David W. Hicks

Teaching for a Better World: Learning for sustainability

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In the 21st century we are faced with a number of global issues that will affect every aspect of our societies. Do we continue in our current unsustainable ways or do we work together to create a more sustainable future? In particular, we face the major transition that has already begun, from a high to a low-carbon future. One UK Government chief scientific adviser, for example, argued 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 here – global warming, energy use and the limits to growth – which students and teachers need to become familiar with in order to develop the skills they and society require to facilitate such a local/global transition. This has to be one of the central tasks of education in the 21st century. See, for example, A Climate Change Companion [Available at Amazon] 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 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 1980s it was confirmed that 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 helped create ongoing 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 are affecting all our communities wherever they are and already ensure a future very different from today. On positive ways ahead see: the Transition Network and Lerch, D. (ed) (2017) The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval, Island Press: Washington DC. 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 and futures thinking can contribute to this in the pages of this website. See also Educating for Hope in Troubled Times [view flyer].

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’. The pages on Education and Ideology summarise 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 Ideology to see how this can work 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 are the most important of all; the competitive ethic should drive 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 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 increasingly getting 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; a cooperative ethic should be central in all spheres of life; the key goal is equal opportunities for all; the redistribution of resources is needed to create a fairer society. In this view government should give significant guidance and leadership on climate change, maximum support for a low-carbon economy, and encourage 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 much 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 should 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 would be better able 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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