Sustainable education? The case for a 'radical new curriculum'

clock • 4 min read

Alison Green argues that an education system that truly supports SDG4 needs to be fundamentally reformed to help students understand the systems that are threatening planetary ecosystems

What is education for? Having worked in education for many years, as a cognitive psychologist researching human learning and skill acquisition and then moving into a variety of academic management roles, most recently that of Pro Vice-Chancellor at Arden University, this question has been integral to my career. In considering this question once again fairly recently, in the light of the increasingly urgent warnings about climate change, I decided that whatever else education may be doing, it is not preparing our young people for the world that they will inherit from us. I resigned from my post and exchanged academia for activism. Not once since have I regretted that decision.

A fundamental problem for education, and certainly for higher education, is that its purpose has come to focus on delivering the skills and knowledge that employers need. The current neoclassical economic model is centred on supply and demand, and arguably the relentless pursuit of growth. Indeed, universities are not immune to these forces, and the shift towards a 'consumer model' of the student further entrenches the problem, students offered a diet of courses that serve the needs of the economy, and by virtue of their popularity, assure the financial sustainability of the institutions. Unprofitable courses are increasingly being axed by universities under pressure to perform and to meet a bewildering array of government targets.

In her ground-breaking work Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth challenges convention and proposes that we change the conversation to one centred on humanity's objectives rather than growth economics. When the Club of Rome commissioned Limits to Growth back in 1972, the writing really was on the wall. Yet growth has inexorably continued, to the point that we find ourselves now on the edge of the precipice, facing the prospect of a 'hot house planet' if crucial thresholds are breached and the pursuit of economic growth is not at least held in check, if not stalled or even reversed.

The infamous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of October 2018, now known as IPCC 1.5, should have been the ultimate call to arms. And for some, it was. October 2018 also saw the launch of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Frustrated by years of inaction, and sympathetic towards the voices of scientists that failed to be heeded long before the World Scientists second warning to humanity in 2017, Extinction Rebellion has become the fastest growing movement in history.

The manifesto is clear, and centres on three key demands, the first of which is that the truth is told about the current ecological crisis. A target of 2025 is mandated for the UK government to achieve net zero carbon emissions and reduce consumption and the third demand is for a national Citizens' Assembly to oversee changes. The demands are entirely consistent with the anticipated near-term future for the planet that has been depicted in many reports. For example, a 2018 paper on the Governance of Economic Transition makes for sobering reading. And so if we are to rapidly achieve a transition to a state where we both consume and produce much less, while lightening the burden on ecosystems, what might that mean for the future? Four key areas are energy, transport, food and housing, and the transformations required across each area will radically impact the ways in which we all live.

In totality, the weight of evidence overwhelmingly points to the significant risk or even inevitability of societal collapse, as Jem Bendell has argued. The precautionary principle suggests that in the face of such a significant threat, we should not wait to be certain of that threat, but rather act now to prevent further environmental degradation.

And this means that we re-examine not just our education systems, but all of our systems, processes, structures, beliefs and values. Greta Thunberg, who has inspired many, many thousands of children, and adults, represents the dilemma well. The School Climate Strikes have inspired people of all ages and backgrounds. Both young and old alike have become aware that the earth is in crisis and that the young will inherit a debt that has been foisted upon them. I have seen this at first hand at Extinction Rebellion actions, and in writing a press letter in support of the School Climate Strikes that was signed by over two hundred academics.

Our current education system scarcely provides young people with the knowledge and constructs needed to make sense of that future, far less those they will need to engage with and adapt to it. First and foremost, young people will need to understand the delicate state of the planetary ecosystems, and the range of possibilities for the future. A radical new curriculum will seek to enable and to liberate young minds, rather than push them towards competition and conformity. Children will learn that they are a part of, rather than apart from, all other life and systems on the planet. Growth economics will give way to systems grounded in the reality of planetary ecosystems, finite resources and the importance of equilibrium and balance. They will have to, if humanity is to survive.

Alison Green is National Director (UK) of Scientists Warning

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