“I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.”Walt Whitman, A Song of the Rolling Earth
“Humanity is in the hot seat. For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, it is a cruel summer. For the entire planet, it is a disaster. And for scientists, it is unequivocal – humans are to blame…Climate change is here, it is terrifying, and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Even five years ago, I never envisioned that each September when I returned to write articles after a summer break I would need to give a recap of all the horrible planetary events of the summer that reflected the increasing velocity and ferocity of climate warming. Last July is predicted to have been the warmest month ever recorded, even according to scientific records of the last 120,000 years obtained through ice cores.
Sadly, on August 23 I read an article by Bob Weber of the Canadian Press, in which he writes that recent research has shown that it is seven times more likely that the fires we’ve had in Québec this summer, intensified by climate warming, will occur again in the future. You can read the study Weber references at https://tinyurl.com/analysis-of-Quebec-fires
How can an ever-expanding and committed group of people find the inspiration to overturn a century of capitalist colonialism and greed that commits human society to its own destruction? A recent article in the Guardian, “The world is burning. Who can convince the comfortable classes of the radical sacrifices needed?” told of the life of Simone Weil, the philosopher and WWII resistance fighter. Weil gave up all her creature comforts so that she could resist the invasion of France by the Nazis. [tinyurl.com/Climate-action-and-Simone-Weil]
Vibrant portraits of people who were and people who are passionate in their determination to make significant changes in order to enact visions that are successful must be shared. I think of people such as Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, Albert Schweitzer, Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg, as well as the students who demonstrated in a Montana courtroom that fossil fuels are putting the future in jeopardy—and won their case. Indeed, for centuries inspired stories have pointed the way to fundamental and beneficial life-affirming actions. The words of the poet Walt Whitman have been enormously influential in bringing us closer to Nature as well as singing the virtues of democracy.
And once in a while governments take the plunge and protect their citizens. The California state legislature recently affirmed its support, urging the U.S. government to join a worldwide effort to develop “a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty as an international mechanism to manage a global transition away from coal, oil, and gas.” Extinction Rebellion, 350.org and other activist organizations such as Just Stop Oil (two of whose courageous activists are currently in jail in the UK serving draconian sentences of up to three years for peacefully drawing attention to the climate emergency, one of them facing subsequent callous deportation away from his young family) have an important role to play in the quest to stop an unravelling of the planet’s ecosystems.
It can never solely be isolated individuals who move us forward and inspire us. What led this August to the ban on the drilling of oil in one of the world’s greatest biodiversity locations, Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, was an ever-growing educated population. Democracy can bring new victories to save our capacity to change our direction from a fossil fuel dead-end future to one that is respectful of future generations’ right to life. This vote is important, not only for Ecuador and for the Indigenous peoples in the Yasuní, who now have hope of living in peace. It is also a potential model for stopping through democratic means the expansion of fossil fuels.
Encouragement needs to be given to schools for all different age groups that mainstream and foster climate/biodiversity knowledge and even acknowledge the power and relevance of civil disobedience during these times of spiralling ecological and societal crises. However, the ones that latch on to the same old planet-wrecking brands, which are then announced with fanfare, must be enlightened and persuaded to change course. Curriculums must be overhauled and must reflect urgently on the decaying world order if students are to have any chance of truly flourishing. Schools from primary to university can lead the way to ecological stewardship.
There is a full-scale crisis unfolding, and universities need to step up by recognizing that their curriculums must bear witness to this undisputed fact. Universities are failing miserably to educate their wider spectrum of students to what lies in wait for them if they don’t have the educational skills, and, just as importantly, the passionate mindset to turn this accelerating crisis, which Joanna Macy has called “the Great Unraveling,” into “the Great Turning.” [tinyurl.com/film-joanna-macy]
Many universities will say that it isn’t their role to help students become activists. I firmly disagree. We live in uncharted and dangerous times. We all need to take a stand, and universities must change if they are to be relevant. As scientists have belatedly learned, it’s not just the peer-reviewed science that moves people to accept or reject climate warming. Issues of climate/biodiversity justice, governance, eco-anxiety all need to be spoken of.
It’s an age-old question that citizens, educators and governments—as well as, more insidiously, corporations—have joined the chorus to ask: what the goals are that educational groups such as universities should strive for. Groups used to embrace what was called a ‘liberal arts’ approach, whereby an university degree did not mean that you graduated with just a major course or narrow field of study, but rather that your diploma told the world that you were well versed in any number of topics; that you weren’t a single-topic, laser-focused individual, but rather you had a wide spectrum of interests that would enable you to be a more creative and compassionate person who engaged empathically with the world. That was the general notion, but what has become of that notion? If the intention of the liberal arts model is for a student to be a more well-rounded individual and hence a more engaged citizen, is it not also the role of the university and secondary education to inculcate an understanding of the most pressing issues of the day? And I’m not only speaking of science courses.
After two decades of engaging myself fully in this crisis, I can’t help but maintain that universities are abandoning their students in favour of the siloed learning that has gained favour in the last 30 years. I was therefore dismayed to learn that a course at one university named “Ecological Crisis and the Struggle for Environmental justice,” which was absurdly offered every two years, will not be taught this autumn; it was meant for a broad spectrum of students and was not focused on the science, but on philosophy and the arts. Such a class needs to be offered constantly, not cut from the curriculum!
Mandatory classes that focus on broad current ecological concerns are more frequently praised as being gateways to a better understanding of where society is and what we can do about the present polycrisis. Funnelling students into specialty majors without a wider spectrum of ideas both cultural and academic is the antithesis of a liberal arts education. Waldorf schools, by contrast, offer their young students and their students’ families a Nature-oriented programme for their long-term development and self-improvement. Is this where education must start? There has never been a lack of educational strategies: Rousseau, John Dewey and Plato all wrote passionately about education.
The world’s fast-moving crises need to be the focal point for educational activism. Who would care whether your specialty would make you economically better off, if you hadn’t thought about and acted upon the crises that would befall you in the near or far term? University needs to be an awaking process and not primarily a trade school in computer science—or music, for that matter.
It has come as a welcome—and, for some, mind-blowing—surprise to learn that France’s premier engineering school, École Polytechnique, has decided to make sure that all its courses have ecological foundations: tinyurl.com/curriculum-changes
And now students are writing manifestos demanding change: manifeste.pour-un-reveil-ecologique.org/en
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declares: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” If we are to continue to believe that our schools are one of the pathways to a liveable future, there is no time to dally.