Educating for Sustainability: An Interview with Jaimie Cloud

Introduction: Jaimie P. Cloud is the founder and president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City. The Cloud Institute is dedicated to the vital role of education in creating awareness, fostering commitment, and guiding actions toward a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations. The Cloud Institute monitors the evolving thinking and skills of the most important champions of sustainability, and transforms them into educational materials and pedagogical systems that inspire people to think about the world, their relationship to it, and their ability to influence it in an entirely new way. As a pioneer in the field of Education for Sustainability (EfS) Jaimie is an international keynote speaker, thought leader, and educational consultant. Jaimie writes and publishes extensively, and is a leadership advisor and curriculum development coach to administrators, teachers, and curriculum specialists in schools and school districts, governments and civic organizations, and corporations around the country and in other parts of the world. Through The Cloud Institute Jaimie has developed exemplary curriculum units and full courses of study and produced the Cloud Institute’s EfS Framework and EfS Standards and Performance Indicators that organizations and institutions are using to design and innovate their own curricula to educate for sustainability. 

Zoe Weil: What inspired and compelled you to found the Cloud Institute for Sustainability and to focus on K-12 education as your strategy for change?

Jaimie: I was in the first experiment in Global Education in the 1960s, and have been tracking the “State of the Planet” data since I was 11 years old. It was as clear to me then as it is now, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the kind of thinking which drives behavior that leaves places and future generations worse off than they were before. Especially when it doesn’t have to be that way, and we know it! I understood the power of transformative lifelong learning early on, and so I grew up to become a global educator to educate for a better future. At the time, Global Education was the edgiest, most forward thinking field I knew about. Right thinking, right action. Then, in 1987, the Our Common Future Report was published. It was the first time I saw the term “sustainable development,” and  I realized that I had been tracking “unsustainability” since middle school. I intuited that “sustain-ability” was a better idea.  Once I confirmed my intuition, the next question was: “How do you educate for that?” Thus the birth of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education.  

Zoe: You founded the Cloud Institute more than a quarter of a century ago. What’s different now? What’s changed for the better, and where do today’s biggest challenges lie?

Jaimie: For the first twenty years, I spent most of my time making the case for why Education for Sustainability was necessary.  Now I spend most of my time assisting schools and school systems on how to Educate for Sustainability. Over time, I learned that people need to understand what is unsustainable about our current way of living so they have a motivation and a rationale for changing. The ability to change is teachable – even joyful – once there is a motivation and rationale. I have also learned that by itself, education about un-sustainability puts people in what the brain scientists call “a threat state” and shuts down their thinking, because in the threat state we are supposed to be fighting, “flighting,” or protecting ourselves. In order to make the course corrections we need to make, we need to be in the “toward state” where everything good happens, e.g., logical thinking, love, happiness, creativity, critical thinking, metacognition, joy, autonomy, fairness, relatedness, stability, etc. What has changed for the better is that more people come to me knowing why they need to change, and I can help them get inspired and hopeful about the unique contribution that education can make to shift toward sustainability and even regeneration. When that happens, people get creative, they do the math, and they create the social contracts required to ensure that their school communities are individually and collectively “steering the boat” in the same direction.  

What is challenging these days is that the reason so many more people know why EfS is important is because the indicators of unsustainability are everywhere now. Some of those people have begun to lose hope that there is anything we can do. They put way too much time and energy into denial or coping with decline rather than creating and adapting to change. The thinking is that if nothing can be done then there is nothing to do. We call that mental model, “The Bummer.”  The kids call people who think that way “The Given Ups.”  May none of us ever be on that list! Moving people from clueless to inspired is one thing. Firing people up who are depressed and full of fear and anxiety is another.  Doable for sure, but requires different skills. 

Other things that have changed for the better are the incredible advances we have made toward sustainability and regeneration. We have so many case studies to share with students now, and so many viable solutions in play like Biomimicry, Cradle to Cradle Design, Drawdown, Circular Economy, Renewable energy, Regenerative Agriculture, Buildings and Design, to name just a few. This makes educating for sustainability so much more inspiring, authentic, meaningful and relevant for students.

A related challenge that comes to mind is that we don’t have the luxury of time on our side. If you are headed towards a cliff, slowing down is not going to solve your problem. You have to turn. We have to turn. We need to scale up and out more rapidly, and if Education for Sustainability (EfS) is to be a node for transformation, we need more research data on the impact of EfS on student achievement, on self efficacy, on participation and civic leadership, on teacher effectiveness and happiness, on school culture, and on sustainability indicators such as student health, energy use, waste reduction, and water quality. There has been no significant investment in Education for Sustainability at the national level either by philanthropy or by the government  that could fund those types of longitudinal studies in time for “early and late majority” states and districts to confidently, and systemically, adopt EfS. The “early adopters” have led the way, and the rest will need convincing.  It is just a matter of time.

Zoe: Can you share some stories about young people who’ve learned about sustainability through your curriculum and approach? What have some of their achievements been to advance sustainability in their schools, communities, or world?

Jaimie: I love telling these stories. There are amazing children and young people who are engaged in making change in their schools and communities as a result of what they are learning. Having said that, I also get calls all the time from people who were in programs of mine years and years ago and are now in a position to have a major influence. I just got a call the other day from a woman who was a young educator in one of my programs in NY about 16 years ago. She is a Superintendent of Schools now and wants to transform her district by educating for sustainability. Not too long ago, 3rd graders in a school I was working with took their district to task regarding the lame recycling program that was being implemented.  Once they got that remedied, they took on their municipality. The Town Board needed to find special steps for the third graders to stand on to reach the podium so they could make their case. Another recent college graduate/student of mine is becoming a participatory community planner involving community members in co-developing their neighborhoods. The charge is simple: Find your niche and take responsibility for the difference you make because everything you do and everything you don’t do makes a difference.

Zoe: What is something that a teacher can do right now to advance sustainability education in their classroom?

Jaimie: Do a Strengths Assessment for your school: Look at the attributes of Education for Sustainability and start baking the appropriate ones into your core curriculum and instruction where and when you can. Sign up for Professional Learning and Coaching Look at, adapt, or deliver some exemplars of EfS in different grade levels and disciplines 

The sooner we get this way of thinking to our students, the faster we will turn Spaceship Earth around!