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Book Review: The handbook of sustainability literacy: skills for a changing world by Arran Stibbe (Ed.)

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Recommended citation:
Bergmann, Iris (2012) The handbook of sustainability literacy: skills for a
changing world. Environmental Education Research, 18:5, 719-722, DOI:
The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a changing world, edited by Arran
Stibbe, Totnes, UK, Green Books 2009, 220 pp., £14.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-
This compilation is a highly gratifying read for many reasons. It sets out to profile the
skills, as well as the attitudes, competencies, dispositions and values that are required to
facilitate the sustainability transition. It is organised in 32 chapters each authored by a
different writer. They include sustainability educators, literary critics, permaculturalists,
ecologists, artists, journalists, engineers, mathematicians and philosophers who outline
sustainability literacy from their various perspectives. Common themes run through the
chapters and a coherent picture of sustainability literacy emerges. Arran Stibbe and
Heather Luna indicate in their introduction that the chapters are written in response to
the challenging conditions of population growth, rising demands for energy, water and
biological resources, climate change, declining oil resources, rapidly increasing
consumption in developing countries, ecosystem degradation and economic uncertainty.
Starting points for the Handbook are the social, cultural and economic systems that give
rise to these conditions rather than these problems as such. It is through this approach
that this book gives a sense of a way forward.
One of the themes reappearing throughout the chapters is the identification of critical
thinking and understanding with a sustainability orientation as an important component
of sustainability literacy. It means here not only understanding the unsustainable paths
and the structures and systems that support them, but also re-assessing and re-thinking
them under a new paradigm to leverage different kinds of questions that lead to new
solutions. For example, it involves critiquing consumerism and the ability to see, as
Morgan Phillips puts it, ‘beyond consumer culture’. It is about re-assessing science to
understand its social construction, and skills in technological appraisal for which Gavin
Harper lists a number of aspects and considerations: the role of material, embodied
energy, ‘bolt-on-renewables’ (such as solar coating on car roofs), technological ‘lock-
in’ and ‘path dependency’ of large infrastructure projects such as energy and transport
systems. A question like ‘how can I best fulfil my transport needs’ replaces ‘what's the
greenest kind of car I can buy’ (Gavin Harper).
Another common theme running through many chapters is the nature of learning
required, which is summed up in the concept of active learning. This is described as
self-directed enquiry, self-reflection, learning by doing, engagement with real life
issues, and learning within communities of practice. It aims at action competence, that
is, gaining the skills and motivations for personal as well as social action. Sustainability
literacy then is seen as a collection of skills that allow for effective participation and
influence in all areas of life to ‘(re-)create’ a sustainable society.
The concept of sustainability literacy in the Handbook spans the spectrum from skills in
systems thinking and thinking in relations, to the application of these at the practical
level, and over to the deepest level which is residing in the psychological domain. At
the practical level, for example, are transition skills, a re-skilling as preparation for ‘the
long emergency’ (Stephen Quilley), including skills for food production and community
building, a ‘D.I.Y. bottom-up transformation of local communities’, covering also
permaculture design (Patrick Whitefield) and community gardening (Alma Clavin). At
the psychological level, there is the need to be able to overcome alienation from nature
and to fulfil the inert need of feeling ecologically embedded. Barry Bignell suggests that
the experience of beauty fills the gap between self and experience as part of conscious
knowing of what is essential nature - a sustainability literacy skill based in the aesthetic
realm. Then there is the need to be able to find ways to gain life satisfaction without
over-consumption of resources, and to gain insight into the true sources of emotional
well-being (Paul Maiteney; Morgan Phillips).
