The Climate Crisis and the Educational Imperative - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Introduction:

If the role of education is to dispel ignorance and equip societies with the skills and knowledge to better relate to the world, then, in the case of the climate crisis educators have a great deal of work to do.

Despite the compelling evidence provided by scientists[i] many people remain unaware of the perils that we face. Others, though cognizant, feel no responsibility to respond, and still others appear to believe that there are ways to remain unaffected. Our collective response does not match the urgency of the problem.

Education and the Climate Crisis

Education is critical in moving the response to the climate crisis forward. A more educated public and a better educated cadre of leaders and managers can affect the transition to a sustainable society more rapidly.

An education centre that focuses entirely on the climate crisis, social justice and economic resilience complements the work of existing organizations and education programs. This centre is a hub of dialogue, applied research and intellectual support for green technology businesses and environmental organizations. It emphasizes accessible and relevant learning opportunities specifically geared to the people who will be doing the work of transforming the society. A mutually reinforcing relationship of theory and practice, the engagement of practitioners in instruction and the importance of practice-informed knowledge are integral to this model.

Income disparity, response lags and social media based disinformation are examples of issues that currently limit the efficacy of society’s response to the climate crisis. Understanding these issues can equip us to respond more effectively.

Income Disparity

Generally speaking, the wealthier the nation the higher the level of its carbon emissions.[iii]This also holds true in relation to individual wealth with the highest decile using a disproportionate amount of the society’s energy resources. Rising income inequality since the 1980s has exacerbated this trend.

Income inequality limits the financial resources of the society available to combat global warming, concentrates political influence in the hands of individuals who have the most to lose by changes in how the economy operates and puts pressure on the middle class and working people of the society in the form of wage stagnation and onerous taxes.

in Capital and Ideology[iv] Thomas Piketty tells a revealing story about the rising tide of income inequality worldwide. This text also makes the pervasiveness of colonialism and slavery in western economic development very clear exposing some of the roots of the racism we continue to experience to this day.

Other dynamics of note in the story of increasing income disparity are the leakage of otherwise taxable income and wealth out of western economies of up to 10% of GDP using a variety of instruments and tax havens, virtually unregulated global movement of capital and the degradation of public capital by the privatization of public assets leading eventually to increases in public debt.  ‘Hypercapitalism’, as Piketty refers to it, is now reaching the stage at which it is being subsidized by governments via fiscal and monetary policy and taxation of the middle and lower income groups. The resulting social disequilibrium, according to Piketty, leaves developed nations susceptible to the identarian politics of leaders such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban.

Solutions to the injustice of income disparity and its relationship to the entropy that is limiting responding to the climate crisis need to be articulated and made more clearly known. Such solutions include progressive taxation of income, inheritance and wealth as  means of restoring balance. The illusion that free markets can adjudicate an effective distribution of society’s resources also needs to be dispelled. The antiquated assumption that resource based wealth creation can generate endless growth still influences a great deal of government decision-making and needs to be more effectively disputed. For example, subsidies to the oil and gas industry in Canada amount to $1.9 billion ($271 million annually) in the seven-year period from 2010 to 2016 according to Statistics Canada.

Lagging Response Times

Scientists the world over have repeatedly warned of the outcomes of climate change. Though we have experienced a foretaste of what is to come in extreme weather events such as the recent fires in California, governments tinker, a little bit of legislation here, a few regulations there, a declaration of a climate emergency one day and approval of a pipeline the next. Whether politicians, government officials, corporate executives, environmental activists or cashiers at Safeway, we know the handwriting is on the wall. We know that a major change in our social and economic worlds is in the cards…..but not yet. The ‘not yet’ and its expiry date are important questions.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us a microcosm of how ‘not yet’ works. By early January COVID-19 was in full swing in Wuhan, but it was far away. Scientists and government intelligence agencies rang the alarm, but society after society in the developed world hesitated when action could have saved lives and prevented more dire economic consequences:

Canada’s Chief Public Health official, Theresa Tam reassured Canadians that Covid-19 was ‘low risk’ on March 7, 2020.

On March 9, the day before Italy locked down, President Macron strolled the Champs Elysees with his wife touting the vibrancy of the French economy.

We had to wait, to see it, to taste it, to hear the sirens blare and witness loss of lives. And then we acted, some countries more boldly and definitively than others and with very different results.

We are deeply attached to set of values and an economic system that has conferred tremendous material benefits while, at the same time, making us increasingly insensitive to one another and to those less fortunate, less privileged and less endowed. We tell ourselves that our good fortune reflects our virtue, our cleverness and the fruit of our efforts. A culture of individualistic values expressed in hypercapitalism invites a trance like state of persistent self-interest, incessant activity and the avid pursuit of endless growth. Together our individualistic preoccupations and the hypercapitalism system reinforce our predilections to get more of what we like, push away what we don’t like and ignore the rest. The extent to which this trance is socially and economically induced is reflected in what happens when a catastrophe such as COVD-19 reaches a level that breaks the spell and dials down the economy. Suddenly, here we are. We find one another. Outbreaks of love and compassion occur everywhere. Musicians serenade their neighbourhoods from balconies and fathers play with their children in the park.

