too long after the event. Once I started making reassuring comments during the interviews, that complaint stopped.

The emergent design of this research was very intriguing for me. I taped and carefully transcribed the interviews myself, and during transcription I jotted down the main themes or motifs that arose in each interview. During the discovery phase, these jottings helped me to begin reducing the data into themes, with some exciting findings. During the data analysis phase, categories began to cascade from the data.

My qualitative analysis evolved some considerations for facilitating transformative environmental adult education using sustainable development learning.


What barriers might keep adults from choosing to learn about sustainable development? Keeping in mind that all responses about barriers were, in essence, conjectural (because participants had overcome any barriers they faced in order to attend the forum), I posed questions that led to several insights about unattractive aspects of sustainable development as well as general barriers to learning about sustainable development. I have organized these learning barriers into seven categories.

Stubborn Misconceptions about Sustainable Development

A hefty barrier for many people was a preconceived notion that the concept of sustainable development is an oxymoron. Although Francis explained that his use of the term "sustainability" was merely "habit, habit, habit," some participants use it to avoid the word "development," and some wanted to explain why the term "sustainable development" might frighten people.

Some participants believed that sustainable development implies that change (read development) is inevitable. Dick said, "The word 'sustainable development' is tough because development means you are changing things." Quinn agreed, saying that the least attractive aspect of sustainable development

  • is the fact that there will be change.... If you look, we have a pretty perfect environment right here, right now, and the knowledge that some development may cause a change in it is not good. We all come here because we like the way it is and we don't want anything to be different. Again, that's why the word "development" scares people.

She went on to explain what happens "as soon as you introduce the word 'development'":

  • Another barrier that people are going to have is the fact that it has the word "development" in it, and there's a large group of people [in this community] that are "environmentally based" or whatever you want to call it. As soon as you use the word "development" they immediately fly off the handle and say, "This has gotta be bad," and can't even be bothered to even listen.

For Dick, the least attractive aspect of sustainable development is the economic pillar "because it does still emphasize profits and business." Francis pointed out that "an economic happening" could have merits by the criteria of sustainable development but still be unpopular with segments of the community. Others identified an opposite misperception, that sustainable development is "just an environmental issue."

Another identified barrier is that preconceived notions about other people in the community and their attitudes toward sustainable development get in the way of learning together. Kathryn's admission that "our preconceptions of other people really screw us up" is probably true of this community's situation. Other participants revealed the perception that sustainable development is too complex, creating a reluctance to deal with it.

Sustainable Development as a Long, Difficult Process

Most participants view sustainable development as a long, slow (albeit urgent), and overly complex process that involves a lot of time, hard work, self-discipline, and bureaucratic hurdles. Dyanne gave two examples on a personal level: "I drove my car [to the forum] and I don't know how to get out of it. Like building [my] house, there are so many toxic materials I had to use.... You know, it's really hard, it's really, really hard." Neil agreed, but was more optimistic: "There's a lot of work to be done. Other than that, there isn't really a down side to it."

Sense of Hopelessness and Other Emotional Barriers

Participants believed that feelings of impotence, of being overwhelmed, and other emotional states such as depression, or personality traits such as shyness, might keep people from attending sustainable development learning events.

Donnica claimed that lack of confidence ("disbelief that they could do it") is a barrier. She also mentioned lack of support (or the fear of lack of support), saying, "I mean, it's environment. Some people can get cranky and you know, there's lawsuits and stuff."

Other emotional barriers included pessimism and a sense of futility, expressed as What's the point? or What's the use? Some participants see a problem in "getting people on board." Ingrid said, "The least attractive is the sense that it's hopeless to even think about it working.... that you're just voices crying in the wilderness." (She added that she thinks this is only an illusion "and that miracles can and do happen.")

Complacency and Laziness

Although some participants named tradition and convention as a barrier, others seemed less sympathetic, seeing this barrier as complacency, indifference, and apathy. Several participants linked unawareness with lack of access to (accurate) information and ideas about sustainable development, and explained that this lack of awareness leads to an inability to see the relevance of environmental action.

Neil saw the barrier as an inability to make the connection between global and local issues. "I think a lot of it is attitude as in, What can I do? You know, it's back to the saying of Act locally, think globally. And I think a lot of people can't quite make that connection." But Aislinn told me that some people "actually do think it [environmental degradation] could never affect them."

Several participants mentioned the barriers of too much busyness (Donnica: "They've got families to support and they've gotta go to work."), and lack of time or willingness to give priority to this kind of learning. Young Fiona said, "Spending half a day, like, a whole half day at a place listening to people. A lot of people don't have time to do that." Norah theorized that senior citizens "would agree that it's an important subject, but they feel, Oh let younger people worry about it."

But many participants felt a more common barrier was laziness, described variously as lethargy, apathy, indifference, a can't-be-bothered attitude, lack of will or initiative, not wanting to get involved, closed-mindedness, and resistance to change.

Fear in Many Guises

Participants identified denial and fear (especially fear of change) as a major barrier to learning about sustainable development. As Dyanne explained, this is "probably fear that [people] might have to change their lifestyle. And also fear of just facing it, that the world is such a mess, and it's easier to live in denial."

Fear was certainly mentioned in several contexts as the premier barrier to environmental action. Aislinn told me, "People fear putting themselves out there, being visible, putting their opinions on the line." This includes fear of being judged or sanctioned by their community; fear of confrontation, unpleasantness, and conflict; even fear of economic reprisals. Again, Aislinn explained, "They might fear having their livelihood impacted if ... they're considered to be too greenie."

Other financial issues came up: fear of rising taxes, fear of extra expense (such as the extra cost of organic foods), fear of losing income. Dick said:

  • Barriers might be economic survival, you know, like profits. Most businesses, here in particular, are marginal and most people who are in business have difficulty making ends meet, and therefore that would be a big barrier to you if they felt that some environmental action was going to detract from their income. That would be a major barrier.

Aislinn, an astute social activist, summed up the challenge presented by fear when she said, "[Sustainable development] involves work, and changing established patterns, and moving against fear. And those are all things that people, as human beings, have a hard time with."

