What can we learn from the Aztecs? – an Educational Revolution Inspired by History

If there is one thing that I have taken away from the Mexico City WBCSD conference it’s that systematic change on a radical scale is necessary to achieve a truly sustainable society. The Aztecs have fascinated me for years and for many various reasons, chief among which is their close relationship with nature. So, what can we learn from their culture that can be implemented into our own?

Ever since sustainable development really emerged as a concept in the early 1980s it has been a second-hand addition to “business as usual”. For example, managers have often added environmental considerations onto “business as usual” for competitive advantage reasons, not genuine concern for the environment. However, this isn’t what true sustainability means for me. Sustainability is a lens through which you view the world and your place within it and I hope that someday that this will be re-established as a subconscious way of going about life. This was the way that humans existed for millennia, living in harmony with their environment. Take the Aztecs’ Chinampas (falsely named floating fields) on the lakes of Texcoco and Xochimilco for example, a perfect example of a circular agriculture industry. The Aztecs used their natural environment for their own benefit while not at nature’s detriment and this was just how they went about life subconsciously. For me, this is a truly sustainable civilisation.

Therefore, we must relearn what real sustainability is. What a better place to do it than where future citizens are developing their path in life – university. When sustainability is defined as being an integral part of one’s actions, it becomes clear that regardless of your academic background or profession, every action you take can be a sustainable one. In that way, collectively we will be able to nurture the change in consciousness that will make us act responsibly towards our environment once again.

Some universities such as Yale have recognised this catalyst for change and have fundamentally embedded sustainability into many courses such as chemistry and engineering. By introducing sustainability as a new dimension in education, Yale has ensured that future members of society will graduate with an awareness of the bigger picture. By this I mean that they will not only consider economic factors in their careers but will make subconscious decisions to be responsible to nature and the communities in which they operate.

There is huge potential to stimulate the necessary sustainability revolution through this means given that sooner or later the baton must be handed onto the new generation of business leaders, policy-makers and scientists alike. By ensuring that every profession has an understanding of why sustainable decision making is so important, they will not need to have their arms twisted by policy or change personal habits in order to shift to a sustainable society. Rather, they will be the ones whose actions change how we go about business, societal development and indeed life as a whole!

Tom Vaughan


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