The most sustainable city, the most economical car, the most efficient fridge… Excellence in the field of sustainability is a prized marketing value. Does it have any educational interest?

The press agencies serve up this type of news with a somewhat mundane frequency. I have just read, for example, a recent news item from China. Today, a day like any other, they are studying turning a rural area near Beijing into the first ecocity in this vast, dynamic country. The article explains the innovations and improvements that are to be introduced and which will transform the place into a paradigm of doing things well… Quite a symbol of sustainability. A tram system will be used to reduce people’s dependence on private vehicles, and all this so soon after the typical private vehicle in China moved on two wheels, thanks to human traction! China, then, will have the most sustainable city. This would be a sufficiently interesting title in itself if it were not because over recent months the media have also hyped up other examples in the same way that they talk about the case of this Chinese city. Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, is a particularly eccentric case as it is in the middle of the desert and is being promoted by one of the main oil producers. There is also the credible case of Freiburg in Germany, or Portland in the USA, which has been chosen as the most sustainable city in the country that has the well-deserved title of the “the world’s most wasteful country”.

The phenomenon of lists is not just found in the case of cities. Let’s have a look at advertising. The car with lowest emissions, we read in the advert on page 7, and on page 19 we find another vehicle that claims its slice of environmental commitment. Efficiency is now stressed as a selling point in some white goods shops. Our trusted salesman can look us in the eye, without blinking, presenting one product after another: the most efficient fridge in the world, the most economical dishwasher… Even the energy companies and oil companies have taken up the baton to present their products in a race that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, often with a hint of unnerving gesticulations of schizophrenia.

Our liking for lists is a response to a marketing strategy, that much is clear, and also tells us a little about humans in the early years of the 21st century. Competitive, materialistic, fast and volatile. But that thought is worthy of another article, or perhaps a whole encyclopaedia.

Let’s go back to the lists. The thing is that all this fuss about which is the most sustainable city, the most efficient washing machine, the most economical car, etc. has both a positive and a negative side. The positive side is that excellence in the field of sustainability is a coveted marketing value; it is a brand that interests tourists and which seduces investors and creates business opportunities. The negative side is the hubbub that surrounds it, the worst educational tool. Confused labelling creates distrust, not curiosity; the sum of superlatives means that we look at these proposals with irony, not with the desire to find out more details. It is a shame, because pulling out this kind of list should guarantee that interesting practices and reflections are discovered. The example of Freiburg mentioned above seems to be cut and dried, but the cases of Wanzhuang, near Beijing, and Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, are very different. Which tools are available to help us see beyond the official and institutional propaganda, which most certainly carries some weight in these two cases? How can we filter out the messages for investors that the two news items probably contain? How can we separate the wheat from the chaff? Thorny stuff…

Does it make sense to turn to these lists in search of learning values? It maybe doesn’t make much sense to entrust this task to these “top ten” lists. At the end of the day this should fall to the educational community, academic publications, government and producers and manufacturers through the use of stickers and labels, etc.

In fact, this thought leads us into a trap. Surely the media and what they print also have immense educational and learning power? Of course they do. They have this power, but it is more difficult to control it and adapt it to curricula. They ultimately mould the way in which we see things and how we interpret them. Pretending nothing has happened is a strategy that is as comfortable as it is ill-chosen.

The classification of objects or cities should be interpreted properly. The journalism world has for some time fed off the “spectacularization of information” and the lists of “the cleanest”, “most polluting”, “most efficient” and a long etcetera are becoming increasingly more common. They help simplify things and make them more attractive, which is important when in a news item. The first job for the educator and the student is to heighten their critical view. This is an essential task within the entire educational cycle. Not just so they know how to “read” classifications, but rather know how to interpret news in general. In this case knowing how to analyse things is the first step in learning.

Finally, we discover that in effect some of these lists are sufficiently interesting and certainly have learning value. This will not be the case of Wanzhuang or Masdar, but it will, for example, be the case of Portland. The US portal has offered a very interesting virtual space for some time now. It is a blend of social network and information repository. In 2006 the list mentioned above was published, classifying the city of Oregon as the most sustainable in the United States. The advantage in this case is that the people behind the classification explain the criteria used in an intelligent and somewhat exhaustive fashion in an attempt to be transparent.

The interested reader can review the items analysed and get an idea of the complexity of this venture. In truth, any type of classification is a game, a way of organising reality, always so elusive, always so multi-faceted. It is therefore important to be able to analyse the criteria followed. We certainly recommend you take a look at sustainlane.1

But for sure, the United States is far away. It is far in terms of distance, and far in terms of the consumer culture and the administrative and political organisation. There are some interesting initiatives going on in Catalonia. The Generalitat has its environmental award scheme. The Environmental Forum has set up the Ecocity awards, with state-wide scope. The awards given to Local Environmental Initiatives by Barcelona County Council are used to highlight good practices related in this case to energy and water issues. From a different perspective the magazine Opcions also contributes rigorously and regularly to analysing consumer goods from a sustainable perspective.

Maybe it is not spectacular stuff, given that the Catalans are known for their cautious and careful nature, but it is a good start. The start of what? Of getting to know the lie of the land, for example. Innovative solutions. Maybe some of these towns are close to the school or college… The award is, in this case, an excuse to get to know at firsthand an experience that is worth following, that is worth getting to know.

Educational work could also be more proactive in nature. Perhaps through research credits, students could work in class on a system of indicators that would allow neighbourhoods or areas of the city or town to be classified according to their level of sustainability. Distant from the news mentioned above, with their hidden agendas included, this work could be an interesting way to perceive information and present it in an easy-to-understand and attractive way. The act of creating the list would mean that the student has to manage complexity. But this is not about doing mathematics. However precisely because they are not mathematics, the choice of good practices is more interesting and is even a cause for debate.

As the end result after this work the student will be furnished with greater maturity when faced with headlines that talk day after day about more sustainable cities, cars with fewer emissions, or more efficient white goods.

At least, then, something good will have come out of it.

Oriol Lladó

Environmental journalist