Other aspects of sustainability literacy include ecological intelligence and Gaia
awareness, economic awareness based on ecological and ethical values, personal
sufficiency, coping with complexity, commons thinking, advertising awareness,
‘greening’ business, new media literacy, cultural literacy, futures thinking, thinking
about the self in interconnection and interdependence with the surrounding world, skills
in reducing environmental footprints including carbon capability, and the ability to
‘fulfil human needs effortlessly’ through working with nature. Underpinning all is an
intrinsic values orientation (see Notes), the ability to reflect on what kind of society is
desirable and what is important and worth protecting, and the recognition of ethical
Twenty-eight chapters outline these various dimensions of sustainability literacy, and
four chapters in a second part of this Handbook discuss the characteristics of the
learning systems and educational institutions that facilitate sustainability literacy. They
call for a new definition of what constitutes ‘worthwhile knowledge’, for new
partnerships for learning, for breaking down traditional hierarchies of access to
knowledge, and valuing different forms of knowledge, in particular the ‘traditional
knowledge of living sustainably within the local environment that is embedded within
indigenous and local communities’ (Geoff Fagan). This means also for the learning
institution to be physically and philosophically accessible; transparent, participatory and
inclusive; committed to negotiated learning and for the educators to be facilitators of
learning rather than instructors (Geoff Fagan). Facilitating sustainability literacy also
requires lifelong learning and learning to include spirituality and holism, intuition,
imagining and wisdom (Karen Blincoe), addressing the hidden and overt curricula
(Anne Phillips), and embracing the concept of the learning society (Kate Davies).
This Handbook did achieve what it set out to do: It provides a comprehensive and
holistic picture of what constitutes sustainability literacy. The various dimensions of
sustainability literacy represent the essence of current thinking in the wider field of
education for sustainability that draws on holistic and systemic analysis under the
ecological paradigm. A stated inherent quality of this concept of sustainability literacy
is that it needs to be continuously negotiated, adapted to local realities, to changing
conditions and needs, and emerging knowledge. As Greg Garrard, one of the chapter
authors, suggests, ‘there’s no such thing as “saving the planet”, only keeping on
thinking and working for a sustainable society forever.’ Kate Davies points out that
‘governments are urging us towards another, even more intensified Industrial
Revolution through their skills agendas’. In contrast, authors represented in this
Handbook focus on the long-term sustainability of life on earth with sustainability
extending beyond environmental considerations to include the dimensions of social
justice; intergenerational justice; mental and physical wellbeing; social, economic and
cultural transformation; and the flourishing of the diversity of all life.
While the idea of the possibility of a sustainability literate citizenry is comforting, the
way to get there seems treacherous. The following is not meant to hint at any
shortcomings of the Handbook, rather, it is a reflection on the implementation context
which in turn points to a particular strength of the concept of sustainability literacy
portrayed in the Handbook: The degree to which sustainability and sustainability
literacy will be widely made a priority may be partly a function of what Foster (2008)
describes as ‘the level of change with which we are personally comfortable, rather than
that required for making the necessary objective difference’. He refers to this as ‘the
politics of never getting there’. An even greater obstructive force than inertia and
general resistance to change, however, can be expected from ‘environmental scepticism’
which has turned into an international phenomenon with some influence. Over the past
decades, ‘environmental scepticism’ has been organised as an anti- environmental
counter-movement (Jacques 2009). Its proponents have constructed environmentalism
as a growing threat to social and economic progress, the Western way of life, and to
individualist values. ‘Environmental sceptics’ are concerned with a strong commitment
to economic growth with its increasing need to maximise consumption of natural
resources and a deep anthropocentric orientation (Jacques et al. 2008). ‘Environmental
sceptics’ sneer at environmentalism as ‘the new religion’ (see, for example, Plimer
‘Environmental scepticism’ is based on a value system that clearly is in opposition to all
that is espoused by the concept of sustainability literacy discussed here, and herein lies
the decisive point: Sustainability literacy’s greatest resource may be situated in its open
commitment to an ecological values orientation which is based on intrinsic values.
Crompton (2010), with his review of the evidence about the way in which people’s
values are organised across cultural contexts, lists a number of characteristics that have
particular relevance for the educational context: People’s values tend to cluster in
similar ways across cultures in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic values (see Notes). A
person’s values comprise an integrated and dynamic system, such that activating one
particular value affects other values leading to activating compatible values and
suppressing opposing values. Values can be strengthened culturally, and favouring a
particular set of values can indeed be practiced. Moreover, deeply held inner beliefs and
value systems are not unchanging or unchangeable. So, there are real opportunities for
the facilitation of sustainability literacy to make a difference, and for learners to gain
resilience, to develop the ability to identify environmental ‘scepticism’, to deconstruct it
and recognise the opposing value system, and respond accordingly.
