David W. Hicks

Teaching for a Better World: Learning for sustainability

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In this century we are faced by a number of major global changes that will affect every aspect of society. Do we continue in our current unsustainable ways or do we work together to create a more sustainable future? For better or worse we find ourselves facing a 'long transition'. A former UK Government chief scientific adviser, for example, believes that several upheavals may all come to a head around 2030. The result could be a 'perfect storm' of energy shortages, water scarcity and food shortages that could, in turn, lead to public unrest, cross-border conflicts and major migrations (The Guardian, 18 March 2009). There are three interrelated issues – climate change, energy use and the limits to growth – which students and teachers need to become familiar with in order to develop the skills needed to facilitate such a local/global transition. This needs to be one of the central tasks of education in the 21st century. See ‘Living with climate change’ [pdf23]. and ‘The long transition’ [pdf13].

Global warming

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is caused by man-made global warming, the result of the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) and the use of their by-products in every aspect of modern life. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

Energy issues

This refers to the major current debates that have arisen about the ways in which we both create and use energy in society today. Since the Industrial Revolution, some two-hundred years ago, we have relied almost totally on fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – for our transport, heating and many other useful by-products such as pesticides, fertilisers and plastics. In the 80s it was confirmed the global climate was heating up as a result of greenhouse gases arising from burning such fuels. Thus high-carbon fossil fuel sources of energy are now seen as highly dangerous to both humans and the natural environment.

Limits to growth

Contrary to popular opinion economies cannot grow indefinitely due to the finite nature of the earth and its resources. Growth for growth's sake has led to ever increasing consumerism which is damaging the biosphere (species, habitats, soils, rivers, oceans, the atmosphere) and contributing to global heating. Rich world countries live wastefully and disregard the planet's ecological limits.

These three global issues are inextricably linked and will not suddenly disappear. Whilst their detailed impact may not be known the broad parameters are increasingly clear. Changing climate, energy issues and the limits to growth will affect all our communities wherever they are and ensure a future very different from today. For an overview of these issues see: Heinberg, R. (2011) The End of Growth: Adopting to our new economic reality, Clairview Books; Hopkins, R. (2011) The Transition Companion, Green Books; the Transition Network, available at: www.transitionnetwork.org.

In entering into this ‘long transition’, which has already begun and will change our lives forever, education has a crucial and exciting role to play [pdf13]. You can begin to find out more about how sustainable schools, futures education and global education can contribute to this in the pages of this website. See also Educating for Hope in Troubled Times [Publications].

Climate change and ideology

There are many reasons why people argue about climate change and one of these is because it raises all sorts of big questions – How serious is it really? What can we do about it? Who can we trust? What does the future hold? Like any other issue the way people approach climate change will depend on their existing beliefs and values, in other words the collective ideology that seems to make best sense of the world to them. Three differing worldviews or ideologies are outlined on this website – neoliberal, welfare state and green. It shows how each of these ‘explains’ life and society in a different way. No one hands us a form when we arrive, setting out the differences between these and other ideologies, with a tick box for us to make a choice, they are the ideas about life and society that we simply take as ‘normal’. We unconsciously pick up varying values and beliefs from our parents, families, friends, school, the media, politicians and others. What we take in and accept, often subconsciously, we then believe to be ‘the world as it really is’, ‘what most sensible people think’, or even the ‘truth’.

These three ideologies, discussed elsewhere in relation to education, also directly affect how one views the world and issues such as climate change. Check out the pages on Education &Ideology to see how this works and the key differences between them. In relation to climate change some of the main differences of belief are summarised below.

Neoliberal ideology

Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state should not interfere with people’s lives; the rights of the individual subsume all others; the competitive ethic drives all spheres of life; a business model is the measure of all things; privatisation of goods and services is the key to everything; the free market acts as a guiding ‘hand’ which brings out the best in society. In this view government should give minimal guidance or leadership on climate change, minimal support for low-carbon ventures such as renewable energy, and put the support of big business before social and environmental concerns. Neoliberalism is the dominant economic and political ideology in the west today. Under this view responses to climate change are often tokenistic and therefore things are likely to get worse.

Welfare state ideology

Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state has a significant part to play in the well-being of society, particularly in relation to the disadvantaged; it is important for individuals to recognise their responsibility to society; the cooperative ethic should be central in all spheres of life; the key goal is equal opportunities for all; the redistribution of resources is needed in order to create a fairer society. In this view government gives significant guidance and leadership on climate change, maximum support for a low-carbon economy, and encourages business to accept its social and environmental responsibilities. From the 1980s onwards welfare state ideology in the UK has been attacked and marginalised by neoliberals and the political right. Under this view, however, climate change adaptation and mitigation could begin to be more effective.

Green ideology

Amongst the key elements of this worldview are that the state should encourage all of its citizens to live their lives more sustainably; the creation of vibrant and resilient communities are central to this; humans and nature are inextricably interrelated; ecological responsibility is the goal in all things; one needs to live on enough rather than always wanting more; society should acknowledge the rights of future generations. In this view all sectors of society work together to help create a more just and sustainable economy, supporting business and industry in creating a low-carbon economy, and working towards a more sustainable future. At present, whilst no government fully endorses this worldview, millions of citizens across the globe are working from the bottom up to achieve such an end. Under this view society could begin to live sustainably in a climate changed world.

If you have not already done so you can gain a better understanding of these three competing ideologies and their impact on climate change, society and education here.

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