Perceived Lack of Leadership and Support in the Community

Participants admitted as a barrier the perceived lack of credible people willing to take the lead. Donnica told me, "We need big people, we need important people, we need people that can influence." Neil said, "Community leaders will have to, not grab people by the nose, but kind of show them the path and say, 'Here, if we do this, this will work.'"

A further reminder came from Sheadon: "[People need] someone to lead them or a group [who is] really enthusiastic about something. I think you need enthusiasm to keep people going." Ingrid also noted the perceived importance of leadership:

  • Talking up ahead of time what the action's going to be ... [and] having people that are recognized as leaders promote the action, or support it, helps.... People need a cheering section and they need to feel like they're in harmony with what the community wants.

Another community-based barrier is a perceived lack of convenience, translated as the lack of tools, facilities, and services "at their fingertips" to entice or support environmental action. For example, Neil suggested that a community composting centre would get more food scraps and other vegetation out of the waste stream just as the recycling station has enticed the community to recycle "because the service is there for the people to use."

Participants also explained that laws, bylaws, and a number of other perceived or real bureaucratic hurdles serve as barriers.

Reputation of the Messenger

When asked if the forum presented any barriers to environmental action, most said no, but one young participant laughed, "Well, some things [suggested] were like, nobody would want to organize them or anything." This comment takes on greater significance in light of a barrier candidly shared by an older participant:

  • The barriers basically are the individuals that hold themselves out as being the custodians of these protected areas, etcetera. In a community this size, it's very important who the messenger is, I believe anyway. And if a person is a complete sort of turn-off, either by their excessive enthusiasm for what they believe, or worse, become you know, almost bordering on eccentricity, then you know, it's pretty tough to get excited.

In response to a different question, this same participant noted that building interest in sustainable development is possible "providing the person who is orchestrating the forum is doing a good job. And this did happen, actually, so it was able to expand quite readily, with the result that it was a fabulous outcome when it was completed." The reputation of "the messenger" is not a barrier I had considered, but it warrants reflection as I move into the world of environmental education consulting and sustainable development facilitating.


This section draws from the 12 adult learning principles described by Vella (1994) in Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, a book that talks about the power of dialogue in educating adults. She explains that these principles are a means to close the gap and develop a dialogue between educator and learner, "across cultures, genders, classes, and ages" (p. xiv). Four of Vella's principles were raised by participants in the context of barriers to learning about sustainable development.

Not Ensuring Safety Related to Process and Content

Vella (1994) emphasizes creating a safe learning environment for every learner (p. 6). I did not set up audio-visual equipment that was big enough or loud enough for 66 people (I had pictured easily squeezing the less than two dozen registrants into the lounge where the big-screen TV is located), and some people found the film difficult to see and hear, especially those older adults with failing eyesight and hearing. An important audio-visual presentation should be treated with as much respect (and advance preparation) as a guest speaker.

A content-related safety issue came up unexpectedly. Uriah raised an issue I had not considered — hearing about barriers can become a barrier. Someone could learn something at the forum that blocked further learning or action. What he heard from others about all the bureaucratic obstacles in his way disheartened him somewhat:

  • I guess some of the stuff that I learned there did sorta hamper, like a straight line and had to go around some things because of the government so, and different bylaws and stuff that you had to sorta jump over, so it's like a whole bunch of hurdles you had to get over.... Yeah, like, what you had to get past [passed?] to get something done.

Forgetting to Integrate Ideas, Feelings, and Actions into Learning

Effective adult education, according to Vella (1994, p. 14) integrates cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects, helping adults to learn with their mind, emotions and muscles. When asked whether the forum itself presented any barriers to learning, Kathryn laughed and said that she wanted a longer forum, whereas Ingrid thought that we sat too long. She suggested that we "get up and have some moderate level of activity and get the blood flowing ... have a tai chi break or something."

My envisioned "nature break" (a sensory awareness activity outside) was scuttled when so many participants showed up unexpectedly. But I regret not offering an activity that brought the emotions and muscles into the very cognitive learning about the concept and principles of sustainable development.

Lack of Immediacy and Relevance

Teaching what is immediately useful to learners is an important principle of adult education, according to Vella (1994, p. 16). For forum participants, lack of a clear next step, post-forum, acted as a barrier to learning.

Further, when I asked participants what would add to their learning the next time we hold a forum on sustainable development, a common theme was relevance. Several felt the presentations gave abstract information rather than concrete examples, and lacked specific examples from similar communities and specific applications to this community. Donnica explained it this way:

  • I think if it was related to something, like if they use an example that people could relate to. Like when you use something that people are really familiar with, they're more able to accept it and more able to want to learn about it, because they go, Oh, well, we could, that's us! ... Just because it's us and, Look! the example they're using is us so like, we can actually do this.

Neil anticipated my problem in meeting this request for relevance when he asked for "more of a local model ... more based on what our community goes through ... if there is one available." In fact, when I began organizing the forum, the international headquarters of the UN's Local Agenda 21 Initiatives in Toronto told me they had no cases on file of rural communities in Canada adopting sustainable development. (Since then, a rural island not far from my island community has become a Local Agenda 21 Initiative community.)

"Just Talkin' About It" — Talk as Replacement for Action

Vella's (1994) principle of praxis, or learning by doing (p. 11), explains why dialogue alone, without action and reflection, can be a barrier to learning. Although 11 out of 13 participants told me their favourite activity was talking in the roundtable groups, several then expressed a concern about "talk" as a barrier to environmental action.

Quinn was perhaps the most vehement, explaining that "it's all very well to say these things in this room, but if nothing ever happens, so what?" When asked whether she thought the community roundtable sustainable development process has value, she responded:

  • I don't think that anything happens. Sorry, it's all very well for a bunch of those people to sit in a room and talk about these things, but so what? What ultimately happens as a result of this forum is probably nothing. That's my negative take on the forum. I mean, yeah, everybody says, "This is great," we all talk about this, but so what? Where does it go from here? Ideas come out. At least positively the [politicians] were present at this meeting, but what happens now? Where does it go from here? Airing ideas makes people feel good for a bit, and then it all just goes away again.