The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy is the outcome of a forum discussing
sustainability skills and active learning techniques, held in 2008 and supported by the
Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (UK) and other organisations.
The chapters are concise, accessible and well-flowing and make for an enjoyable
reading experience. Most also contain suggestions for active-learning exercises. The
Handbook is suitable for educators from the university sector, schools, vocational
education and training and informal education, as well as for learners themselves, and
anyone interested in finding out about sustainability literacy. It is accompanied by a
multimedia version containing extended chapters and video interviews with the authors
and is available on Chapter authors other than
those referred to above include: John Naish, Satish Kumar, Arran Stibbe, Justin Kenrick,
Ling Feng, Stephen Sterling, Glenn Strachan, Stephan Harding, Sue Wayman, Jeffrey
Newman, Myshele Goldberg, John Blewitt, Kim Polistina, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron
O’Neill, Gill Seyfang, Irene Lorenzoni, Zoe Robinson, Melinda Watson, Mike Clifford,
Dick Morris, Stephen Martin, Bland Tomkinson and John Danvers.
Crompton (2010, 10) summarises that there is a distinction between two broad classes of values:
intrinsic and extrinsic values. Intrinsic values are described as self-transcendent values. They
include values placed on a sense of community, affiliation to friends and family, and self-
development. In contrast, extrinsic values include self-enhancing values, values that are
contingent upon the perceptions of others – they relate to envy of ‘higher’ social strata,
admiration of material wealth, or power. He continues: ‘Intrinsic values are associated with
concern about bigger-than-self problems, and with corresponding behaviours to help address
these problems. Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are associated with lower levels of concern
about bigger-than-self problems, and lower motivation to adopt behaviours in line with such
Crompton, T. 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values.
London: WWF.
Foster, J. 2008. The Sustainability Mirage – Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on
Climate Change. London: Earthscan.
Jacques, P. J., 2009. Environmental Scepticism - Ecology, Power and Public Life.
Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Jacques, P. J., R. E. Dunlap and Freeman, M. 2008. The organisation of denial:
Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental Politics 17,
no. 3: 349-385.
Plimer, I. 2008. The incredible improbability of life. In: Intelligence Squared Australia
Forum, Would we be better off without Religion? Sydney: Q2 Live Debate 2008
Iris Bergmann,
RMIT University, Australia
© 2012, Iris Bergmann
... [38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45]. It seems strange that among 22 obstacles-financial (5), institutional (6), infrastructural (4), social (3) and technological ones (4) [123]-the lack of literacy in the field of sustainable development is not mentioned as an obstacle [124,125], the same as the sustainability mindset, which should be created through educating people so that sustainability can be ensured by those taking part in the implementation of the concept of the circular economy. The concept of the above construct mostly resembles a mental landscape that is seen as an element of sustainable design [126]. ...
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The main aim of the article is to find out the key factors of sustainable development of the Russian Arctic, which is strategically significant for Russia. The academic literature was reviewed to find out the time dynamics of the references to the economic models suitable for achieving the goals of sustainable development, and there has been hyperbolic growth in the attention paid to similar problems all around the world. The article compares three relatively new economic models in order to understand which of them is the most applicable to the promotion of sustainable development in the Russian Arctic: (a) bioeconomy, (b) green economy and (c) circular economy. The analysis of the relevant sources shows that the model of the circular economy is preferable for the Russian Arctic. Most of the article is dedicated to understanding the sources and mechanisms of the circular economy. The schematic description of vertical greenhouses and possibility of using vertical farms are presented in the paper as an example of organization of local food production according to the principles of the circular economy. The article considers a modeled project of creating a vertical farm in the Russian Arctic and a simulated indicator—profit of the vertical farm.
