Paul Robbins' metaphor of the “hatchet and seed” is useful for communicating the critical pragmatic approach. Students are continuously encouraged to interrogate the dynamics of the devastating “dominant social paradigm” by “cutting and pruning away the stories, methods and policies that create pernicious social and environmental outcomes” with a hatchet while simultaneously cultivating the seeds of creative and practical action (Robbins 2004:12).
Sustainability education often privileges one of the two: robust critical reflection or a pragmatic, action-orientation. Michael Maniates argues that too many sustainability-focused programs privilege applied problem-solving over critical reflection. In so doing, such programs neglect careful consideration of how action fits into “a larger mosaic of political power, cultural transformation, and social change” (Maniates 2013:258). Without nuanced critical reflection, practical action can unintentionally reproduce insidious infrastructures of power.
Conversely, programs may focus exclusively on critical theory while foreclosing outlets for hopeful, practical and creative action (Latour 2004). If the hatchet of deconstruction is wielded without the seed of practical action, students are left as disempowered, indignant spectators. Like Clegg (1999), I believe that simply “teaching subject knowledge falls short of ensuring new practitioners are empowered to question, and potentially improve upon, what they are doing or why” (cited in Smith (2011: 218).
The tone of the field school is thus critically optimistic – eschewing both debilitating pessimism and oblivious optimism about our present condition and future opportunities. We are buoyed by Hawken’s (2009) reflections that, “if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data... but if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic you haven’t got a pulse.” We intend the field school to inspire students to approach unflinchingly the daunting task of promoting robust, sustainable communities and the cultural-political barriers in the way. We seek to incite a bit of anger, but also hope and commitment to “confronting despair, power and incalculable odds to restore some semblance of grace, justice and beauty in this world” (Hawken 2009).
Meeting with planners, activists, scholars, and others grappling with the daunting social and ecological challenges faced by cities (in this case in Northern Europe) students are tasked with asking and answering increasingly more nuanced and qualified questions piercing the who, what, where, when, why and how of sustainability.
The field school focuses on "sustainable communities", but our interest is not in uncritically celebrating "sustainability". Students are tasked with unpacking how this or related terms e.g. "livability", "resilience", "net-positive" have been understood, struggled over, implemented, and / or resisted on the ground in the specific, complex urban contexts we visit. We seek to learn from inspiring efforts to cultivate better urban living, but not without asking piercing questions after the who, what, where, when, why, and how of sustainability.