Quinn's negative "take" on the value of discussions at the forum sent me to my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1981): forum is a Latin word, akin to foris (outside) and fores (door), that can mean "a public meeting place for open discussion" or "a public meeting or lecture involving audience discussion" (p. 449). So this was indeed a forum, and my intention had not been to aim for an end result, but rather to educate around the process of sustainable development.

As I wrote in my fieldnotes, "it would have been more effective if I had clearly explained the purpose of this first forum: just to try sustainable development processes on for size, to see if the community could amicably and respectfully come together in this way."

Nor did Ingrid sense that the forum enticed environmental action. "People at my table mentioned, 'Are we just gonna be talking about it?' Because there really wasn't a clear action plan that emerged, a clear next step," she admitted. But my conservation group was treading carefully at a politically sensitive time and did not want to be seen as owning a community action plan for sustainable development after the forum, especially when that was not the advertised goal. That step needed to be left to the local politicians, or to the community as a whole.

Donnica liked the interactivity of seeing, doing, and talking. However, she thought that "if we'd just talked about it, it wouldn't have sunk in as much." She also appreciated the video because "a lot of this kind of stuff gets talked about, and a lot of stuff's talk and it's kinda cool when you can actually go, Look, this happened. It's not just talk, right?"

When asked how we can keep our community focused on sustainable development, Donnica suggested, "Progress interests people. Probably regular meetings, but with regular meetings you have to make sure that there is progress, because if there's just meetings, people will again think, Oh, it's just talk, we're not really going anywhere." Norah concurred that "a carrot at the end of the session ... would make people feel that we're just not going to have a broad-ranging discussion but they will be able to accomplish something."

What might explain the genesis of this dismay at "just talking about it" is my forgetting the planned wrap-up activity. It was meant to help the participants decide what would happen to their ideas and discussions post-forum. Without it, participants were left with no reflection time, and no plans to put our learning into action in the community. This is where Vella's (1994) concept of immediacy, or immediate usefulness to learners, would have been assured.

I admitted to myself in my fieldnotes that Quinn's critique "makes me all the more determined to make something more happen!" I hope that her "so what" will be further forums and continued interest in sustainable development in the community — maybe a Round Table that meets regularly, or a community sustainable development planning policy.


When I asked participants to explain why sustainable development is enticing to them, I learned that many different factors and reasons can entice people to want to learn about sustainable development, and that there are many attractive aspects of sustainable development. I have organized these factors into three categories.

Hope Set Against Despair

The concept of sustainable development is not only enticing but also imperative for participants. For example, Aislinn explained that enticement can come from either problematic or affirming roots, or both.

  • It's enticing to me because, again, maybe I'm a body ruled by fear, but because I'm afraid that if I don't get bloody well enticed by it, I won't have a world to get up in and live in every day––at least not a world as I know it. And also because there are things in the world that are upsetting, so it feels good to imagine them going better, being fairer.

On the one hand, several participants concluded that the biggest enticement to learning about sustainable development is discovering "what could happen if they didn't learn about it" (Fiona); how one's life and lifestyle could be impacted or affected, compromised or threatened by environmental deterioration ("as a consequence of economic activity or any other development," explained Dick).

Quinn alluded to the keynote speech in saying that a crisis, or an event that increases community consciousness, is "always the kind of thing that brings people together." Sheadon told me, "If something was gonna happen ... if people didn't like it, they'd come and talk about it, and if people who did like it hear that, I think they'd come too."

On the other hand, several participants see sustainable development as "our only hope," an important new paradigm that is worth considering because it can be achieved in small increments and have lasting effects. For example, Francis believes the greatest enticement of sustainable development is this sense of hope: "Everybody really wins. I mean, that's the whole thing, isn't it? It's gotta have nice things that happen at the end of it. And for the most part, I think it does." Ingrid described sustainable development as a "joyful alternative ... [to] the slippery slope ... [into a] little shredded web."

Making Connections

Participants saw the benefits of sustainable development reaching out in ever-expanding circles, locally and globally. Sustainable development "works ... because it goes in a circle, it doesn't end, it's not linear," Dyanne told me. At the personal level, sustainable development is "just way more fun! It's more rich! It feeds the soul!" according to Ingrid.

For the youth, it means creating fun activities for them to do. At the community level, it means "harmony," "connectedness," and working together. Dick laughed, saying, "It's better than just pure non-sustainable development," and Quinn said, "Our community may change, but it won't be any worse.... By definition, sustainable development says things are gonna change, but this is a change that we're able to live with."

An attractive principle of sustainable development is intragenerational equity, ensuring that people in less privileged parts of the world are not adversely affected by our development. Ingrid said, "The alternative [referring to sustainable development] is people's lives get better everywhere, and richer and more meaningful." Aislinn agreed, saying, "Sustainable development will make a better world for many, many more people."

Several participants (two youth and a businessperson) viewed positive effects on the environment, including global benefits, as the highlight of sustainable development. For example, Neil said, "If you implement it properly, it shows respect for the environment and it means that we can continue to develop without depleting or decimating resources."

Participants believed that sustainable development could make connections between the present and the future. Both younger and older participants confirmed that sustainable development can be viewed as a process to ensure intergenerational equity.

Fiona (a younger participant) said it entices her "because it will protect our world and it will still be a good world for our children." Neil (an older participant) agreed that sustainable development is "for the future of my children. And their children. And their children's children. And to make this a better place for everybody."

Some participants alluded to a spiritual connection with the rest of nature. For example, Ingrid spoke of a deepening of human beings' bonds with nature as an enticing aspect of sustainable development. "The depths of relationship with the natural world become deeper," she said. Another participant cited a potential enticement that speaks to my raison d'être as an eco-inspirationalist: bonding experiences in the natural world that create biophilia, or a love, respect, and care for the Earth.

