This article is more than 1 year old

How to decolonise the sustainable development agenda

For Sean Porter, sustainability and decolonisation should be connected to meet challenges associated with the climate emergency, inequality, and social justice.
This article is more than 1 year old

Sean Porter is Academic Developer (Transformative Education) at the University of Exeter.

Demand for a curriculum that addresses climate justice and sustainability is at an all-time high.

Indeed, commitments to promoting sustainable development across disciplines can be found on most campuses.

The overwhelming focus on sustainable development has perhaps dislodged and overshadowed vitally important work on decolonisation, which has struggled to achieve the same level of sustained engagement across the higher education sector.

However, on a thematic level, the expansive and highly interpretive nature of sustainable development, may offer new opportunities to reinvigorate efforts to decolonise the curriculum.

It is hard to pull sustainability and decolonisation apart, due to their interconnected struggle for social justice and desire for transformative change – and yet we often approach both of these concepts as somehow distinct, or only tentatively related entities.

By treating these areas as mostly separate bodies of knowledge and practice, we diminish the prospect of developing more utopian pedagogies that can prepare students to meet the challenges associated with the climate emergency, inequality, and social justice.

Towards epistemic diversity

A core theme of decolonising the curriculum is the formation of new bodies of knowledge. Typically, this involves bringing in theory from the global south into critical dialogue with dominant euro-centric disciplinary canons.

Different knowledge systems help us to view situations with a fresh perspective, and in the process, call into question the authority and “stronghold” that certain ways of knowing have on the way we think about things.

By decolonising sustainable development, we start by introducing the perspective of indigenous bodies of knowledge. The focus would be on looking at indigenous theories that explore the interconnected and interdependent nature of people and planet.

This way of thinking about sustainability subverts more western notions of “development”, which assumes a natural division between human and planetary life, and the idea that the environment is a space outside of us; an area to be controlled, manipulated, and governed externally.

Indigenous notions of interconnectedness require seeing sustainable development via a lens of deep communal intimacy, which in turn provides spaces for students to think about their relationship with the world around them, and the extent to which they live and act in harmony or contestation with the communities and environments they are part of.

Decolonisation can also guide us in the development of new sustainability assessment practices. Indeed, the field of Black Studies offers great insights into how we can design community assessment as part of the sustainable development agenda.

Nathan Hare’s model of practising Black Studies outside of the university involves creating links between campus and community, with students working directly with grassroots organisations in the black community.

Given the all-encompassing nature of the SDGs, there is space here to design assessments grounded in community activism that help address a diverse range of intersecting sustainability issues on a highly localised level.

However, a model of community assessment must maintain its activist instinct. It must endeavour not to become just another industry placement scheme, focused on the development of professional competencies.

Rather, this approach is about the transformative potential of linking community and academia. Here the focus should be on expanding our collective capacities to achieve a common good.

Challenges and opportunities

The main challenge in this context for those supporting academic practice is making accessible resources that neatly explain the relevance and benefit of alternative ways of thinking about sustainable development.

Part of this process includes designing practical “how to” steps for reframing narratives and conversations in the classroom. This includes how to bring in perspectives from across the world – like the Ubuntu education in Africa, and ideas around Buen Vivir – in our resource content, without misappropriating or doing an injustice to the knowledge we are trying to promote.

There also needs to be conscious efforts to centre indigenous perspectives and academics in sustainable development workshops, seminars, and conferences. More so, this requires re-thinking what these events might look like in terms of delivery.

For example, we would need to consider how we break away from top-down construction of spaces, and design environments that are inherently more democratic, fluid, and accessible to communities beyond the university borders.

Decolonising sustainability means making our research and teaching truly open to the community around us.

Difficult but necessary conversations around the ethics of commodified knowledge, and the prospect of open-source knowledge sharing, must be had in the context of trying to create a more equitable and sustainable education sector.

In this respect, a decolonised and sustainable education means defending the notion of the intellectual commons, open research, and breaking down barriers that prevent the sharing of scholarship for socially just purposes.

Furthermore, at the heart of a decolonial approach to sustainability, should be a commitment to extending academic freedom to students, who are actively shaping their educational experience, bringing their lived experience, passions, and global perspectives into the process of curriculum design.

Assembling the future

One of the ways this has been successfully addressed is via the People’s Assembly on campuses. This process involves students, staff, and the wider community discussing the role of higher education in tackling the climate and ecological crisis.

The use of assembly models is a sign of newly emerging emancipatory pedagogical practices on campuses. However, how we approach this type of activity is also an area for critical reflection.

We need to ask questions about the type of environments we are creating, and why we are creating them – what utopian possibilities are open to us when we occupy a space together as a community? How are we promoting an attitude of experimentation and curiosity? How do we maintain an ethos of bottom-up engagement? How do we deal with the co-option, neutralisation, and commodification of knowledge?

Running alongside activist assemblies, Responsible Futures are encouraging the use of student-led curriculum audits to map sustainability in their studies.

At Exeter, we have decided to try and subvert traditional audit processes, by moving away from a top-down method of scoring and ranking performance, towards more open-ended “Sustainability Reflections”. The idea is to promote a reflective dialogue and co-creation process between academics and students as equal partners.


When we start to map out the obvious ways that issues of sustainable development and social justice are holistically interwoven, we can begin to design transformative education processes that feel more manageable to understand and implement.

Once we go beyond merely diversifying module content – and start to look at the delivery, values, and goals of education – we discover a whole world of creative and radical possibility.

By acknowledging that big concepts, such as sustainability and decolonisation, cannot be so easily pulled apart and practiced in isolation from each other, we expand our critical understanding of how to deliver a sustainable and socially just education.

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