The task of education in relation to the climate crisis is to dispel our ignorance and self-centredness before the impacts of the climate crisis become irreversible, threaten the health and well-being of all living beings and compromise the environmental conditions that make life on earth possible. Some of the features of this form of education include:

  • Providing the social and emotional support that enables people to face rather than turn way from the scientific facts about global warming and the climate crisis
  • Offering an ethical framework that invites taking personal responsibility for responding to the climate crisis
  • Recognizing the interconnection of the climate crisis, social justice and economic resilience
  • Introducing solutions at individual, community, national and global levels
  • Developing partnerships, expanding networks and forming commons
  • Complementing learning about science and technology with learning about arts and culture
  • Cultivating skills and knowledge that enhance the public good

Deconstructing the Con

The conferral of reality status to images, messages and information because of the breadth of their circulation on the internet is limitless. This limitless power enables formidable manipulators such as Donald Trump to create illusions using well known propaganda techniques such as repetition, name calling and sloganeering. Evoking solidarity by exaggerating threats by identifiable minorities such as refugees from the impoverished countries of Central America is especially pernicious.

These illusions then materialize in the form of real time conversations, debates and interviews as if their alternative reality had a basis in fact. The Cruz/Hawley proposal to delay routine authentication of Electoral College votes while an electoral commission investigated claims of widespread fraudulence is an example of this process. When challenged based on the dismissal of these claims in numerous court cases including appeals to the conservative dominated Supreme Court their retort was that numerous Americans were convinced that the election was illegitimate.  During the Trump presidency a large number of these manufactured realities were inadvertently reinforced by the press by situating them within the context of the norms of political dialogue between opposing parties.  Above and beyond the threat to democracy, Trump and his affiliates have used these powers to minimize the risks of the pandemic, in the short term and the climate crisis, in the longer term.

There are at least three critical roles that education needs to play in bringing forth greater clarity and intelligence about this issue:

  1. Provide the public and ultimately, political leaders with viable policy ideas that regulate the internet without suppressing freedom of expression.
  2. Embed critical thinking at all levels of education.
  3. Offer conceptual frameworks that adjust media ethics so that they are more responsive to the realities of the digital age.

Many progressive journalists are acutely aware of the con and its dangers. The Poynter Project’s website frequently has articles addressing this issue. The Project has a program specifically designed to educate seniors about disinformation.[v]

Conversations in the Agora

The purpose of this section is to propose a style of learning that is appropriate to the transformation of society. It is a question of epistemological correctness – the fit of the learning process to the knowledge and skills to be mastered.

There is a pressing need for leaders, managers and policy makers to be imaginative and pragmatic, to be in touch with the arc of history and the findings of science while, at the same time, effective in responding to the issues of the day. This requires a a different version of teaching and learning than one in which knowledge is assumed to be fundamentally academic.

Learning as a part of preparing to engage in the work of social change is collaborative and performance focused. Successive opportunities to engage in practice must be the core of epistemologically correct education programs for social change. They must include the use of real time case studies, experiential exercises and simulations. Supervised internships follow coursework. Graduates  learn the practicebefore graduation.

In post-secondary education the concept of instruction by practitioners or scholar/ practitioners is known, but very much limited to professional schools in fields such as medicine and law and, in some instances, arts education. The concern is that the use of practitioners as instructors risks depriving students of up to date academic knowledge and research based findings. Though these are valid priorities in the context of educating academicians and researchers, they are at odds with how people learn practices such as social change, community development and policy development. They fail to fully address equipping graduates with the competencies, knowledge and ethical sensitivities to engage in professional practice and do not engender a feeling of membership in a community of practice.

The conventional view promotes practice distant instruction which leaves graduates in the position of having to begin to master the practice and join a community of practice after of graduation. New graduates have to be trained by those who employ their services. This approach underestimates the value of engaging pre-eminent practitioners in instruction and underappreciates their wide-ranging contributions to knowledge development. It risks depriving social change, community development and leadership of practice-informed knowledge and ironically, it impels a schism between practice and scholarly activity that, in the end, undermines the relevance and importance of scholarly activity. A reflection of this schism is an almost unilateral disregard of scholarly activity and publication by practitioners. Scholar/ practitioners can serve as bridge builders between the otherwise partitioned communities of the academy and practitioners.

The engagement of scholar/practitioners in post-secondary education enhances the relevance of instruction, adds a greater awareness of issues such as diversity and inclusiveness and contributes to the employability of graduates. Scholar/practitioners are members of a community of practice who have intellectual and research-attuned interests and want to create a context to share these interests with students and with one another.