According to Kathryn, a willingness to undertake environmental action

  • starts with one's feeling, one's awareness of their immediate environment and their connection to the environment, their bond to that environment.... So, how do we create that bond? I don't know. We start with kids. And just make sure that they have the experiences in nature that they need ... to nourish their souls and to encourage that bond.... I had a very outdoor childhood and I know that that's where this care comes from.

Participation and Voice

Several participants (especially the young people) mentioned how much they appreciated having their voice heard. Uriah commented that "it was energizing to be able to finally say, 'This is what we think.'" He reiterated that the forum was "a good place to get your voice heard and give out ideas and hear ideas from other people and discuss and debate 'em."

Dyanne saw the group sharing session as an enticement. Both Kathryn and Norah saw the forum itself as an alluring beginning, a stepping stone or building block toward sustainable development in the community. For Norah, this enticed further individual learning and exploration:

  • Well, I felt it was just a beginning so, ah, I'd like to do more reading and to see what I can do, what our community can do, what our relationship should be, and the directions we might explore together.


In this section, I again draw from Vella's (1994) adult learning principles to categorize participants' responses. Eight of Vella's principles were raised in the context of enticements to sustainable development learning and subsequent environmental action. Four additional facilitation enticements were also mentioned: offering a balance of fear and inspiration, using popular education techniques, creating a compelling vision, and credibility.

Creating a Safe Ambiance for Learning and Sharing

According to Vella (1994), creating a safe and inviting environment for learning includes the atmosphere in the room, the design of the learning challenge, and the design of the learning process (p. 6). All the respondents agreed that the atmosphere of the forum was "good" ("great"; "really nice"; or simply "okay" for a participant who arrived late). They commented that the event fostered optimism and wasn't depressing, that it had "a good ambiance, a good energy, a good feeling." Donnica said:

  • The whole atmosphere just seemed like, really positive and everybody was like, "Yeah, we can do this." And there was no negative feelings. You felt really comfortable there. You felt like everybody respected you. We were all there for the same purpose.

Sheadon told me "it was not like a real tight feeling." Uriah concurred: "Most of it was pretty comfortable, because everybody was there to share ideas." Fiona, the youngest of the participants, added, "It was fun, especially the table part. I liked the feel of it. We were all in it together and connected." The oldest of my respondents said that I "kept a very good kind of an upbeat atmosphere."

Quinn used the magic word, harmony: "In spite of the fact that ... there were people of diverse backgrounds and interests there, there was a general feeling of harmony."

Ensuring that Content and Process are Equally Important

Vella (1994) advises paying careful attention to the sequencing of content and reinforcement in adult education (p. 9), from easy to difficult, from simple to complex. Participants agreed that the forum's content and process were sequenced in a way that helped overcome barriers to learning about sustainable development, and that each of the instructional components of the forum helped overcome barriers to environmental action.

According to participants, the introductory presentation and keynote speech were seen as interesting and informative, increasing their awareness and showing them positive solutions to environmental problems. The keynote speaker modelled commitment and inspired action with his intelligence and credibility.

The video on the successes of Curitiba, Brazil, in implementing sustainable development was appreciated for "its nice added dimension" and for the inspiration and encouragement it offered. Neil admitted that the forum "was a real awakening, right sort of from the start, right through the whole thing."

Aislinn said the forum "simplified some of the information but also still provided a level of detail that was useful ... some core principles that can be part of the road map to a solution." According to Marlene, the forum overcame some participants' indifference to environmental issues by ensuring discussion of economic and social factors as well, and Uriah said that "people saw different ways of dealing with things."

My plan was to teach the principles of sustainable development by explaining them during my introductory presentation, and then reinforce them by building them into the structure and activities of the forum, giving participants an experience of praxis in ways that respected different learning styles. Kathryn seemed to think this was a successful strategy:

  • Well, people got to talk, people got to listen, people got to see visuals, people got to laugh, people got to share. So it's like, What more? I don't know. That seems like a good way to start and a good way to carry on.

Putting Principles into Practice

Vella's (1994) principle of praxis, or learning by doing (p. 11), played a vital role in the forum. The principle of integration of the three pillars of sustainable development (environmental conservation, economic sustainability, and social equity) was perhaps the most visible at the forum, because of the "hats" (brightly coloured construction paper headbands) at each table, to represent each of the pillars. I had hoped the hats would be seen as a playful reminder to consider all three pillars during the roundtable discussions. Although I discovered that receptivity to the hats was mixed (some participants found the strategy useful and others found it a nuisance, or silly), I wrote in my fieldnotes, "The hats strategy seemed to do what I wanted it to do: keep the peace." I discuss the three-hats facilitation technique in further detail in Chapter 4. [See also The Three Hats Strategy page on this website.]

Ensuring Integrated Learning

Vella (1994) emphasizes the integration of three aspects of learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Some participants talked about the flow and the feel of the forum. Keeping the educational event upbeat is an idea that came up more than once. Ingrid remarked that the forum "was well presented and it moved along, and the passion of the speakers and the organizers was evident and was contagious." Her comment pointed out the affective aspect of the event.

Aislinn said, "It was good to have a combination of presentations and small groups and films, and potluck, socializing and music. To me, that's variety — that was a good way to entice learning." This variety in the activities ensured that the psychomotor aspect of learning was involved.

Teaching What Is Immediate and Relevant

When asked how this forum enticed learning about sustainable development, participants told me that it got them thinking, kindled their interest, and made them curious about specific issues. This comes close to what Vella (1994) calls the principle of immediacy, or "teaching what is really useful" (p. x). Neil said,

  • I think just by having a forum, it brought people's, it brought very specific issues to everybody's attention. It brought them to the forefront and people had to really think about what they were doing, not just in the groups they were doing, but what I got from the overall, there was, you know, the water issues, the land use, the forestry. And it really makes you think.

Donnica reiterated that local examples are empowering and motivating, and she thought that talking about local issues in the roundtable discussions enticed learning. "When you use something that's really familiar to people, it gets them interested and it keeps them interested because it's about them."

