50 Shades of Green: Cultural Diversity in Sustainability Science

By Rebecca

I see neatly planted rows of flowers and colonies of bright garden gnomes, as we are walking along picturesque garden houses in the allotment garden colony in Lüneburg, Germany. Allotment gardens (called “Schrebergärten” in German) are little plots of land owned by people, who grow plants and flowers on them. Together with Hannah from the US and Markus from South Africa, I am on an experienced-based walking exercise: We are walking through Lüneburg, to document very sustainable or unsustainable areas. I know that in some allotment garden colonies, there are rules that regiment the percentage of flowers and the length of the grass. This is why, while walking through the area, I mainly think of the high use of pesticides like glyphosate and the “wasted” space, which displays garden gnome families, instead of vegetables (BUND 2015, p. 1).

Then Hannah suddenly says that we finally found a really green, sustainable area in Lüneburg. And Markus nods in agreement, telling us about his plans to rent an allotment garden near his apartment in Hamburg. I am puzzled: To me, allotment gardens are usually rented by an older generations that wants to impress their neighbors with spotless lawns, not with living in a “green”, environmentally friendly way. But are Hannah and Markus fans of garden gnomes and crocheted curtains? No way!

On our way through the gardens, we discuss our disagreement and how “sustainable” the area is. Hannah says that they are a great way to connect with nature, if you live in an urban area. I reply that if you really want to connect with nature, you don’t need pesticides and clean cut lawns, but maybe a tomato plant on your balcony and a walk through the forest every once in a while.

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Allotment Gardens in Lüneburg (Source: Markus Lilje)

Cultural Diversity is necessary, but also challenging!

In the discussion about garden gnomes and pesticides, I realize something more abstract: Our cultural backgrounds and where we grow up influence the way we see the world. I see the gardens as a symbol for smugness and the petty bourgeois. Hannah and Markus are not familiar with the allotment garden community in Germany and like the possibility have a garden, while living in an urban area. Consequently, we have different perceptions of how sustainable the gardens are. This makes me realize that there must be different perceptions about what is sustainable, whenever a diverse group of people comes together. Whether it is within the international group of students in the Global Sustainability Master or the community of scientists who strive for sustainable transformation, there are different “shades of green”. Or as scholars would put it: “The very nature of learning about and implementing sustainable development inevitably results in a diversity of perspectives” (van Dam-Mieras, 2008).

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Garden Gnomes in allotment Garden, Source: BIG-AL.photography (2013): Gartenzwerg Invasion, Flickr

Although it might seem trivial to talk about different perceptions of reality in the global world we live in today, it is highly relevant for the success of projects that aim at transforming the world into a more sustainable state. Problems like climate change, water-scarcity and overpopulation cannot be solved within the boundaries of single countries. As international cooperation is necessary, research groups will become more and more culturally diverse. This has advantages, as these different insights can be used to create successful solutions. But as I stand on the asphalt pathway in the garden community I realize: Diversity can also be challenging. I wonder how we can reach a solution, when our opinions differ heavily in the stage of problem analysis? And if our perceptions of reality and sustainability differ so heavily in the simple case of allotment gardens, how about big strategies for sustainability transformation?

What now? Let’s think across intercultural borders!

After the walking exercise, I am still wondering how we can overcome the barriers that come with cultural diversity. As I browse through different scholarly articles on the topic, I realize that we actually already made the first step for intercultural work: We acknowledged that being from the US, South Africa and Germany means that we perceive the world differently. Some articles suggest that we need to obtain intercultural competencies to perform in a culturally diverse setting. Scholars suggest that students of sustainability science need “to evaluate critically their own cultural parameters; and, in this way, […] overcome the limits of remaining within their own cultural perspectives” (ibid.).

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Markus, Hannah and Me on our walk through rainy Lüneburg (Source: Markus)

At first glance this seems abstract, but then I start to think about why I think that allotment gardens are unsustainable. I immediately remember during my childhood days, my family and I used to visit distant relatives in their beloved “Schrebergarten”. Their stories of who won the prize for the tidiest garden and which neighbor killed a mole with a firecracker just don’t fit to my picture of sustainability. Markus on the other hand has apparently no intentions of putting up garden gnomes or killing moles with firecrackers. He grew up in South Africa and often ate relatively fresh, regional fruits and vegetables. Now he lives in the city of Hamburg and loves the idea of planting his own vegetables to eat.  Hannah says that to her allotment gardens are a great form for relaxation in urban areas. Where I see snail bait and glyphosate, they see a chance for people to connect with nature and even grow their own food. In addition to our cultural background, a variety of factors influence how we see the world, for example our education, personal history and social background. In the case of the allotment gardens, our different mindsets had definitely affected our judgement and perceptions of our surroundings.

My Pledge for Interculturality in Sustainability Science:

Finally, acknowledging how our cultural and social background has shaped our way of seeing the world, leads me to a more differentiated view on allotment gardens. Taking into account the point of view of Hannah and Markus, I suddenly start to see the possibilities of allotment gardens for sustainable development in urban areas. Therefore, thinking out of my culturally shaped mindset improved the results of the walking-experience. This is why sustainability science needs to be deliberately culturally diverse, meaning that different perceptions of sustainability need to be addressed in every research project, if on a university scale or on the large scale in the search for global transformation strategies.


Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (editor): Information zum Unkraut/- Wildkrautvernichtungsmittel „Glyphosat“.

van Dam-Mieras, Rietje; Lansu, Angelique; Rieckmann, Marco; Michelsen, Gerd (2008): Development of an Interdisciplinary, Intercultural Master’s Program on Sustainability. Learning from the Richness of Diversity. In: Innov High Educ 32 (5), P. 251–264.


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