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A vision for transforming education in the face of climate and ecological breakdown

Preparing students for their futures requires nothing short of transformative systemic change in all aspects of society

EnvironmentEducation

People from more than 160 countries participated in the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014. It was the largest climate demonstration in history. Photo by Heather Craig/Survival Media Agency/Flickr.

In the fall of 2021 I resigned from my tenured teaching position at a Québec college, in conscientious objection to business-as-usual education with a ‘green twist.’ I had taught Earth and climate science for nearly 15 years in the system, and had finally fully realized the implications of what the science has been telling me (and them) all along: that these young people in my classroom didn’t stand a chance at a livable future unless the adults in their lives stepped up. I have since been trying to educate ‘the adults in the room’ about our climate and ecological crises, but unsurprisingly, not many want to know the details. So when I heard that my former college was hiring a new director general, I decided to apply for the position. The following is a slightly modified version of my cover letter.


Director General John Abbott College Cover letter, February 16, 2024

My vision for this CEGEP is guided by one question: What do students need from higher education as a young human on this planet at this extraordinary time? If we base the answer to that question in scientific consensus, preparing students for their futures requires nothing short of “transformative systemic change in all aspects of society” (IPCC 2018). To put it bluntly, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson states: “There are now no non-radical futures.” If we, as adults and educators in young people’s lives are to meet their needs, we must embrace and build radical systemic change, collective action, and emotional support into higher education.

I propose three initiatives to begin this scientifically necessary transformation: 1) Mandatory climate literacy training for all employees, including the science behind the climate, ecological, and allied emergencies and what actions will meaningfully address them, with specialist psychological support and training; 2) A re-structuring of college governance to mirror the kinds of societal-level systemic change that needs to happen in order to address our multiple overlapping existential threats, such as participatory democracy and citizen’s assemblies that enable direct teacher and student involvement in all decision-making; 3) A reorganization of the curriculum to centre a deep understanding of the Earth and ecological systems that allows us to live on this planet, how the industrial activity of a very small number of privileged humans has caused the boundaries of those systems to be spectacularly breached for all, and how our global economic/political system that extracts, subjugates, transacts, and accumulates by design is the common cause of our present climate-ecological crisis and our profound economic-racial-gender-social inequalities. Additionally, courses, departments and programs that train students to explicitly contribute to growth-oriented capitalism and the violence that sustains it will be eliminated, such as mainstream economics, marketing, and police tech, to be replaced by courses and programs in collective political action, change-making, and building communities of mutual aid.

More than just double-peer-reviewed physical science consensus supports these changes. Students are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety about their futures. Young people need the adults in their lives to meet them with honesty, openness, and courage in regard to the defining challenge of our time: the rapid and preventable breakdown of Earth’s climate and ecological systems. This is the message that I’ve heard from students through the more than 15 years that I’ve taught them about Earth systems and climate change. In my experience, what young people fundamentally need for their well-being is a framework of climate-literate support from all of the adults in their lives, and that especially includes their teachers. The message needs to be consistent and integrated across the curriculum and the college experience. Teaching students piecemeal about existential threats that they did not cause and that they will be most affected by, while absolving adults of the same education amounts to institutional gaslighting of the very people we are meant to serve, while we model the structures that have caused these crises, and prepare students for a future that will not exist.

This conclusion is supported by large-scale data from several recent studies looking into “eco-anxiety” in young people that showed a majority of them (59 percent) were very or extremely worried about climate change, and 84 percent were at least moderately worried about it. Perhaps more telling is the source of young people’s eco-anxiety. A study in the Lancet found that climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in young people in countries across the world and impact their daily functioning. “Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed … and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults,” the study reported, adding, “Climate change and government inaction are chronic stressors that could have considerable, long-lasting, and incremental negative implications for the mental health of children and young people.”

The study underscores that the perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress and concludes that “The failure of governments to adequately address climate change and the impact on younger generations potentially constitutes moral injury.”

In a Canadian survey, young people rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. More than three-quarters of young people reported that they believed that people have failed to take care of the planet. According to the authors, “The data show that young Canadians need a diversity of coping supports and believe the formal education system should be doing more to support them.”

The implications of these studies are profound, and should inform our decisions about how to transform higher education to meet the needs of our students. We cannot address young people’s distress about their futures if we have an educational system that is operating in the mold that cast it over 50 years ago. The world was completely different then. If we had transitioned away from fossil fuels and toward a steady-state economy and a private-sufficiency-public-luxury society, then we wouldn’t be facing multiple existential threats now. We wouldn’t be leaving the prospect of a planet unfit for human habitation to the young people we teach every day, explicitly or implicitly, that everything will be fine if they just work hard and get an A+ on their calculus exam, or get into a good university program, or plant some trees on campus or reduce their personal carbon footprint.

We need to be honest with ourselves and them about the challenges that they will face in the future that we are bequeathing to them, and to talk about it openly. Skirting the issue—siloing the climate crisis, relegating it to optional learning by young people only, or plastering it with incremental ‘green’ band-aides—is essentially lying by omission and shirking our responsibilities as adults in their lives who are supposed to prepare them for their future. We need to be brave during this extraordinary time, and vulnerable enough to learn, so that we can be the guides and advocates that our students need us to be.

This transformative, radical rebuilding of education begins with the institution of higher education acknowledging its own part in the polycrisis, teaching about how the privileged swath of humanity got us into it, and educating for how to live within a just planetary operating space. This is how we—as adults who have benefited from the present fundamentally unequal and destructive system—help students face their future and thrive in it. This is the job of higher education.

As longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote:

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.


Dr. Heather Short is a climate literacy educator. She holds a PhD in earth sciences and has been teaching college and university students for 25 years.

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