The Care-full Sustainability Campus Days were inspired by CENSE’s outreach strategy that aims to bring sustainability research closer to society. In an internal call for inter- and transdisciplinary seed funding projects that followed a participatory budgeting process, this project was approved by the integrated members of CENSE.

Here, we want to explain what motivated us to create this outreach event as well as the underlying reasons for combining sustainability questions with care.

Sustainability is inherently linked to questions of relationship: How do we relate to ourselves and to the world around us, and how can we enhance our transformative capacity to thrive within the planetary boundaries (Fazey et al., 2018)? In the current times of multiples crises, e.g. the climate crisis, the effects of the recent pandemic due to COVID19, as well a global crisis of trust, the concepts of intertwined inner and outer care are highly relevant: Personal care for ourselves (physical, emotional and mental care) will impact and reflect in care for our communities and environment and draws on the social-ecological system perspective (Fischer et al., 2015).

Sustainability and the role of higher education institutions

Higher Education Institutions in their service to society have a fundamental role to promote sustainability: here, current and future generations of change-makers are developing new visions for the future and are learning to deal with complex and wicked problems that often require difficult decision-making. Collaboration among, between and beyond disciplines and with diverse actors is key, as no discipline alone can tackle unsustainability. Universities have started to respond to sustainability challenges in many different ways. With this event, we aim to bring an inner lens to the sustainability debate and inspiring ideas for the FCT NOVA campus community.

Why an Inner Lens

Besides progress and growing awareness of sustainability, the world continues on a rather unsustainable path. While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer us a roadmap of sorts towards a more sustainable future by 2030, it is becoming more apparent that without deeper transformation the goals might not be reached. What is missing in a world of increasing knowledge and sophisticated technology, where knowledge and technology might not hold the only solutions to solve complex unsustainability?
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… And to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.

James Gustave Speth

This well-cited quote by James Gustave Speth points to the necessity of integrating our values and inner states of being into the sustainability debate. Scientists are challenged to open up to such transformational processes. Several researchers are already doing so. The trio of authors Ives, Freeth & Fischer argue in their renowned article “Inside-out sustainability: The neglect of inner worlds” (2020) that science’s focus on external phenomena and descriptive analyses has “led to the neglect of people’s ‘inner worlds’—their emotions, thoughts, identities and beliefs”. They advocate for considering people’s inner worlds as a dimension of sustainability itself, because “compassion, empathy and generosity, for example, are personal characteristics that mark individual expressions of sustainability” (Ives et al., 2020).

A growing number of scientists see Inner Transformation to Sustainability as a Deep Leverage Point (Woiwode et al. 2020) for our sustainability endeavors.

Moriggi et al. 2020 explain the transformative potential of caring practices, as they can increase our emotional awareness and ability to relate and respond to each other, including our relationships to the non-human world.

The Inner Development Goals Initiative

From this line of thought emerged the Inner Development Goals Initiative, a co-created research project that involved more than 1500 respondents to develop a framework for inner development skills and capacities. This project aims to complement actions to reach the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030. The current IDGs framework represents 5 categories and 23 skills and qualities, which to our understanding help to bridge inner and outer sustainability. The Care-Full Sustainability Campus Days and corresponding activities were designed based on this framework.

In education and research, we tend to prioritize our logical knowledge and rational-thinking capacities. Learning approaches that involve mind, body and spirit (understood as our heart and senses) are currently an exception rather than the norm. We advocate that holistic approaches and more caring practices can not only improve academic success but help promote well-being in general and provide more awareness and ability to respond to unsustainability. Furthermore, caring practices might be particularly useful for students and staff to cope with challenges and difficulties in academic life.

Well-being and combating risks of burn-out

Diverse studies refer to the increasing risk of burn-out in academia, a phenomena already present before the pandemic (e.g. the meta-analysis on burn-out in academia by Sabagh et al. 2018): the high-demanding and competitive culture in higher education, for students and staff, is showing negative effects not only on personal and professional development, but also on institutional productivity.

In their article “Educators and Students are Burned Out. These Strategies can help”, the authors explain that caring practices that promote engagement in self-care and acts of kindness towards others have proved to be useful in reducing the risk of burnout and are seen as a key pillar for human sustainability in organizations. 

In the design of our event, we have therefore created activities that address “head, hands and heart”(Sipos et al., 2008) and that offer the possibility to engage with sustainability topics in a rather holistic way, including embodied practices such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, and that can enhance our well-being and resilience, on an individual and collective level.

Linking sustainability and care

Promoted by CENSE and The CareLab for People & Planet, the Care-Days initiative is an outreach event and an action-research project at the same time. Let’s discover together how sustainability transformation and caring practices may relate, and let’s encourage each other to intentionally cultivate our inner worlds, creating jointly a university that cares.

This initiative is a pilot for eventual future initiatives.

Together with you, our wish is to get inspired on our path towards a more sustainable future!