... Various studies define their own understanding of "active" learning, for example as one with "fuller engagement with the material" (Benware and Deci 1984) or that "hold learners responsible for their own learning" (Cui 2013;Michel et al. 2009). A review of works on sustainability literacy found active learning, "self-directed enquiry, selfreflection, learning by doing, engagement with real-life issues and learning within communities of practice" to be a commonly understood requirement (Bergmann 2012). Noting the absence of a clear definitions of the terms, Chi (2009) proposed a framework and definitions for active, constructive and interactive learning. ...
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This book builds up on the experience and lessons learnt by academics at the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science, Global Leadership Initiative (GPSS-GLI) at the University of Tokyo. A number of scholars in the new field of sustainability science describe how field methods and exercises are carried out in this discipline, together with the theoretical basis for such exercises. Case studies of various countries around the world where these exercises are carried out are showcased, emphasizing the various socio-economic considerations and problems facing humanity and possible ways forward to build more sustainable and resilient societies. The final objective is to enrich the field of sustainability science by describing the novel aspects used in the field exercises carried out by practitioners of this cross-disciplinary field.
... Various studies define their own understanding of "active" learning, for example as one with "fuller engagement with the material" (Benware and Deci 1984) or that "hold learners responsible for their own learning" (Cui 2013;Michel et al. 2009). A review of works on sustainability literacy found active learning, "self-directed enquiry, selfreflection, learning by doing, engagement with real-life issues and learning within communities of practice" to be a commonly understood requirement (Bergmann 2012). Noting the absence of a clear definitions of the terms, Chi (2009) proposed a framework and definitions for active, constructive and interactive learning. ...
In the mid-2000s, Ghana experienced a biofuel boom driven by jatropha expansion, but within a few years almost all jatropha projects within the country collapsed. Limited community participation in biofuel project planning has played a key role in the failure of the projects, which have had a range of sustainability impacts on the local environment and society. Understanding the patterns of sustainability impacts through community perceptions can provide information that could enhance the sustainability of future biofuel projects in the country. By using a rapid sustainability appraisal that captures community perceptions, the present chapter compares the sustainability impacts experienced by communities around three failed jatropha projects in Ghana with those captured in their respective Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports. The authors found a mismatch between the impacts experienced by communities and those assessed in EIAs that arises, to an extent, from the limited participation of communities in the project planning and EIA processes. The findings suggest the need for adopting a bottom-up approach for the identification and selection of sustainability impact criteria. Sustainability science scholars can use rapid sustainability appraisals to gain an initial understanding of a given study area, in order to inform the framing of the research questions and help in the selection of an appropriate methodology to collect and analyse actual data through subsequent fieldwork.
... Various studies define their own understanding of "active" learning, for example as one with "fuller engagement with the material" (Benware and Deci 1984) or that "hold learners responsible for their own learning" (Cui 2013;Michel et al. 2009). A review of works on sustainability literacy found active learning, "self-directed enquiry, selfreflection, learning by doing, engagement with real-life issues and learning within communities of practice" to be a commonly understood requirement (Bergmann 2012). Noting the absence of a clear definitions of the terms, Chi (2009) proposed a framework and definitions for active, constructive and interactive learning. ...
This chapter introduces the Minamata Unit, a GPSS-GLI Exercise on Resilience conducted around Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture, in Japan. The disruption caused by Minamata mercury pollution persists even 60 years after the incidents. Such a long history of development can provide invaluable insights into the study of the impact of industrial pollution to a society, which includes the significance of identifying new pollutants, the intricate social tension between victims and local community, and the urge to heal the strained bonds. Drawing lessons from the Minamata incident can prevent and mitigate similar incidents in developing countries, where environmental regulation is typically less stringent than in developed countries. In the present chapter, the authors describe the outcomes of a week-long field exercise in Minamata, designed for students of sustainability science. The aims of the unit were for participants to understand the complexities of the Minamata incident, not only the causal relationship between the pollutant and its impact on human health, but also the impacts the disease had on the society. Also, it attempted to examine the responsibility of scientists and the government, especially when certain issues regarding the case remain scientifically uncertain, by redefining the issue in the contemporary context. In order to facilitate learning by the participants of the unit presented in this chapter and students of future units, the exercise organisers requested the production of educational materials as the final output. Students were divided into three working groups, each tasked with the development of a different type of media material, namely blog posting , video production , and game development. The prearranged field activities included stakeholder interviews, site visits, and an intensive group work. Overall, the student groups completed the production of the tangible outputs, though their effectiveness in reaching the target audience and helping future sustainability science students require further analysis.
