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Conference Paper 2022

International Conference of COHE & IASS 2022

Facing the Future:
Human Ecology & Higher Education

Potsdam/Germany - 2022, August 31st to September 3rd

Topic Paper


Why this conference is necessary

and why you should attend:

The world is upside down because the overriding guiding principles propagate detached economic success and do not presuppose a meaningful and vital embedding in the earthly ecology. Course corrections have taken place, but so far have not challenged the foundations of dominant economic thinking. Politicians are widely allowing themselves to be pressured by the economy with promises of jobs. Finally, there are international agreements such as those to curb climate change and biodiversity loss, but countries fail to meet the agreed targets, without effective sanctions. Globally active companies generate tax-optimized profits on sight, while the state guarantees the bailout in the event of financial or natural disasters, or taxpayers pay for necessary rescue packages.


In view of this threat to our future, it would be expected that all universities as the highest academic educational institutions would have recognized their task resulting from this dramatic situation. In view of these global risks, it is not enough to impart knowledge and encourage research in the conventional style, but to conduct fundamental educational awareness work across all subjects with regard to the realization that we humans must live and manage differently in order to enable a future for coming generations. At the same time, it must impart practical implementation knowledge and the associated concepts that at least enable solution paths so that this future can also be achieved.


Admittedly, aspects of sustainability have now been introduced into teaching in many disciplines at many universities. In some cases, special inter- to transdisciplinary programs on sustainable development are also offered. After all, the UN already issued a call for corresponding educational reform in its Agenda 21 presented to the Rio Conference in 1992. And from 2005 to 2014, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, administered by UNESCO and UNECE, actively promoted the will to reform along these lines. However, the social impact of this program is hardly perceptible. One cannot shake off the suspicion that, roughly speaking, in many places this orientation is regarded as a fashionable trend in which one must participate, while otherwise "business as usual" is the watchword. That is to say, one orients oneself to the international competition, wants to shine with innovative research results, rise in the rankings and attain the status of a university of excellence. It is well understood that these critical remarks are primarily addressed to the university managements; individual members may well have a different orientation. For, no doubt, there are a number of laudable exceptions here. In Germany, for example, Leuphana University Lueneburg and the University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde are beacons in that they are committed to the idea of sustainability not only in individual disciplines, but throughout.


With its demonstrations and appearances before international forums and institutions, Generation Greta has made it clear that, despite these efforts, the curricula and study plans that have been in place up to now are obviously inadequate. We think that there are two main problems with today's university operation, apart from the competitive thinking just mentioned, one in terms of content and one in terms of structure. The former concerns the conceptual understanding of sustainability, if a concept exists at all. "Sustainable" has long since become a catch-all word, used in all sorts of contexts, from the possible to the impossible. E.g., "sustainable growth" is often spoken of by understanding "development" in this sense. If a concept is used as a basis, it is usually the so-called three-pillar model, in which sustainability aspects are evaluated independently of one another in the three areas of ecology, economy and social issues. In theory, the three areas are considered to be of equal importance, but in practice, in cases of conflict, the economic dimension is given priority, whereas the ecological dimension should be given precedence. What is completely missing is the cultural dimension in the sense of state of mind, worldview orientation, value attitudes. This is also the case with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which focus on instrumental-technical measures and will therefore fail. This dichotomy can be seen not least in the above-mentioned UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe), when it operates with a strategy of education for sustainable development, but at the same time is concerned in the economic sphere with growth and increasing prosperity.


We are not quite sure how to assess the structural problems worldwide; in Europe, at least, it concerns the Europe-wide Bologna reform. In our view, it was adopted in 1999 by the education ministers of the European countries in a kind of fly-by-night action without any prior consultations in the universities. The ostensible goal, which was to be welcomed, was Europe-wide harmonization for the purpose of improving mutual exchange opportunities, especially with regard to the geographical mobility of students. In the background, however, the idea was to strengthen Europe's position as a center of higher education and ultimately its economic performance in international competition, especially vis-à-vis the USA. In this way, however, the previously existing cultural diversity in the university landscape has been leveled out. Yet there is a need for location-specific points of contact that allow universities to solve local to regional problems in cooperation with authorities and the civil public. This also applies to climate change, which is a global problem but can ultimately only be solved through measures at the lowest level. Thus, the introduction of the Bologna system became a decisive step toward the most complete possible economization of universities and, consequently, the subjugation of higher education to the interests of the economy. This is not contradicted by the fact that there are now a number of concepts in critical distance to this, which seek to oppose such a development. This is also reflected in the new curriculum structure, in which a bachelor's degree, which in some cases lasts only three years, is intended to provide a professional qualification. In this context, the so-called STEM subjects are in the foreground, while the importance of the social sciences and humanities is often given a question mark, talked about as being of secondary importance and, in the extreme, even the abolition of the latter is discussed. With the emphasis on competencies instead of knowledge, it is clear that it is all about doing. This may be seen as a reflection of an image of universities as ivory towers far removed from practice, but a pure focus on doing without knowledge-based education is equally unfit to address the existing and emerging challenges. Students are confronted with a schooling of studies with a stressful hunt for credit points, leaving little time for reflection and personal development. Overall, a course of study completed according to the usual implementation of the Bologna system merely provides training and not education. This is precisely what Generation Greta is criticizing.


