Since the publication in 1999 of the ground-breaking book Natural Capitalism, forward-thinking businesses have been revolutionising methods of production, not just for profit, but for the planet. Thinking has constellated around the concept of ‘cradle to cradle’ – the idea that ‘cradle to grave’ linear systems of taking, making and dumping have to be radically rethought. It’s become obvious that most of the goods we purchase soon end up in landfill, having generated huge amounts of waste on the way; that the fossil fuels required for making, transporting and disposing of all this stuff are increasingly scarce and expensive; and that living systems are strained to breaking point. We may be at what David Orr calls a “teachable moment”.

Ken Webster and Craig Johnson’s important book Sense and Sustainability takes as its central theme ‘Nature as Teacher’ and applies this not only to industrial systems, but crucially also to education. The writers’ accumulated wisdom of over thirty years in education for sustainability is applied to the challenge of reorienting global industrial activity away from the ‘take, make, dump’ mentality towards the ‘rethink, redesign and restore’ principles which hold the promise of a cleaner, healthier and more abundant future. ‘Better and better’, not ‘less and less’, is at the heart of this book.

There is a persistent belief that if enough people understood the global problems we face there would be a wholesale adoption of voluntary simplicity: what Alex Steffen calls the “Mythological Universal Conversion Event”. The authors of this book aren’t pinning their hopes on this: “Change of heart or not, voluntary simplicity does not automatically address how products or energy are made, used or disposed of… There is a groundswell of sympathy for a more authentic, meaningful and less damaging pattern of consumption in the West. But it does not add up to sustainability while behind it is the massive impact and profitability of the unsustainable production, transportation, energy, food and construction systems upon which we depend…”

There are no punches pulled in this book: there isn’t time. We are handing over to young people a degraded planet and expecting them to clean it up – but what tools are we putting at their disposal? What frameworks for thinking, what key metaphors, what worldviews are they offered to make sense of the situation and discover positive ways forward? Webster and Johnson demonstrate how taken-for-granted patterns of thought are passed on automatically to the next generation via the education system; only by surfacing the predominant linear, mechanistic worldview and subjecting it to critical thinking can we begin to address the challenges we face.

The authors offer the progressive and helpful metaphor of Nature as Teacher, a worldview derived from living systems, a framework for thinking where connections and relationships are paramount, where waste equals food, where we learn from Nature to close the loops and move from a linear to a circular economy.

Without such a new framework for thinking, young people are powerless in the face of looming resource depletion, climate change and societal disruption. Paul Hawken is convinced that “business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation”. So where is education in this? The book and its online resource bank set out an active, participatory pedagogy looking at how Nature works and how innovative business works; the metaphors are consistent and create a powerful synergy.

Just as in Nature waste equals food, and innovative business uses outputs from one process as feedstock for the next, so in teaching and learning, informed by a systems approach, feedback assists an iterative cycle of experience, observation, conceptualisation and experimentation. It takes a while to understand this, and the great strength of this book is the eclectic mix of images, stories, quotes and cartoons, and insights from psychology, politics, history and science which reinforce the message, until the reader has that wonderful light bulb moment that all good teachers work towards.

When we apply lessons learned from the biosphere (Nature as “highly industrious, astonishingly productive, extravagant even”, in the words of William McDonough and Michael Braungart) to the technosphere (the way we make things) and, crucially, to the way we teach, then our relationship with Nature will be transformed. In the powerfully simple words of the Tao Te Ching, which will resonate with all educators, we will reach the point where “the Teacher is respected and the Learner cared for”.

Ken Webster will be running a course at Schumacher College called ‘Closing Loops, Opening Minds’ from the 2 - 6 November 2009.

Caroline Walker taught for many years at the Small School in Hartland, and is now working on rural regeneration projects in Devon.