... Various studies define their own understanding of "active" learning, for example as one with "fuller engagement with the material" (Benware and Deci 1984) or that "hold learners responsible for their own learning" (Cui 2013;Michel et al. 2009). A review of works on sustainability literacy found active learning, "self-directed enquiry, selfreflection, learning by doing, engagement with real-life issues and learning within communities of practice" to be a commonly understood requirement (Bergmann 2012). Noting the absence of a clear definitions of the terms, Chi (2009) proposed a framework and definitions for active, constructive and interactive learning. ...
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This chapter introduces the Tohoku Unit, a GPSS-GLI Exercise on Resilience conducted in the northeastern area of the Honshu Island in Japan. This unit consists of a one-week educational fieldwork, where students are exposed to the reconstruction process in Otsuchi Town, Iwate Prefecture that has followed the Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami of March 2011. In the present chapter an assessment of the field exercise is presented in two levels of depth, (1) an application of field methodologies to identify sustainability issues in the reconstruction process, and (2) the contribution of the fieldwork to the development of student’s competencies relevant to sustainability research, following the framework of key competencies in sustainability proposed by Wiek et al. (Sustainability Science 6(2):203–218, 2011a; Environment 53(2):3–13, 2011b). The authors discuss the relationship between the field methodologies utilized and the results obtained in the two levels of the assessment. The results indicate that the field methodologies utilized contributed to a high number of reconstruction issues being identified, with the majority of issues belonging to the social dimension. Also, the different lectures attended during the field work and preparatory work highlighted the highest number of issues identified amongst all three sustainability dimensions (social, economic, environmental). Regarding the competencies, students seem to recognize the importance of the five competencies suggested by Wiek et al. (Sustainability Science 6(2):203–218, 2011a; Environment 53(2):3–13, 2011b), and overall consider the contribution of the field exercise as “satisfactory” to “effective” in promoting these competencies. Final remarks highlight the relevance of considering this framework for future improvements in the design of the units by considering the main competencies that they intend to foster in the students. Also, the authors highlight some of the limitations of the framework in capturing the whole experience of students in the field, and the need to incorporate a deeper analysis of the concept of resilience in future assessments of this field exercise.
Conference Paper
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The role of, and need for, higher education to create and promote a holistic approach to engineering is a key part of developing sustainability literacy amongst future engineers. Whilst development of sustainability literacy is a continuous educational and professional requirement of engineers, the first year of higher education is a particularly sensitive period. This paper examines three different but linked exercises used to encourage students to engage with the conflicting parameters and complexity present in civil engineering, whilst supporting the broader first year student experience.
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Education for sustainability (EfS) poses new challenges to higher education as it necessitates various shifts: from teacher- to learner-centered pedagogies, from input- to output-orientation and from a focus on content to problem-solving and process orientation. E-learning, which follows the principles of situated, constructivist learning, addresses some of these challenges and offers opportunities to design powerful learning environments for EfS. In this conceptual paper, we elaborate characteristics of such e-learning environments that support competence development and education for sustainability. To illustrate and support our line of reasoning we use three mini case studies of our own educational praxis and critically discuss opportunities and threats of such e-learning settings.