"Finally Talkin' About It" – Talk as Action

Vella (1994) highlights the dialogue process in adult education, and the importance of moving "toward dialogue" (p. 18). The favourite activity for 11 of the 13 interviewed participants was talking in the roundtable groups; when they told me this, the interview moved to several of them suggesting that "talk" can serve as an enticement to environmental action.

When asked how this forum enticed environmental action, Aislinn said, "It involved people talking to each other so that's a good foundation for action. As long as people are learning and talking to each other, things can start to happen." Ingrid agreed: "Just getting together, without any clear action, can ... inspire people to go ahead and bother to take little actions they may have been thinking about anyway."

Furthermore, the community sharing aspect of the forum was seen by some participants as action itself. For example, Norah said, "It's nice when people can talk about serious issues together and work together. That's a wonderful goal for us to have." Kathryn said that she would support more "dialogue, or just exchange of ideas" about the environmental actions we are already taking. This would amount to acknowledging "ways that we already live sustainably," which in itself can be an enticement to further action.

Fiona told me that the forum enticed environmental action because of "all the people talking about it and telling you what you could do." Other youth agreed, saying that "hearing what other people had to say" and then discussing those ideas afterward in their classroom got them talking together about what they can make happen in the community.

Neil probably expressed most fervently the view that talk (and reflection on that talk) can serve as an enticement to environmental action. "Making those people aware of, and really forcing people to think about all the different aspects of each topic that we talked at, I think will help force that action, and motivate them to carry on with it."

Using Small Group Learning

Vella (1994) explains that adults learn best in small teams, where learning is enhanced by peers (pp. 19-20). All but one of the participants felt that the interactive roundtable discussions were the high point of the forum. Several said they would have enjoyed a second session at a different table.

In terms of process, some participants appreciated the range of roundtable choices and the fact that, as Kathryn explained, they "got to pick and choose their workshop" without having to defend their choice or their interest. This activity, especially, gave participants a sense that they are not alone, that "there's some resonance there," as Ingrid put it. Interacting with others who are supportive of sustainable development can help them "have the courage of their convictions."

The content of the youth and recreation roundtable discussion showed the youth how to overcome barriers to action. Sheadon mentioned that fund raising and money making were discussed in his group, "so I think that could really help take action." Uriah evoked images of physical barricades with his metaphor: "My eyes were opened to different ideas and how to go around certain things, and once you're around them, the barrier behind you sorta gets taken down and then it's easier for the next wave to come through."

Ensuring Success

Vella (1994) believes that accountability is one of the foremost principles of adult learning, and that success is in the eyes of the learner (p. 21). She suggests posing the question "How do they know they know?" (p. 190) as a way to ensure accountability. Although I did not use that exact question, participants agreed that the forum helped overcome barriers to learning about sustainable development by bringing sustainable development to the attention of the community. Dyanne said that "just the fact that it happened, that you created the forum, that it existed" surmounted barriers. Norah was "surprised and delighted" that we talked about sustainable development "in a very public forum with widespread support of examining the issues." Neil added that what happened after the forum also helped overcome barriers.

  • Just by having the forum, having the people there, and I think by having those people who went to that forum also spread the word throughout the community. And you know, I'm sure I'm not the only one who went, "Wow, there's a lot of things that we need to really work on and think about," and through talking it out with other members of the community who weren't there, you're gonna spread the word and spread the idea.

Offering a Magic Balance

Aislinn pointed out that there is no one best way to entice people to sustainable development learning or environmental action. She felt that "some kind of magical combination of frightening them and inspiring them" would work:

  • They have to know how serious it is, but there needs to be a balance of constructive things they can do now that give them reason to hope that the situation can be improved. So I don't know what the magic combination is, but if they just thought it was all a party and no big deal, they wouldn't be involved, and if they thought it was a horrific situation that could never be resolved, they wouldn't be involved either, so some kind of balance of the wake-up call and a measure of hope.

Facilitating Serious Play Through Popular Education

Participants enjoyed the different ways that group findings were presented, some with visuals, song and poetry. For example, the Agriculture and Food Security table offered this poem:

  • There is a time for all seasons
    There is a time to look at the food we eat.
    There is a time to ask where it comes from.
    It's the time to ask, "Can we grow it here — organically?"
    And if not, "Do we really need it?"
    There is a time to ask whether we need asparagus in January!
    So adopt a fruit tree, develop a community garden,
    and support local growers at an economic level.
    There is mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health
    in people coming together around
    the growth, sale, preparation, and eating of food.
    There is a time for all seasons, and now is the time.

Kathryn suggested that an opportunity for the community to come together and laugh together, to honour the environment in an enjoyable, humorous way, could make learning about sustainable development memorable.

Offering a Clear and Compelling Conceptual Framework

Sustainable development does not have to be an abstract concept, and the more practical it seems, the more compelling. Several participants thought that active promotion might help community members see the practical application of sustainable development to their lives or, as Ingrid put it, "that it's not just an abstract thing ... that it's going somewhere, that people have made positive steps and we can too."

Norah told me that it would be helpful for people to "understand the relationship of sustainable development to their own lives, their private lives, instead of its being a very nice phrase that they see in literature, but they can't see how they might fit in." Marlene made a specific suggestion for enticing people to sustainable development education:

  • For people who may not be immediately interested, the explanation of economic, social and environmental "capital" often seems to be a hook, i.e., it is already a well-understood financial concept that is easy for people to translate to other values.


In an attempt to avoid any perception of taking sides, I had decided to invite a reputable keynote speaker from outside the community. I did not realize how successful this strategy of perceived impartiality was for enticing learning until I interviewed two people who seem to consider themselves diametrically opposed in their views. I heard them both use the same term: credibility. In response to the question on how this forum overcame barriers, Francis said it was "primarily by the way it was structured, I mean the keynote speaker from [elsewhere], not being one of the residents, I thought that was very, very good, and a person of credibility to boot." Kathryn's response was similar:

  • Well, it presented some good solid information, and it was presented by very credible people. It seems like credibility is a really important thing, to me and probably to other people too.... I loved that this highly credentialed person was standing up there saying what he was saying. That really mattered to me, because I think so many times environmentalists are kinda put down 'cause they don't have the right clothes or they don't have the right education.