The Bologna system is ostensibly programmed to produce specialists. Of course, we need these in the crisis-ridden times. But without the localization of a point-by-point intervention in a comprehensive network of relationships, a problem can be only partially solved in the best case, and even magnified in the worst case. Specialization should therefore sooner or later be embedded in a general educational framework. In Europe, the focus is on specialization in education, which only later enables students to look beyond the boundaries of their disciplines. Worldwide, however, and especially in North America, the opposite model can also be found; specialization only sets in after a comprehensive education. In addition, today we increasingly need generalists who can see interdisciplinary connections. The contrast between special and general education and the desirability of one or the other is an old issue. The latter is traditional in many colleges, especially in the United States, with the idea of "liberal arts" dating back to antiquity. Originally a composite of mathematical and linguistic subjects, the goal of the Liberal Arts changed to a study of the heritage of Western culture, as reflected especially in the writing of outstanding authors, to eventually become, with modernization, a survey of the various fields of science, including philosophy. Even more recent - always in the U.S. - is a version of Liberal Arts with an explicit ecological focus, born out of an awareness of environmental issues. Thus, six colleges form an association called "EcoLeague". The College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, is an outstanding role model. The only thing you can study here is human ecology, but this offers a comprehensive perspective. In Europe, liberal arts colleges based on the American model have sprung up in a few places, but among them there are none whose main theme is the ecological question.


There are many human ecology-influenced curricula around the world, such as the Fenner School at the University of Canberra, Australia, the human ecology departments at the University of the Philippines, or the universities in Central and Latin America or in India and Southeast Asia. From a European perspective, we want to promote international global exchange in order to bring together the best approaches and concepts and to provide future generations not only with tools but also with the foundations for meeting new challenges.


Human ecology is not a recognized subject in today's canon of scientific disciplines. This is perhaps more true in Europe and less in other countries. However, it can look back on a history of more than a hundred years. Its origin lies in the USA in some disciplines, which took up the ecological idea around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. The ecological idea was based on the realization that man in all his social and cultural social manifestations must also be understood as part of the evolutionary process, without, however, recourse to the truncated and erroneous social Darwinian interpretations of the theory of evolution by the Anglo-Saxon social science (Spencer). Another impetus, however, was provided by the experience as a country of immigration and the devastation of the American Civil War; thus, the declared goal in founding Chicago University was to scientifically validate concepts of inclusion in order to build a community that would bring together the various ethnic and cultural groups without negating their origins. If we look at the curricula and studies that emerged in this human ecological context, they include first and foremost the more narrowly defined home economics, social pedagogy and adult education (Hull House), agricultural local and regional community development, and the more extensive urban sociology that had been practiced at the University of Chicago since the first decades of the 20th century. The latter was intended to promote the exceedingly ethnically and culturally complex metropolitan community, including appropriate democratic governance.


With the awareness of environmental problems, whose origins and effects never concern only one scientific discipline, more recent concepts in human ecology emerged. These try to recognize interdisciplinary connections and became aware that this is not possible purely scientifically, but, because it is always also about questions of doing or not doing, needs help from a philosophical point of view, and ultimately questions can only be answered reliably if experiences from practical experiments are added. The difference between human ecology and the concept of sustainable development can already be seen in the linguistic designation: The concept of sustainability focuses primarily on the problem of human-environment interactions, while human ecology starts more fundamentally from the ecological situation of humans as such. This can be seen as describable by three ecologies: Each individual finds himself in a network given by the natural-environmental ecology, the social ecology, and his own mental ecology. In the latter case, not only intellectuality plays a role, but also the emotional side, which is open to empathy for the human as well as non-human co-world. After that, the question logically arises, which collective effects result from the interaction of individuals formed into a society, and then, of course, correct, i.e. ecologically understood sustainability is also an issue. The seductive concept of development runs the risk of creating misleading perspectives. Perhaps we do not need a further inflating technical and cultural evolution, but a devolution associated with slowing down.


In Europe, some universities offered study opportunities in human ecology for a while, but these usually fell victim to the red pencil when the responsible persons retired. The reason: these were not programs decreed from above, but initiated from below out of personal commitment. The governing bodies were suspicious of a subject that could not be precisely defined and did not fit into a pigeonhole, and in the course of the aforementioned economization they felt obliged to support programs that promised success for the economy. Only a few places, such as Lisbon, Lund and Vienna, still have curricula in human ecology as components of various courses of study. Establishing human ecology curricula at existing universities in Europe would therefore be one thing. This would undoubtedly already be a considerable step forward, but far better is the establishment of separate human ecology universities, and our vision sees them interspersed in large numbers throughout the rest of the higher education landscape. If nothing else, this would relieve the burden on the established universities, which are now suffering from a mass influx.


But what should such a college look like? We are guided by the example of the aforementioned College of the Atlantic, which is a significant role model in our perspective. But we want to use the conference to discuss and, if possible, bring together other examples as well. For this purpose, we have reserved three days in September 2022 in the outstanding environment of Humboldt and Einstein in Potsdam at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). In a hybrid conference that gathers live at the institute on site and at the same time online on the internet all those who cannot travel to Potsdam. Admittedly, this is both a technical and organizational challenge and an experiment, especially since it is still uncertain what covid-19 will and will not allow us to do.


We would like to invite you already now to become part of our community. With your active contribution, be part of this global exchange on the future of human ecological education and on a human ecological school and university education that will give us and the Generation Greta the means to meet the challenges. We believe that human ecological approaches that bridge disciplines will enable us to provide knowledge resources that can lead to the discovery and use of innovative pathways for our communities. What we need is a social transition initiated in solidarity and democracy, accompanied by a responsible transformation of our technologies, practices and methods, perceiving inclusion with respect to social diversity and multiplicity as an important evolutionarily provided resource. Together, we contribute to a sustainable, resilient transformation of our communities.


We look forward to your contributions, ideas, topics and presentations.


IASS / PIK / Alanus Hochschule / COHE

Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn, Dr. Fritz Reuswig, Prof. Dr. Thomas Schmaus, Dr. Wolfgang H. Serbser, Prof. Dr. Dieter Steiner