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Universities play an important role in shaping the future of the world society in terms of sustainable development by generating new knowledge as well as contributing to the development of appropriate competencies and raising sustainability awareness. During the last years, many universities have undertaken activities for implementing Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD). Many have asked which key competencies are most relevant for sustainable development and hence should be developed in future-oriented higher education. Different approaches for the selection of sustainability key competencies have been developed, but there is little international agreement in the debate around the most important key competencies. Consequently, this paper asks which individual key competencies are crucial for understanding central challenges facing the world society and for facilitating its development towards a more sustainable future, and thus identifies those competencies which should be fostered through university teaching and learning. The empirical design of the study is related to a Delphi study in which ‘sustainability key competencies’ are defined by selected experts from Europe (Germany, Great Britain) and Latin America (Chile, Ecuador, Mexico). The results show that twelve key competencies crucial for sustainable development can be identified; the most relevant ones are those for systemic thinking, anticipatory thinking and critical thinking.
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Educational processes are being regarded as crucial. One objective is to change unsustainable behavior through education. However, such a tool-oriented understanding of education should be criticized from an educational perspective. Accordingly, this article addresses two main aspects. First, educational opportunities as well as limitations are discussed in reference to the shift from a threat-oriented environmental education to an education for sustainable development that is interested in contributing to a proactive shaping of future developments. Second, appropriate educational objectives of this approach are explored by illustrating ways of combining these with a meaningful content and adequate learning settings.
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Open access here Environmental scepticism denies the seriousness of environmental problems, and self-professed ‘sceptics’ claim to be unbiased analysts combating ‘junk science’. This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism. We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection.
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Peter J. Jacques: Environmental Skepticism – Ecology, Power and Public Life. Farnham, Ashgate 2009, 222 s.
'This thoughtful and original study throws important critical light on the dominant orthodoxies about sustainable development, and suggests a radically new direction. Foster argues compellingly that present approaches embody floating standards and bad faith, trapping societies into inaction. I suspect this is a seminal piece of work.' Professor Robin Grove-White, former Chair of Greenpeace UK "We all have a nagging concern that what international corporations and governments term 'sustainable' is not sustainable at all. John Foster’s clear and beautifully written text shows the deep flaws in current approaches and proposes a reassessment of what true sustainability really implies." Chris Goodall, Chair of Dynmark International and author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life "This comprehensive and yet very readable book will go a long way towards puncturing some of the glib environmentalisms of our moment, and perhaps towards helping us imagine deeper and more thoroughgoing alternatives that might actually work!" Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and The End of Nature 'Brilliantly and ironically written, this book shades a bright light on most foggy areas around the concept of sustainability. Those fastidious obscure points do not fit properly in the reassuring technical solutions to Climate Change. Foster puts a name on those shapeless shadows that inevitably induce the sensation of something being wrong.' Italian Insider Sustainable development thinking got environmental issues onto the agenda but it may now be stopping us from taking serious action on climate change and other crucial planetary issues. Sustainable development’s attempted deal between present and future will always collapse under the pressure of 'now' because the needs of the present always win out. Inevitably, this means movable targets and action that will always fall short of what we need. Ultimately, sustainable development is the pursuit of a mirage, the politics of never getting there. To escape the illusion, we must break through to a new way of understanding sustainability by focusing on the deep needs of the present, not slippery obligations to the future. Rising to the carbon challenge now, not trying to micro-manage the longer term. Looking to the science for orders of magnitude and direction, not a gameplan. Harnessing the short-term dynamics of capitalism to the cause of learning our way forward. This book outlines an alternative to the mainstream and offers the kind of bold new thinking on energy usage, governance, education and the role of enterprise that we need to win the coming war on climate change.
'Environmental skepticism' describes the viewpoint that major environmental problems are either unreal or unimportant. This is the first book to analyze the importance of the anti-environmental counter-movement in world politics and its meaning for democratic and accountable deliberation, as well as its importance as a mal-adaptive project that hinders the world's people to rise to the challenges of sustainability.
The incredible improbability of life
  • I Plimer
Plimer, I. 2008. The incredible improbability of life. In: Intelligence Squared Australia Forum, Would we be better off without Religion? Sydney: Q2 Live Debate 2008
Environmental Scepticism -Ecology
  • P J Jacques
Jacques, P. J., 2009. Environmental Scepticism -Ecology, Power and Public Life. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.