One of the young people agreed. Uriah said that "having one of the speakers that was very knowledgeable and doing this in other places in [the province], and having a slide show set up and sort of going step-by-step" was an enticement to learning.


Most of the participants I interviewed said that, because of the forum, they underwent some sort of transformation, which I categorized as new ideas, new attitudes, and new actions. They expressed a variety of cognitive learnings — among them the naming of sustainable development — that led to other changes, confirming Kurt Lewin's well-known aphorism, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." Some expressed their new learnings in terms of feelings and beliefs that were reinforced at the forum. And when I asked participants about changes they had made since the forum, I learned that learning about sustainable development can have an impact on environmental action.

Bringing Home the Concept of Sustainable Development

In general, the forum served to define and bring home the concept of sustainable development — personally and for the community — by localizing the possibilities and potential it presents. Fiona told me the forum made her "think more about what could happen if we didn't start developing sustainably." Neil became aware of how unsustainable our local lifestyle is "because we're just growing and growing and eating up our natural resources"; he commented on how much more his business can do to become sustainable. (I see a contract for a sustainable development facilitator there!)

I asked participants how their definition or understanding of sustainable development had changed because of the forum. One of the young participants told me that she had not realized "it was called sustainable development" so the forum gave it a name for her. Some learned the definition of sustainable development for the first time. Others pointed out that the forum clarified, strengthened, or expanded their understanding.

Two participants said the forum opened their eyes. For example, Norah said the film "was an eye-opener and made me recognize that, Gee! Everybody can do it! Everyone can get involved.... I always had the feeling that ... only people who are interested in 'the environment' in quotes are going to become involved."

Aislinn's newly broadened definition of sustainable development adds elements to the WCED's (1987) definition that I currently use. For Aislinn, sustainable development is "whatever sustains a community as a healthy, happy, environmentally respectful, economically viable body." Here is what she took away from the forum:

  • The world is going to keep developing in one way or another, no matter what, and what is the way for it to do that, so that there will be, both for those who live now and for all future generations, a happy, healthy, safe, environmentally flourishing, and economically just place for them to do that in?

Learning About Process

Process-wise, due to the set up of the roundtable activity, participants learned something about their community through the sheer range of table topics available. They also learned that the process is vital for hearing and discussing what other community members value.

Furthermore, they learned that sustainable development matters to other people in the community and around the world, and that it is increasingly accepted and supported. A sense of "in it together" was an important piece of learning, especially for those who came with a lot of background knowledge.

Two participants advanced very different views on the locus of control for sustainable development and whether it is an individual process or a community process. On the one hand, Kathryn's definition became less "airy-fairy" because of the forum, and she said, "We can say this community is striving to become sustainable. But ... in fact, that term doesn't mean anything until you really define it for yourself. Every person has to define it for themselves."

Norah, on the other hand, sees sustainable development as a whole community process:

  • Wow, [the forum] made me feel that the process can be applied to this community, which is very encouraging, that it isn't necessary to have a completely ecologically, environmentally centred community, but everyone can participate, and I thought that was wonderful.

Learning About Sustainable Development Principles

In terms of principles, what truly impressed me was that quite a few participants came up with or remembered (from the keynote address) key principles of sustainable development that I did not know, had not remembered, or had never considered.

Ironically, many of these same participants then apologized for not being able to name "three important aspects or principles of sustainable development" (showing me that questions that sound like test items can act as barriers to recall of learning). However, several participants were able to name the three pillars of sustainable development, and with prompting several more remembered them.

Most participants were certainly able to talk about the principles of sustainable development, even if they could not name them. They learned that sustainable development should focus on the good of the community, and that it includes everyone in the community (diversity). They learned it is a participatory process that, according to Sheadon, "holds everyone as equal, not one group higher than the others."

Norah noted that sustainable development is "not imposed on anybody, but everyone's concerns are important" (social pillar). Kathryn mentioned that "we need to find ways to support local community and livelihoods and eventually that all has to do with the well-being of community and people" (economic pillar). Several participants echoed Aislinn's call for conservation and "respectful and sustainable use of the world's non-renewable resources" (environmental pillar).

Kathryn said that the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) and the concept of ecological footprint ("the footprint of my behaviour is far beyond my septic tank") were affirmed at the forum. Aislinn linked the social, economic, and environmental pillars by calling for "greater movement towards equity and equality in the sharing of the world's resources" (integration).

Ingrid mentioned meeting the needs of future generations (intergenerational equity). Others learned that the themes and issues of sustainable development are interrelated both locally and globally (intragenerational equity).

Two participants illustrated the think globally, act locally motto: Francis remarked that sustainable development "is not an isolated phenomenon" but is "pretty much universal. It's not just one small piece of geography. It's a big thing." Ingrid commented:

  • I liked that the theory if you will, what's coming from the so-called experts, matches my own intuitive sense that sustainable development is a very locally based thing that really engages the hearts of people in the place where they live. And it's really all about ownership.

Learning About New Topics

In terms of content, the youth participants said they learned the history and importance of sustainable development, what it is, "what's being done and what's not being done," what we need to pay closer attention to, and how to manage local resources better. Some of the older participants concurred. Neil said he learned that "instead of decimating a stand of timber with clearcut logging practices, to bring in eco-tourists to see it."

Dick learned "that governments can accomplish things if they put their mind to it" (confidence-raising of a sort). Ingrid remembered the keynote speaker saying that a key criterion for successful implementation of sustainable development planning is having "a sense of the boundary of the community, knowing who you're talking about." (This could partly explain the success of the forum in this small community, but it might be a fascinating challenge in larger centres.)

And Kathryn came to a consequential realization, one that does not yet seem to be shared by many community members, gauging by the exodus of cars from this community to a large urban centre every day:

  • In terms of economics and business here, if we're going to have a sustainable community, then we need to support the efforts that already exist here.... We don't necessarily need to go 50 miles away to buy cheap goods. I know personally I have to consider greater support for the businesses here.

