In a meeting about climate change last July, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that humanity must choose between “collective suicide or collective action.”
Education has long been understood as a key means of enabling “collective action”, yet there are also competing perspectives about what responsible education might look like in the face of our current climate and nature emergency (CNE). Whereas previously many educators understood their primary responsibility as awareness-raising, increasingly our focus is on preparing young people to navigate a warming world.
In response to proliferating extreme weather events like wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, and floods across the globe, as well as related growth in climate anxiety, policymakers and researchers from different disciplines have called for the renewal of hope in kindergarten to Grade 12 and postsecondary education. In particular, many suggest we should focus on solutions in order to counter the hopelessness of “climate doomism,” or the fatalistic sense that it is too late to stop climate catastrophe.
While the sentiment is understandable, it also begs further examination.
The risks of reproducing colonial futures
Climate doomism is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been framed by critics as the mirror of climate denial in that both ultimately lead to a lack of climate action. Thus, doomism has been identified by communications researchers as one of four “climate delay” responses that lead to “deadlock or a sense that there are intractable obstacles to taking action.”
Yet there are also reasons to question an educational orientation focused on promoting action for the sake of action, and hope for the sake of hope. In its latest report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged what Indigenous scholars and activists have long known: colonialism is a key contributor to the climate crisis. Many suggest that if we are not careful, we may reproduce colonialism in our responses to the climate crises, as other well-meaning initiatives like Live Aid have done before.
Colonialism has innumerable harmful material impacts, but scholars point out that it also impacts our ways of imagining, hoping, and anticipating, often by way of colonial forms of education. Prevailing pedagogies treat hope as the image of a “better life” that one must first imagine and then take steps to achieve. However, if we try to imagine the future from where we currently stand, we will likely be limited by the harmful and unsustainable frames of reference that shape the present – the same frames that produced the CNE in the first place. In particular, we often disavow the costs that our desired futures hold on other people and the planet, thereby denying our social and ecological complicity in harm and our responsibilities.
Solutionism discourages engagement with complexity and complicity
There are also the risks posed by solutionism, or the desire for clear, simplistic and guaranteed solutions. Often what are offered in relation to the CNE are scientific and technical solutions (a phenomenon known as “technosolutionism”). But the drive for solutionism in any field can discourage engagement with the complexities, uncertainties and ambiguities that are inherent to “wicked problems” like climate change. This prevents us from changing the ways we relate to the environment, to other species and each other, which, according to many Indigenous analyses, is the root of the problem and a challenge that cannot be solved by western science or technology.
While the promises offered by projective hope and definitive solutions may be well-intended, when students are taught to expect that major challenges will be easily solvable and then they confront the true complexity of those challenges, they lose motivation and feel disempowered, disillusioned, overwhelmed and alienated. Ironically, this is precisely the outcome that many educators are trying to avoid by promising hope and solutions.
Offering false hope and guaranteed solutions to young people may ultimately be a form of escapism that deflects responsibility for the difficult work that needs to be done in the present on the part of both students and educators if we want a genuinely different and wiser future. What might this work of educating for responsibility entail, and how might it avoid the traps of both doomism and solutionism?
We suggest that students will need to be supported to develop the stamina, resilience and the intellectual and relational rigour that will be required in order to face complex challenges for which there are no simple, universal, or “feel good” solutions, but only partial, provisional, contextually-relevant possibilities for imperfect interventions that have to be continually reassessed and revised.
Both educators and our students will also need to develop enough honesty and humility to hold space for difficult, self-implicating conversations about: how we arrived at the current situation; how to identify, learn from and enact repair for past mistakes; and how to weave relationships that are grounded in trust, respect, reciprocity and accountability. Rather than place our hope in an idealized, imagined future, we might place our hope in the quality and integrity of repairing relationships in the present that will in turn enable us to collectively confront whatever wicked problems might come our way.
Vanessa Andreotti is the Canada Research Chair in race, inequalities and global change, holds the David Lam Chair in multicultural education, is the interim director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, as well as a professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and the incoming dean of the faculty of education at the University of Victoria. Sharon Stein is an assistant professor at the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia. Chief Ninawa Huni Kui is a hereditary chief and elected president of the Huni Kui People of Acre in the Amazon region in Brazil, and an international Indigenous scholar with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia.