Breaking the Climate Hypocrisy of Education

Recently I joined a group of students on a Climate Strike protest in the city of Maastricht, The Netherlands. Maastricht came to prominence when the Maastricht Treaty was signed by European Community members to further European Integration.
Author: Michael Doyle

Recently I joined a group of students on a Climate Strike protest in the city of Maastricht, The Netherlands. Maastricht came to prominence when the Maastricht Treaty was signed by European Community members to further European Integration.

As much as the European Union is under threat by Nationalist sentiments, so too the Climate Strike protests expose the difficulty students face in their futures due to the impacts of climate change. The students around the world joining the Climate Strike protests are classified as ‘woke’ teens, meaning that they are aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues—especially issues of racial and social justice. It is the opposite of uninformed, or cynical, or super sure you know it all.

A common theme running through the conversations I had with students at the strike and at a follow on conference, was ‘what now’ – how do we personally engage with action for a desirable climate-stable future? How do they change the system that they are unhappy with?

When looking at the mass Climate Strike protests one can look back in history to attempt to establish a plausible future that these might lead to. The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval which profoundly changed the political course of modern history leading to the abolition of monarchies and a period of growth of republics and liberal democracies. The causes of the revolution are linked to political paralysis & hegemony, economic hardship and social antagonism between rising groupings.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the overthrow of the Apartheid Regime in South Africa was galvanized into mass action during the 1976 student protests against a political system of white over black dominance and an education system of Afrikaans over Mother Tongue. It would be a further 18 years before a first democratic government came to power representing the majority of the people.

More recently, the Arab Spring which began in 2010/11 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria started when young activists, disillusioned with their political systems, sparked mass protests and uprisings leading to regime changes.

In a statement that crosses national and historical times, Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Institute in Doha, summed up the Egyptian sentiments at the time:  “The revolution had been building up for decades in Egypt. I think there was a loss of faith in working within the system, and that’s when people began to think more and more about civil disobedience, mass protests [and] going out into the streets. When your political process fails you, there’s really only one option left.”

All three revolutions followed protracted difficulties in time and space, including a French Dictatorship, ongoing economic hardship fueled by nepotism and hardship in South Africa, and ongoing civil strife and wars in the middle east due to clashing political and religious ideologies. The difficulty all three revolutions faced was changing the system in which they operated.

The latest IPCC Report requires an urgent action program addressing Climate Change by 2030. The ongoing movement of youth Climate Strikes spurred on by the young activist, Greta Thunberg, has contributed to the growing protest against the lack of action by governments. This is a two-sided coin. For example, in France where more than 70,000 students went on strike against inaction, at the same time the ‘yellow vest’ movement is protesting over the environmental fuel tax that the government wants to levy. On the other side of the Atlantic, sits a president, who adds to the confusion, by withdrawing one of the biggest carbon emitters from international agreements on climate action, due to vested interests within his own beliefs and government.

What do these examples point to in the dialogue on Climate Change? First and foremost they highlight the opposing forces at play in addressing climate change. Secondly, they highlight that, despite the urgency for action, changes to a system take time. Thirdly, all of the quoted examples are regional, whereas climate change is global, making the call for change even more complex. Finally, all of the examples in which the system changed were due to political and economic disillusionment and not environmental. Including the current Climate Strikes by students, systemic change was/is demanded by society to ensure a better future for the world and its citizens. How this systemic change can be brought about so that our future is secure in the hands of tomorrow’s leaders, who will need to be resilient and insightful, is a change that is required within our education system.

In addressing the need for systemic change on a Global level, the education system needs changing on several fronts.

  1. Education should not be seen as ‘school and/or university’ only. Education should be seen as lifelong learning. Climate Strikes, while student driven, also highlighted the absence of parents, teachers, businessmen, government employees, etc. Climate Change does not discriminate between different stakeholders. If the missing stakeholders were carrying on business as usual, then the education system is failing and this shortfall needs urgent addressing.
  2. Education is still operating in silos with sustainability change makers still tinkering on the edges of systemic change. The education system needs to move rapidly from its industrial revolution methods to a modernized environmentally and sustainability-focused one.
  3. As IQ moved towards the need for EQ, so too do both IQ and EQ need to move towards SI – Sustainability Intelligence. This is what needs to underpin our education system from primary to lifelong learning.

While the current system remains rooted in its silo’s, it confines graduates leaving primary and tertiary education to the ‘business as usual’ realm. If cross-curricular subjects such as complexity and systems thinking, sustainability and whole earth mindset, and critical thinking skills from a micro to global level aren’t urgently embedded in an education system, the environmental system faces collapse. Without our current and future leaders having this mindset and skills, the system will perpetuate itself. Whereas previous revolutions were initially regional with time that led to eventual long term systemic change, the current challenge of climate change is not afforded the same luxury.

The dangerous possible hypocrisy of actions such as the Climate Strike is that students recognize the challenges and want the change, but continue to live their lives in the same system that is existing but most affected by inaction. If teachers, parents, business leaders and governments don’t remove the constraints in the system and enable action to take place – and rapidly – then what future VUCA world do our children face. One which is Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous, much the same as the French Revolution, liberation struggles such as South Africa, and the Arab Spring experienced.

The term ‘woke’ gives hope that our future generations are aware and attentive to the dangers of a VUCA world. Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor of Green Buzz, was recently quoted: “The persistence of youth — like the drip, drip, drip of water on a rock — has been shown over history to wear down even the toughest barriers, not the least of which can be the intransigence, negligence or timidity of their elders. Suddenly, a woke teen (Greta Thunberg) has sparked a revolution, or at least shamed grown-ups to act. It’s time for our leaders to step up and put in place the enabling factors for our youth to grow up in a sustainable world.

Just as Descartes was credited to have sparked the Age of Enlightenment with his quote: “I think, therefore I am” our student thought leaders “have thought, therefore they want”. As the Age of Enlightenment sparked the French Revolution, perhaps our Climate Strike students have sparked the systemic change we so need.