Her new understanding that deliberately choosing alternative behaviours is part of achieving sustainable development is an example of some of the changes participants have made because of the forum.

Change in Stance

Some participants experienced a change in their attitude toward sustainable development. Several who came to the forum "interested" in sustainable development left with a sense of "acceptance" or "conviction," including Sheadon who now wants to be involved and have "some sort of say."

A few who classified themselves as "unaware" before the forum raised their awareness and became interested in the concept of sustainable development, even committed to it. Donnica said, "I just never knew that it was like this whole, enormous, organized ... I didn't realize so many people were thinkin' like that and stuff, so I thought it was pretty cool."

I discovered that the forum did not convert any participants who described their pre-forum attitude as "acceptance," "conviction," or "commitment," (although Ingrid went from commitment to "enthusiastic commitment"), as they already felt converted. The response most notable for me came from the politically involved local who told me his attitude changed from "awareness" to "commitment."

Shift in Consciousness

When I asked participants whether what they learned at the forum had contributed in some way toward a shift in consciousness for them, about half said no, three said a little bit, and four said a definite yes. Two of the youth felt that being heard and seen by the community helped create a transformative experience for them; Sheadon said the forum "really put me out there, making me want to do something."

Norah was in the latter category as well: "Yes, absolutely, because [I discovered] it's not an esoteric subject. I discovered, especially from the video, that this is a very practical subject that can be addressed by all kinds of communities and there's hope for us too." Probably Neil made the biggest shift in consciousness:

  • The whole thing ... was a bit of a real awakening for me, and got me thinking about the environment and the economics of development .... It made me think of being in business over here, what all I produce — my garbage was my big one as I make a mess. And all that garbage I produce, I ship off to somebody else to deal with. And you know, to remain sustainable we have to sort of stay within our own area, and we're not. We're exploiting .... Globally, we have a finite number of resources. And a lot of them are renewable ... but we're not renewing it as fast as we're depleting it. And that's quite worrisome, because I've got three little kids that are coming into a nasty world.

The Converted Compared to the Unconverted

The sense of a transformation was evidently strongest in the previously unconverted, while for the converted it was more relative — along a spectrum — or not at all. Aislinn was shifted "further along the continuum of being both concerned about the ways the world is in trouble and also optimistic that there are solutions to the ways the world is in trouble." For Ingrid, the sense of transformation was "just another step in that direction." Also, the forum helped her, as a newcomer, feel "more at home and more networked and more a part of the community."

Increased Interest in Learning About Sustainable Development

When asked how the forum influenced their learning about sustainable development, responses were neutral or positive; one might even say productive. Only one participant admitted that the forum had unleashed "niggly guilt" for driving her car around and indulging herself.

While some participants said that the forum made them feel more optimistic about the future, and broadened their views and awareness of sustainable development, fully half of the participants told me that it increased their interest in learning more.

What Ingrid experienced at the forum continues to inspire her "to feel that this is a special place and that we can, in fact, be a world leader on this issue, or in this transformative process." Aislinn echoed others when she explained how the forum affected her learning:

  • It inspired me to continue to try to learn more, both about how sustainable development affects my community and can be enhanced in my community, and about how it can operate in the world. So it inspired me and gave me some useful information, and gave me some hope for the possibility that things can be improved.

A New View of Their Community

Three participants said they had made changes in how they see their community because of the forum. One youth had not realized how open her community is to sustainable development. Donnica also exalted in how accepting the older participants were when the Youth and Recreation Opportunities table made its presentation: "When we presented the bike trails and the youth stuff, it was really well accepted and I thought that was really cool because I thought we'd kinda get shot down."

Another youth, Sheadon, has started talking to people in the community about recreation issues and has gained a clearer opinion on some development issues, such as housing. When Neil, as one of the biggest local employers, told me he had not changed how he sees his community, I made the observation that his attendance at the forum will probably have changed how the community views him and his business (I know this is true for me).

Ingrid, a newcomer, is feeling more confident and connected to the community because of the forum. She was encouraged by the keynote speaker "when he talked about leadership emerging from unconventional places; I thought, Wow, that could be me!" (She has since planted the seed that grew into a local Peace Circle and a Celebration of Peace in the community.) She also remarked that the forum created common ground for participants:

  • I mean, it says a lot about me right off the bat that I showed up at that event, so hopefully, you know, people that have similar concerns will now feel more comfortable approaching me. Now we can talk about it, and it's a good common base.

Little Steps to Environmental Action

Some of the participants explained that they have not made any changes because they have always been involved in environmental action (helping in beach clean-ups, clearing trails, not driving a car), but several recounted changes they have made in their own lives.

Neil is "a little more conscious now at home of the recycling and making sure we're not leaving the water running." Aislinn is going "a little further out of [her] way" to reuse and recycle. Ingrid has "started to get a little bit more in tune" with what she believes by buying more organic food, and hitching a ride or using her bicycle more often instead of driving. Norah told me that several influences have contributed to making her feel that "every little thing" she does will be helpful. Her local women's group has since put together a booklet on environmentally friendly products and cleaning techniques for the home — and Norah is using baking soda in some new old-fashioned ways.

Aislinn is bridging two types of change — personal and community — by trying to connect the local parks organization, with which she is involved, with the forum's youth, so that "they can talk about ... recreation on the trails in an environmentally respectful way [that] also meets the needs of the youth."

Commitments to Personal Involvement or Contribution

After asking participants what they thought was the single best step the community could take toward sustainable development, I asked how they would like to be involved. Almost half of them told me that they do not have much time to be involved; many of these were the converted, so their response proves that time is indeed perceived as a barrier to environmental action. In the end, however, almost all gave some way that they could make a contribution, despite their lack of time.

Perhaps the enticement of little steps might work to overcome the time barrier. Neil said that his time is "in incredibly short supply" but that his business could help the sustainable development effort by donating some time, labour, or advertising.

