Sustainable education?
The case for a ‘radical new curriculum’

by Alison Green
National Director (UK) of Scientists Warning

Note: The spray chalk used can easily be wiped off. Those taking part in the action were consulted before the words were sprayed. No one was arrested as a consequence.

Alison Green argues that an education system that truly supports SDG4 (United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goal’) needs to be fundamentally reformed to help students understand the systems that are threatening planetary ecosystems.

What is education for? Having worked in education for many years, as a cognitive psychologist researching human learning and skill acquisition and then moving into a variety of academic management roles, most recently that of Pro Vice-Chancellor at Arden University, this question has been integral to my career. In considering this question once again fairly recently, in the light of the increasingly urgent warnings about climate change, I decided that whatever else education may be doing, it is not preparing our young people for the world that they will inherit from us. I resigned from my post and exchanged academia for activism. Not once since have I regretted that decision.

A fundamental problem for education, and certainly for higher education, is that its purpose has come to focus on delivering the skills and knowledge that employers need. The current neoclassical economic model is centred on supply and demand, and arguably the relentless pursuit of growth. Indeed, universities are not immune to these forces, and the shift towards a ‘consumer model’ of the student further entrenches the problem, students offered a diet of courses that serve the needs of the economy, and by virtue of their popularity, assure the financial sustainability of the institutions. Unprofitable courses are increasingly being axed by universities under pressure to perform and to meet a bewildering array of government targets.

In her ground-breaking work Doughnut Economics (video), Kate Raworth challenges convention and proposes that we change the conversation to one centred on humanity’s objectives rather than growth economics. When the Club of Rome commissioned Limits to Growth back in 1972, the writing really was on the wall. Yet growth has inexorably continued, to the point that we find ourselves now on the edge of the precipice, facing the prospect of a ‘hot house planet’ if crucial thresholds are breached and the pursuit of economic growth is not at least held in check, if not stalled or even reversed.

The infamous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of October 2018, now known as IPCC 1.5, should have been the ultimate call to arms. And for some, it was. October 2018 also saw the launch of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Frustrated by years of inaction, and sympathetic towards the voices of scientists that failed to be heeded long before the World Scientists second warning to humanity in 2017, Extinction Rebellion has become the fastest growing movement in history.

The manifesto is clear, and centres on three key demands, the first of which is that the truth is told about the current ecological crisis. A target of 2025 is mandated for the UK government to achieve net zero carbon emissions and reduce consumption and the third demand is for a national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee changes. The demands are entirely consistent with the anticipated near-term future for the planet that has been depicted in many reports. For example, a 2018 paper on the Governance of Economic Transition makes for sobering reading. And so if we are to rapidly achieve a transition to a state where we both consume and produce much less, while lightening the burden on ecosystems, what might that mean for the future? Four key areas are energy, transport, food and housing, and the transformations required across each area will radically impact the ways in which we all live.

In totality, the weight of evidence overwhelmingly points to the significant risk or even inevitability of societal collapse, as Jem Bendell has argued. The precautionary principle suggests that in the face of such a significant threat, we should not wait to be certain of that threat, but rather act now to prevent further environmental degradation.

And this means that we re-examine not just our education systems, but all of our systems, processes, structures, beliefs and values. Greta Thunberg, who has inspired many, many thousands of children, and adults, represents the dilemma well. The School Climate Strikes have inspired people of all ages and backgrounds. Both young and old alike have become aware that the earth is in crisis and that the young will inherit a debt that has been foisted upon them. I have seen this at first hand at Extinction Rebellion actions, and in writing a press letter in support of the School Climate Strikes that was signed by over two hundred academics.

Our current education system scarcely provides young people with the knowledge and constructs needed to make sense of that future, far less those they will need to engage with and adapt to it. First and foremost, young people will need to understand the delicate state of the planetary ecosystems, and the range of possibilities for the future. A radical new curriculum will seek to enable and to liberate young minds, rather than push them towards competition and conformity. Children will learn that they are a part of, rather than apart from, all other life and systems on the planet. Growth economics will give way to systems grounded in the reality of planetary ecosystems, finite resources and the importance of equilibrium and balance. They will have to, if humanity is to survive.

4 Replies to “Sustainable education? The case for a ‘radical new curriculum’”

  1. Why it is the way it is:

    1. Suffering:
    For thousands of years mankind has been terrorized by nature.
    The mortality of children was 70%; and a mother’s rate of mortality was 30-40%. Infections and septicemia were caused by small wounds. Intense pain was caused by ‘small’ problems such as bad teeth and ingrown nails. You can probably imagine countless other examples.

    More suffering was caused by hunger, pests and predators. Nature was the merciless king. Realizing this is crucial to understanding our relationship with nature. Even our inner nature was ‘evil’. Instinct is still something dark…

    2. Toxic zoo:
    Men invented tools and weapons that allowed us to push back nature more and more as time went along. Fire, bows and arrows, houses, improved hygiene, medicine, antibiotics, machines, dynamite…….etc. This is how we built a zoo for ourselves. So that we could live in comfort, or what we define as  comfort. A ‘world in a world,’ like the Russian dolls that are stuck into each other.

