A classroom-based or online programme of eight learning guides on Future Living Skills is becoming more popular and will soon include a new module, the local economy.

The community-driven programme began over 15 years ago – when it was called Sustainable Households. It was started by Annie McDonald, an education officer at the Marlborough District Council, who began it working in collaboration with several other councils until the project was transferred to a new charitable trust.

The Sustainable Living Education Trust continues to use a team approach, with strong local body involvement: the current chair of the Trust is Tony Moore, Christchurch City Council’s Sustainability Advisor.

There are 14 member Councils, and Rhys Taylor, the national coordinator, says that they are in discussion with several more: “Councils are interested in the programme because they are keen for people to do much more about waste management. We recruit and train facilitators, including ACE tutors working in schools, and we give distance support. There are now 40 facilitators working in member-council areas. These tutors can also download additional materials from our website, such as group activities and visual aids.”

The growth in demand by communities is, Rhys says, triggered by several things: “There is a huge interest by the public in climate issues. New Zealanders are taking climate change more seriously. Also, people are more concerned about minimising waste, especially plastics and want to know how to manage that. And this year, Covid-19. It has made people want to change their life-style – growing more of their own food and thinking about community resilience. They sense a fast-changing world and want to learn new skills that seem relevant to them.

“Recently we have been given money from the government’s Waste Management Fund, to make access to all the education materials free, so now anybody anywhere in New Zealand can go onto our site and download the basic education materials. Many thousands of people are doing just that.”

Rhys became involved with the trust early on. A journalist, with a post graduate degree in Adult and Community Education from Sheffield University in the UK and experience in Aotearoa, working with Canterbury WEA and the Ministry for the Environment, he had the knowledge and skills needed to help write the learning guides and develop the adult community education resources.

The learning guides, which are all designed to be used by groups, are on:

  • energy efficiency to cut your power bill;
  • eco building – solar design and insulation;
  • water use and river protection;
  • organic veges and growing crops at home;
  • waste minimising in your consumer choices;
  • food – healthy choices, shopping and processing;
  • travel options and their carbon impacts;
  • community reliance – which links with emergency preparedness.

They are written in plain English and the electronic format (PDF) includes a reading guide and links, to research topics that people are interested in. “So it is a hybrid course, with provided group resources and support for personal study,” says Rhys. “The benefit of having the links to other Internet sites is that it means that people are not led into the commercial world, where the intention is to sell you something. Our guides are independent and based on science.”

Currently, in response to requests, the Trust’s team is writing the new local economy learning guide. It includes information on different methods of collaboration in the community – projects that help people get access to goods without relying on the cash economy. These include timebanks, skills exchanges, farmers’ markets, repair cafes or workshops and local savings pools. There are references and links to existing projects.

Recently Rhys travelled to Palmerston North to train a group of facilitators for the newly signed-up Palmerston North City Council.

Nelson Lebo, who has a PdD in Science and Sustainability Education, works for the Palmerston North City Council as their Eco Design Advisor. He trained as a facilitator and will manage the city’s Future Living Skills hub:

“What l like about this programme is that it creates a dialogue rather than providing expert information. Everyone can come and bring their own level of expertise with them and make connections with others in their community who are interested in sustainability. You get a lot of experience in one room. Face-to-face learning is so much better than online learning – you can ask questions.

“We gave our community just two weeks’ notice about Rhys’s facilitator training and we had 16 people there. I think that post Covid there is a lot more interest in resilience and sustainability.”

Debbie Eddington, who is currently co-facilitating a course with Rhys in Timaru is also an Enviro Schools Coordinator. A trained primary school teacher, she was a little cautious about working with a group of adults: “But as a facilitator, you are not expected to be the expert. There is a lot of knowledge in the room, and you just have to encourage the sharing of that knowledge. The on-line resources for facilitators are great, with PowerPoint presentations and activities.”

Long-time sustainability educator and psychologist, Maureen Howard, who now writes about sustainability for the Otago Daily Times, started providing the Sustainable Households courses in Dunedin back in 2006. Over the nine years she was involved (other facilitators run the programme now) more than 800 people completed the programme and many went on to making changes in their community:

“A lot of the value of the course is bringing people together. They get to know each other through meeting over the eight weeks and that provides a context that say a lecture doesn’t provide. People see each other making an effort to walk or cycle instead of getting into their cars, or composting – and they decide to make changes themselves. It is empowering to be with other people. That feeling is hard to get if you are on your own.

“When people do a course, they become highly motivated and enthused. Some of the people from our courses started Transition Valley 473, and they went on to plant community orchards, do home energy audits, bike fix-it workshops and various other things. Some have become embedded in the community and taken over by other groups.

“Someone once said to me that Dunedin is a hotbed of sustainability, and I think the course helped to bring that about. People are a lot more well connected now.

“I think that Niki Harré’s book, Psychology for a better world, Working with people to save the planet, provides a lot of excellent principles, many of them common to the programme. One is that we create a very solutions-focused environment. We try not to frighten people. When people are frightened, they are defensive and not open to change. I think people find the Sustainable Living course fun and doing it helps them see themselves as a sustainability advocate, an environmentalist. It becomes part of their identity and they might start lobbying the local council for change so that we can transform our society into one where the natural world flourishes and we can stay within our 1.5-degree Celsius rise threshold.

“Optimism, as another person told me, can become a moral choice. If everyone decided it is possible, we could do what we need to do. We have to be motivated and optimistic so we believe we can make a difference.”

Maureen says that now is the time to act: “We have the resources that future generations won’t have as they struggle to deal with crisis after crisis. We are responsible for the next generation. We must do much more than adapt. Many solutions happen at a community level. Every place is different and local people can, with support and resources, find ways to transform how we live.”