Three participants mentioned more exploring, reading, and learning about sustainable development. Aislinn said that her job is "first try to decrease [the] impact [I have] on the environment, then try to inform myself, then when I have time and the interest in a particular way, to be more active." Norah would like to find out what the community's relationship to sustainable development should be. Neil said that he would come to another forum "to see where we can go and to see how, as a member of the business community, we can participate in keeping things sustainable, and not creating problems, and trying to live properly where we live."

Donnica would specifically like to build more mountain bike trails in the community. Sheadon would like to "be a volunteer, just help out in small ways." He added that he and Uriah "are getting things together for the youth." Fiona said that she would be willing to take action if someone she knew took the initiative first. And Uriah would not mind being that person; he would like to be the one who shows others how fun the chaos of this work can be. "So it's sort of the big push before it becomes easier, but there's more people to push," he explained.

Advice from an elder was that people prefer to back a winner; Dick said, "It would depend a lot on how things went if I wanted to be involved or not." This advice proved true when Uriah combined his design skills and enthusiasm with the moral support of peers and the financial support of parents and the community to build a movable indoor skateboard park at the community hall — the most visible (and fun!) impact of the forum to date.

Several participants pictured being involved through their vocations or avocations. Dyanne said that she could talk about natural building techniques at a future forum. Kathryn, who helped create the ambiance of the forum with some of her artwork, said that she could talk to other artists about creating seasonal pieces for the quarterly forums that she and I discussed. Francis knows that he will be involved in sustainable development professionally,

  • in terms of guiding, if you will, the public through bylaws that are introduced. And it is a driven machine, in terms of legislation, from the bottom up, in my view, and not from the top down. And if it's driven from the bottom up correctly, with this approach with the three pillars through it, then I think it would be marvelous, absolutely marvellous.

Similarly, Ingrid sees herself collaborating with me "on future excitements" by playing music and serving as a bridge between cultures and generations. She is envisioning a "fun revolution."

There is an old fund raising trick that says, "Never leave empty-handed. Always get something, even if it's just a letter of support for your cause." These responses remind me of that saying, because in 11 of 13 cases participants finally came up with some way to contribute to community sustainable development.

Impacts on the Community

Participants came up with several rather intangible ways the community was impacted by the forum, all of them favourable. Francis, for example, told me he was "confident that only good will come out of this."

The biggest theme expressed was that the forum served as a catalyst, getting people going and ideas flowing. Sheadon said, "It will either get things going or stop things that aren't good for the environment or social issues."

Francis, who pointed out the synchronicity of this event with other sustainable development happenings in the region, said, "The energy is now being unleashed or, as they say, the genie is out of the bottle, and I think it will grow." I appreciated Dyanne's metaphor that the forum "started some seeds ... some real creative thought."

Others mentioned the effect of word-of-mouth sharing, the possibility of other participants "pulling strings" to make things happen, the focus it gave people's attention, the information it made available, their willingness to take part in other similar events, and a rite of passage for a new community leader (me). Aislinn again mentioned the juxtaposition of optimism and fear: "[The forum] inspired [people] and gave them reasons for hope and also gave them reasons for concern. So I believe it'll have a positive effect."

I asked participants if they thought the community roundtable process has value by bringing people together in a way that avoids political agendas. The majority felt that the forum had met that aim, that it did not seem to be a politically allied concept but could be embraced by anyone of any political background or leaning.

The educational aspect of the forum outshone any politicking. For instance, although Norah "suspected" an "unexpressed agenda on the part of the [politicians in attendance]," she said:

  • It was encouraging that a number of people in the business community were very relieved that this wasn't going to be some sort of "far leftwing socialist environmental" in quotes activity, and it made them feel that they wanted to listen and ... participate. And I thought that was a great service that you gave the community.

Uriah noted that the forum was not about "having big government shooters in there saying, 'This is what you can and cannot do.'" Francis said that the roundtable process "forces people to leave their baggage outside the forum." However, Quinn added some realism by returning sustainable development to the political arena:

  • Something political has to happen as a result of this. You're stressing the fact that it's apolitical, which it should be, but the only way things happen is to go through political channels eventually, and the only way that something is going to occur in the long run as the result of forums such as this, is that proposals — discrete proposals — go towards some [political] body.... That's the only way anything's going to happen. If the community is sitting down and talking, it may be a feel good, but the only way you're going to enact any changes that are going to have a long term effect on the community is to enact a legislation of some sort.

Another theme mentioned was community understanding. One of the youth said that people will be more forgiving now. Norah commented that the forum has made the community much more open to looking at issues of sustainable development.

Francis intimated that this new openness will help the community consider all sides of an issue: "There are three legs to the stool and without the three legs, the stool will fall over." Ingrid said, "For the children it's a really positive thing to see a bunch of adults gettin' together, tryin' to grapple with the real shit and not avoid it."

A Sense of Harmony

An offshoot of this last theme is conflict reduction. When asked whether sustainable development can contribute to conflict reduction or resolution, three participants said no, that conflict will always exist, especially when some people are not interested in changing, and that the sustainable development process might create conflict.

But most participants said yes, and stressed the importance of "the roundtable effect" created by effective facilitation and tone setting; positive peer pressure and ground rules of courtesy, openness, and fairness; and sticking to the three pillars of sustainable development.

In truth, the most joyous moment in my data analysis came when I read Kathryn's observation about "the sense of harmony that sustainability would create" after reading Francis' take on the most attractive aspect of sustainable development: "harmony, and harmony means happiness." My philosophy of life has always been that happiness is not a destination but a way of travel. I conclude then, in a roundabout way, that sustainable development is indeed a path this community can — and wants to — walk together, in peace.

In the final chapter (Chapter 4), I analyze and interpret the findings of my research by examining the connections between my research and the literature on barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action. I conclude with lessons learned from the community forum on sustainable development and the participants I interviewed, as well as recommendations for how I, and others, might integrate this new knowledge into environmental adult education practice.

Return to Sustainable Development Learning Thesis - Chapter 1

Go to Sustainable Development Learning Thesis - Chapter 4

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