Do we need to change? Inner development for a sustainable world

Why guilt does not save the climate and what skills tomorrow's leaders need

2022-08-16 Dr Maria von Salisch is a professor of developmental psychology at Leuphana University Lüneburg. She is particularly interested in the social and emotional development of children and adolescents because it is "very fast, downright rapid". Developmental psychology studies the changes in human experience and behaviour over their entire lives.

Prof. Dr. Maria von Salisch ©Marvin Sokolis
Prof. Dr. Maria von Salisch
Recently, around 262,000 students in Germany achieved university entrance qualifications - in a time full of sustainability crises. To what extent does this change the demands on education?
Educational institutions must prepare for the challenges of the future. Young people are already struggling with many uncertainties because they are faced with major developmental tasks: Career choices, romantic relationships, ... They have to grow up.
Young people, of all people, are now particularly affected by sustainability crises because they take away opportunities and endanger their dreams. Concerns about the state of the world intensify as their vision widens. Therefore, at this age, they also increasingly develop political positions and a sense of responsibility for their personal and society's future.
Haven't all generations had to deal with crises?
 Yes, all generations have had crises to deal with: a changing world. At the moment, however, the world is changing very fast. No generation has faced a crisis on such a global scale, a crisis that threatens all of humanity.
Young generations are more affected by the consequences of the climate crisis. This is shown, for example, by the interactive forecasts of According to these, 18-year-olds from Europe will experience a twelvefold increase in heat waves in a 1.5°C world, compared to people born in 1960. Many feel overwhelmed, anxious, angry or sad as a result.
Yes, this is what we call climate dis-stress. The crisis seems to be developing a momentum that can hardly be stopped, and if it can, then by people in politics, in companies and in society who often act far too hesitantly or not at all.
Added to this are feelings of guilt and shame when our footprint is larger than desired. As the global North, we are the main cause of emissions. Our consumption habits contribute to this. This is where self-acceptance is important. For example: I still buy my shampoo in plastic bottles, but that's okay because I can only change one habit at a time.
But it's not okay, is it?!
It's about acceptance of oneself: recognising the feelings of guilt, but also letting them go. If you feel guilty, especially personally, you wear yourself out and can no longer cope with challenges. That is the problem: crises are not over tomorrow. It is important to recognise one's own involvement, but to remain capable of action in the long term, both individually and collectively.
Saving the world by accepting it in its unsustainability - isn't that contradictory?
We do not accept the world, but our behaviour, because we can only change this slowly if the change is to be permanent. In a consumer society, temptations are waiting on every corner. We should not expect too much of ourselves. Instead, we can challenge ourselves playfully, step by step.
What skills determine that a person accepts and then changes instead of forgets? / (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC almost summed up that limiting the climate crisis to 1.5°C needs "immediate rapid and strong" emission reductions). We seem to have no time for slow change. Yet many solutions to our problems are known but not implemented. What skills do we need to do this?

Researchers have developed the Inner Development Goals, with which we can get closer to the Sustainable Development Goals. They surveyed over 800 education and environmental experts from Europe and North America. The new model lists the most important skills for leaders in the 21st century. The framework consists of 5 categories that organise 23 qualities for inner growth. These include:
Being in relationship with ourselves, i.e. self-awareness, curiosity and an inner compass.
Thinking, so constructing meaning in a complex world full of contradictions.
Connectedness with others through appreciation and empathy for them.
Collaboration through communication, mobilisation and trust.
Acting with courage, optimism and tenacity.

Thanks to this combination, we should be able to mitigate and master crises.

These are well-known soft skills. What is new about them?
The combination. It includes individual and community elements, cognitive, emotional, social and - similar to mindfulness - moral components. They all influence each other. Of course, the model could be criticised for being poorly grounded in theory and for having been developed primarily by people from Western industrialised nations.
How can we learn it in our everyday lives?
Developing your personality alongside your studies is important because many graduates go on to take up leadership positions. Experience yourself; try new things. How do I manage to wash my hair with solid shampoo for a month, live meat-free for a week, keep the heating at 19 degrees, even in winter? Then you can say later: That was difficult for me too! That is authentic and more convincing than: You have to now!
Everyone is needed. Students can organise concerts, tend a forest garden or help the disadvantaged. In this way, they learn to realise their visions with like-minded people, to cope with setbacks and to celebrate successes! Universities can promote student initiatives and practical projects, but also offer courses in key skills and mindfulness. And complex thinking is encouraged in the curriculum.
What if my field of study is not so interdisciplinary?
Then you can claim that: We want to look at our subject from a sustainability perspective! But: universities can write sustainability into module handbooks, but they must also promote inner development, for example in a second, social curriculum. In view of the challenges of the future, such an education is also in the sense of the universities. Ask collectively: What is important to us? That consolidates the inner compass!