Exploring the engagement of an environmental centre with the discourse of sustainable development: a Southern African case study

Pillay, Rajendran Perumal
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Sustainable development has become a popular discourse in response to both current and potential environmental issues faced by the world in the present millennium. Nations have shown support for the discourse and its translation into action through the World Summit for Sustainable Development and through the United Nation’s Declaration of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). This thesis consists of a case study of the Delta Environmental Centre, located in an urban residential suburb in Johannesburg, South Africa. The aim of the study was to explore, analyze and understand the engagement of an environmental centre with the discourse of sustainable development with reference to views, debates and key agreements (e.g. the present United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development). Through exploration and analyses of the engagement with the discourse, an understanding and identification of antecedents (norms) that support or provide a challenge to the engagement with the discourse of sustainable development was sought. The sources of the data for the study consisted of the following: document analyses of EnviroTeach (a key publication of the environmental centre) and Annual Reports of the environmental centre, interviews and questionnaires. The staff members and the beneficiaries (clients) of the centre responded to a questionnaire and an interview which focused on key aspects such as their understanding of sustainable development, and on how the discourse was facilitated to the beneficiaries. Three theoretical frameworks underpinned the conception and analysis of the data in this study. Critical Discourse Analysis, based on the work of Norman Fairclough, more widely used in linguistic studies, was adapted for document analysis. Diffusion Theory (key proponent being Everett Rogers) based on how ideas (innovations) that are considered (or are) new, are facilitated (“spread”) in society. The third framework was ‘Boundary Organizations’ and is based on the role of organizations between external systems of society. The analysis of the information gathered in this study confirms views in the literature that there is no one definition of sustainable development. It was evident in the analysis that sustainable development was used interchangeably with sustainability and sustainable living. It can be inferred from the study that there is no one best way to facilitate the discourse of sustainable development to the beneficiaries. It was also evident that in the engagement with the discourse of sustainable development there are antecedents (norms that are present within the centre) that support the discourse. One of the antecedents is that staff of the centre identified similarities between environmental education and sustainable development. This is to the advantage of the centre since the key focus of the centre is environmental education. However, there are also challenges in engaging with the discourse of sustainable development. One of the challenges is that different interpretations of sustainable development make it difficult to facilitate workshops especially where the beneficiaries come from different backgrounds. A key criticism in the literature is that sustainable development should not be used as a blueprint to address environmental issues but provide a point of departure for people to make more informed lifestyle choices. The research shows that the engagement with sustainable development is not an end but a dynamic process with “multiple expressions” and challenges. Examples of “multiple expressions” of the discourse include: the way the discourse is communicated in publications and documents and the use of the National Education Curriculum to communicate the discourse. However, within these “multiple expressions” of the discourse there are challenges e.g. in attempting to change environmental practice not all staff and beneficiaries show the same level of commitment.