So far we have had about 0.8C of warming since pre-industrial times, and this has brought us phenomenal droughts – as in the US this year – raging fires, as in Russia in 2010, torrential rain – as in the UK this year – heat records being broken in any number of places, and extreme weather becoming increasingly common around the world. We have been warned by the UN that we will have a major food crisis on our hands next year – partly as a result of the drought in the US – if there is anything less than a bumper harvest to make up for the shortfall. There are innumerable extreme weather events that could be added to the one or two I’ve mentioned above. The last decade was the hottest on record, and we’ve had a record ice melt in the Arctic this year. Calamities are coming thicker and faster as each year passes. The Met Office’s Hadley Centre – one of the top two or three climate research centres in the world – published this amazing diagram a while back about where we are heading:
Note that the scenario that pushes us to an increase of a mind-boggling 5-7C is simply business as usual (BAU). Even if we make immediate (i.e. 2 years ago!) huge cuts of 47% in our CO2 emissions we still get a 2C+ increase in temperature, which is well beyond what top climate scientists such as James Hansen are saying is safe (1.5C). Figures such as these are being proclaimed by just about everyone doing research on climate change. Is this something we should be paying attention to?
Let me think…I’ve got two daughters, aged 9 and 10, who are my raison d’etre. In the course of their lifetime they are almost certainly going to experience hotter and hotter and hotter weather for prolonged periods of time. There will be extreme droughts that may well turn important food growing areas into deserts – as has been predicted for parts of the US – so there will be serious food shortages. They may even experience a famine, as it is not known exactly which parts of the world will suffer the most. However, everywhere will suffer either directly or indirectly. There will likewise be major flooding caused by torrential rains which will kill many people – my children may be among them. There will be huge numbers of people migrating away from the disaster areas and putting enormous pressure upon the areas they move into, no doubt giving rise to conflicts and great misery. There will be massive social unrest and probably a dog-eats-dog situation where people are fighting for a secure foothold in a disintegrating society – anything that enables them to survive.
Consequently, I feel that, yes, I should be a little concerned about the future prospects of my children and all of their generation. Indeed, being a teacher I feel that maybe the education system should be teaching this generation about what is in store for them if we carry on with BAU. “Oh, but you mustn’t frighten the poor dears” I hear someone say. “You’re the worst kind of scaremonger. You should be ashamed of yourself!” Scaremongering is a pejorative term that carries with it the implication that you are wrong. The scenario I’ve painted above is simply culled from the many writings of top climate scientists who say that this is the kind of future we are preparing for our children unless we drastically change the way we live. This is not scaremongering, but it is damned scary and the shame should be felt by those who refuse to contemplate such a future and consequently refuse to engage in the life-changing activities that can help us keep global warming down to a bearable level, assuming (and we must assume) that it’s still possible to do that. Without facing up to the full enormity of what we are doing to the planet means that we will fall far short of the heroic endeavours that are needed to pull ourselves out of the planetary train wreck that we are heading into.
So what exactly are we doing in our schools? From my own experience, and from what I’ve heard from friends who are teachers, it’s obvious that there is no attempt to give a clear account of what we are doing to the planet and what the likely consequences of that are, according to the best science. There is also, therefore, no attempt to understand how we got into this situation, because there is no acknowledgment that there is a ‘situation’. Were we to do that we would have to examine the role of capitalism and our obsession with economic growth; we would have to look at how fossil fuels have been the driving force behind the development of consumer cultures; and how this has produced the CO2 emissions which have caused climate change; and we’d have to recognise that ditching fossil fuels is the only solution open to us. That, of course, would be anathema to the powers that be, as fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our economy. Without fossil fuels we will have an awful lot of rich and powerful businesses and individuals losing an awful lot of money. So we have no guidance whatsoever from the ‘authorities’ about instituting such an education. We ignore global warming, and instead we turn up the heat more and more (excuse the pun) on the need to get good exam results and to get into a university somehow or other because life is completely worthless without a university education, isn’t it? And we give our students piles of work to do absorbing all manner of trivial facts which 99% of them will never need to know outside school, but we teach them nothing about the facts that are going to directly affect their lives and possible survival. Need it be said that we teach them nothing about how to think, nor how to differentiate between good and bad information even though they are exposed to masses of information through the Internet? We are training them to be obedient consumers of information which is given to them by those with superior knowledge, and which is not to be questioned. This makes for good little workers who will do their jobs skillfully and according to instructions, but who will not question the instructions nor will they be able to think creatively or critically about what they are doing. Very convenient for the business and political communities in maintaining the status quo: very bad for the planet and the survival of the human race.
There are many good things that are being done to combat the problems we face, but I’ll look at some of those in another post. Let me finish with a few lines from an article by Stoddard, Friman, Rieser and Andersson in Energy Bulletin. They are talking about tertiary education, but the same applies to secondary education for the most part:
In our experience, the bulk of today’s learning is based on regurgitation stemming from the assumption that there exists a single correct answer that can be memorized and recited. This narrow view dictates that knowledge is to be learned, not created, by students. But students today face immense uncertainty when it comes to their futures—their employment, livelihood, and even survival. These are fundamental challenges of sustainability, and it is therefore imperative for everyone, including students, to develop skills and acquire knowledge that can help them manage these challenges. Environmental educators Arjen Wals and Bob Jickling write: “Universities should develop in their students the competencies which will enable them to cope with uncertainty, poorly defined situations and conflicting or at least diverging norms, values, interests and reality constructions.”2 If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people—students—should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.
Educator David Orr argues that much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of inadequate and misdirected education.3 It alienates us from life in the name of human domination, causes students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are, and overemphasizes success and careers. This type of education separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical; it can deaden the sense of wonder for the created world. What if institutions of higher education actually contribute to the problems of unsustainable development more than they do to solutions for sustainable development?
We believe that higher education must undergo a transformational shift away from strict departmentalization and disciplinary boundaries; it must recognize the notion that relevant questions are more important than correct answers; and it must come to terms with the idea that students are not simply subordinate consumers of knowledge, but rather intellectual equals and producers of knowledge.