One of my employers, the University of Victoria, turns 58 this year. Its late middle age coincides with a profound shift in pedagogy, as well as the onset of the post-pandemic period. (It will inevitably be called that though more pandemics are sure to follow in our unsustainable world, making that moniker itself unsustainable.) Two pedagogical trends seem worthy of wider interest in this post-pandemic jungle, especially for those of us living with chronic physical and mental health issues: trauma-informed pedagogy and curricula designed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs evolved out of decades of discussion and debate, starting with the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment and speeding up 20 years later in Rio with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Also called the Earth Summit, the 1992 conference established Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, all of which were commitments to action made by the UN and over 178 governments. However, this was also the point at which policymakers began acknowledging that they needed to bring in more stakeholders. The problems were too big to be solved by individual governments and intergovernmental organizations like the UN. The responsibility also belonged to impassioned citizens, including children, scientists, farmers, and Indigenous groups. In other words, they were our responsibility.
Twenty years later, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio + 20, revisited Brazil and these goals. It generated a document called “The Future We Want,” outlining targets like the eradication of poverty, and proposed the development of specific SDGs. Three years later, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in fall 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted. The 17 SDGs are its heart and moral compass: no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace, justice, and strong institutions; and partnerships for the goals.
These are the titles of the goals on the popular infographic, but each has a more explicitly worded target, like “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” for “no poverty,” as well as a list of indicators to measure success. “Reduced inequalities,” covering racial and social inequities as well as wealth disparity, was allegedly one of the hardest to get all countries to even nominally agree upon, but some proponents argue that “climate action” is the lynchpin of the entire framework. If we don’t fix that problem, all of the others will become more deeply entrenched.
In 2020, I was asked to design two new courses for Royal Roads University for a core curriculum program centered on the SDGs. My Gender, Well-Being, and Literature course is structured around gender equality and good health and well-being, while Literature of the Anthropocene was planted in the hopeful soil of the climate action, life below water, and life on land goals. In these two courses, we study novels, essays, short stories, poems, critical theory, Indigenous legends, film, dance, performance art, land art, fashion, paintings, photographs, and music on the topics of the goals. The assignments, too, strive to incarnate these particular SDGs, and others. Students consider how Indigenous peoples might have responded to Thoreau’s Walden in Literature of the Anthropocene, and queer an essay, through form and content, in Gender, Well-Being, and Literature. Constructing courses around these goals was hard at first. I felt limited by them until I realized that literature and other media have always responded to these concerns. The problem, if there was one, turned out to be not too few options but too many.
The SDGs foster imagination. They demand ingenuity and sinuous minds. For example, to meet the goal of responsible consumption and production, which aims to create a circular economy, people are experimenting with biodegradable materials like mushrooms and chickpeas to replace plastics. Soon, we might be drinking from edible receptacles out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and our world will be the better for it. Closer to my home, Royal Roads University is working toward the zero hunger goal by planting a large-scale kitchen garden on campus, whose produce will feed employees and those in need in the surrounding community.
If we were to succeed with the SDGs, we’d eradicate many of the environmental causes for diseases. Let’s return to the social determinants of health set down by the CDC: healthcare access and quality, education access and quality, social and community context, economic stability, and neighborhood and built environment. The SDGs seek to improve each of these issues through one or more goals.
The final SDG reminds us of the importance of partnerships as we net solutions from our oceans of past mistakes. One obvious partnership I see is curricula informed by the SDGs and trauma-informed pedagogy. Trauma-informed teaching practices predate COVID-19, but the pandemic transformed their buzzword into a roar. They aim to avoid triggering students who are living with trauma, even when the class explores upsetting ideas and materials. At one of my home institutions, these protocols were put to the test following a September 2019 bus accident that killed two University of Victoria students on a science field trip.
A trauma counselor who delivered a workshop at this university argued that while not everyone will be traumatized by it, the pandemic exposed all people to a traumatic event. Exposure will result in traumatization if a person is unable to process the event and experiences a negative social response. For this reason, I worry about my Chinese students who were subjected to racist slurs on Vancouver Island after COVID-19 hit our shores. This formula has profound implications for other recent societal traumas as well. Following George Floyd’s murder, for one, racist reactions online or during in-person protests may have tipped the event in the wrong direction for some people, leaving them traumatized. But ignoring life-threatening events might also cause harm, making trauma-informed pedagogical practices essential. We must talk about the most disturbing events if they aren’t to hurt our students even more.
However, treating a traumatized individual only goes so far in an interlinked world. We’re all part of a global system, and if we don’t take more care with our social responses, fewer people will be able to heal from mass traumatic events. Systemic negative responses aren’t limited to racist comments on social forums and at the grocery store. The absence of resources can comprise a negative social response for an individual who has suffered from a loved one’s death in the pandemic or a racist hate crime.
Clearly, we have a lot to learn.