    The problem is: Our ‘world in a world’ is toxic for nature. And even though we try, we can´t exist without nature. Nor can we exist without the other species of plants and animals. Because we are all part of nature, the interconnected web of life. But our genetic proposition prevents us from recognizing the fact that by creating our ‘world in a world’ we can destroy nature. We only ‘sense’ that nature can destroy us.

    This is the reason why we fear darkness, fire, bigger animals, and even furious little rats! But we don´t fear climate change or nuclear war. Or rather, we only fear it intellectually. Our inner voice does not answer to these extreme dangers. So we don´t act. Will we become extinct?

    Raw material and proposals:
    1. ‘Venice’ for all.
    How does a car free city function? Ask the Venetian people. It works well for some 260 000 inhabitants and 20 million visitors. And you don’t have to dig ‘canals’ to change your city. Make it green. A green ‘Canale Grande’ of trees, flowers, grass and bushes. An Edible City even! Street cars instead of vaporetti (water-buses). Free passage for craftsmen and services. Car sharing. Parking space on the abandoned supermarkets outside the city. Ask the Venetian people how you should organise it. Would you like to live in paradise? Let’s go for it!

    2. Reversing supply and demand.
    To this day, the industry has always decided which products in which quality we get and ‘need’ as dictated by profit. The result is: ‘Throw-away-society’. Final goal the direct production of garbage. A short product life spans + slave work = maximal profit.

    Let’s turn this around. Digital platforms organize the search for quality products. The characteristics of the products are discussed and fixed by experts. The price is set.
    Example: 15000 Fridges are demanded by a platform. The (paid) organisations look for a producer. People pay and get their refrigerator.
    Works for the Mondragon Corporation!

    3. Hot spots. The big supermarkets are closing. Instead: Many small shops with a basic offer for daily life. Connected via internet. You can have everything you want delivered to these ‘spots’. It can be brought to your home from there. If you are old or sick, help can be organised from the ‘spot’. It´s a social centre, too. There might be a café or a small restaurant is included. Nobody has to drive to go shopping any longer. Everything you need is within walking distance. An enormous amount of traffic no longer exists.

    4. Cooperatives.

    Cooperatives consumer/ farmer:

    Why it is like it is, our denial of the natural. Because we want to tame and harness nature, we suffer from blind spots in our minds. We don’t realize the destruction we’re causing, because our genes say, ‘It is good to master and command nature.’ We have no sense for dead zones in the oceans, mass-extinction of other species etc. And we cannot see the necessary sustainability of nature. We are not seriously asking what is happening to us. We are far from being homo deus! We have to try to become homo sapiens.

    Personal ideas to cooperate with natural sources.
    (Especially for musicians)

    1. Learn to relax your muscles and body. If you experience total relaxation you can improve at any task, because high levels of tension cause slow reflexes and inaccurate coordination. There any many methods like autogenic training or feldenkrais to help you.

    2. Learn to relax your brain, mind and spirit. Intense thoughts can change our perception of reality. Restlessness clouds perception.

    3. Keep yourself more busy with your senses: listening and touching. You can hear: size, material, distances etc. Search and study information by reading, for example: John Hull, Daniel Kish or Evelyn Glennies book. Check it out online. The more complete your world ‘image’ the better your perception and decisions.

    4. ‘Resonance catastrophe’ is a central principle of a strong sound. Instrumentally or vocally. Get involved in this physical phenomenon!

    5. Our brain is searching for linguistic sounds. It is a question of survival. You have to know whether you are surrounded by “friends” or “enemies”. Attempt to organize music in syllables and words. Accept the basic structures of your brain! Beethoven did this. Working out motives as simple as possible. And all songs worldwide are organized by lyrics.

    Try to play “songs without words” (“Lieder ohne Worte”). It is a natural principle and makes music stronger. And makes your playing stronger and gives you spiritual strength. Learn from nature, learn from your own nature. For a new balance of will and nature!

    (Written by Gert Zimanowski supported by Aidan Black)

  2. I do agree that education in schools is important. But is it step 1? The priority should be answering the Big Question? Why is the average Joe or Jane not more concerned about this issue? I am just starting my education in the field of psychology. (There is a lot of knowledge on the web but I actually have a book.) One thing I learned is that people are “loss averse” on a subconscious level. What it means is that they will fight harder to keep something than they will to gain a thing. All we need to do is identify what the common person is losing right now for which they will fight to keep. For me it is a sense of belonging.

    I swear I used to have friends I really enjoyed. But it is getting harder and harder to like people any more. As I sit here reflecting on this dilemma, all that comes to mind is thin skin. People judge each other very harshly and cut ties without so much as an explanation. It is almost as if our higher standard of living has enabled us to believe we are happier alone. There is no longer a “need” to maintain relationships with friends, co-workers or even siblings and parents. This is not human behaviour. We do need each other. That is what is at stake. Not nature. Us. We are hardly recognizable from ancestors born before WW2. I think people will work to hold on to what is left of their humanity. On some level, they are just waiting for an invitation.

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