The Role of the Arts and Humanities in the Educational Imperative[vi]

The climate crisis is primarily explained through the framework of science and within the technological language that is its lingua franca – carbon emissions, tipping points, temperature increases, climate pattern shifts, desertification, species extinction etc.. We receive information via quantitative data bytes: percentages, levels, deadlines, and probabilities and picture solutions such as the electrification of transportation, wind power, solar panels and a range of energy-efficient gadgets

As science maps the trajectory of climate change, and the news reflects the increasing peril we face globally , we sense that we are facing dark possibilities and an unknowable future. How does the human brain process such information? How will we experience a devastating increase in temperature? A paucity of rainfall? Fires and rising tide? How can we imagine a future whose trajectory is uncertain? As the story of climate change gets told again and again, we are invited to experience anxiety and dread about the future. Communication through numbers can be overwhelming, devastating in its implications and mind-numbing in its impartial facticity. Despite an extraordinary depth of scientific knowledge about the climate crisis and a proliferation of technologies to address it, a strong, sustained response to climate change is lacking.

In order to find the courage to evolve an impactful response to the climate crisis, science and technology must be partnered with arts and culture. In the poems and stories of our histories and traditions we find the ways in which human beings have faced existential challenges in the past. As we re-acquaint ourselves with these stories, we feel the resilience of spirit and witness the endless creativity with which we are collectively endowed:  our hearts are lifted and our imaginations brought to life. Novels such as American War by Omar El Akkad help us imagine what it might mean to experience the effects of climate change and how we might choose to respond. We hear the lyric verses of the Iliad and return home with Odysseus in the Odyssey. Images associated with these stories speak directly to our intuition, and enable us to tell a different story, a story that recognizes that we, too, have the creative potential and capability to transform our collective destiny. It is through the practice of storytelling that we can resist being desensitized by the uncertain future that we face.

As humans, we have a deep affinity for storytelling, and a deeply rooted capacity to reshape the narratives of our lives. An effective response to climate change begins with telling a different story, one that incorporates a perspective that is both historically broad, and socio-politically and geographically specific. Climate change events are social, historical, and cultural experiences as much as they are the subject of technological and scientific query – the global climate changes underway evoke a multitude of lived experiences all over the planet. It is through storytelling that we can make sense of these experiences and envision ways to respond with hope and determination.

Turning to GTEC’s story and its aim to become an educational institution focusing on the climate crisis: during the summer of 2020 while the pandemic was taking hold and after GTEC had cancelled its face-to-face community education programs, GTEC formed a Council for the Green New Economy. The Council was comprised of environmental experts such as B.C.’s Guy Dauncey, educators, economists and GTEC Board members. The Council was supported by a circle of subject matter experts in areas from retrofitting buildings to corporate social responsibility. The ensuing report called Rebuilding BC was well received by prominent environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Seth Klein and eventually resulted in meetings with members of the BC provincial government’s cabinet.

As Rebuilding BC circulated amongst the public, my friend and colleague, Michael Clague, President of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver reminded us of the importance of arts and culture in the reconstruction of society. This essay honours Michael’s concern.

A cadre of writers and artists, such as the poet Scott Lawrance and author and intellectual, Colin Sanders have contributed to GTEC via its online, free access publication called The GTEC Reader. In his essay on the work of Barry Lopez, Colin celebrates Lopez’ descriptions of the profound connection between human beings and their changing ecology. This essay highlights the implications of this interconnection across a range of topics from the impact of human activity on the environment to the injustices of colonization.[vii] Lopez introduces the reader to his experience of indigenous knowledge and the possibility that such knowledge offers a rich and alternative understanding of our intrinsic relations to the natural world. In this essay citing Lopez, Colin also points to the significance of critical thinking in education – the importance of questioning ideas, theories, policies and institutions. This is a view of education that is about more than preparing graduates for employment.

Scott’s essay in The Reader explores the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gary Snyder’s lifelong preoccupation with living in the world.[viii] Scott refers especially to Four Changesin which Snyder presents an analysis of our current conditions under four headings: population, pollution, consumption, and transformation. This manifesto is a clarion call for the radical transformation of a civilization that has radically overextended itself. In Four Changes, Snyder urges changes to the foundations of our society and our minds and offers a roadmap towards a new reality. Following Snyder, Scott proposes that the basic existential question is as much where am I, as it is who am I. In this view of education, poetry re-assumes its traditional role as the expression of human beings’ deepest aspirations and most powerful insights.

Suffice it to say, the humanities has an important voice in the GTEC story, a voice that needs to be given concrete expression in courses such as:

The Poetics of Climate Change
Literature and Ecology
History of Agriculture
Philosophy and the Natural World
Climate Change and Spirituality
Community Development, Activism and Social Change

In conclusion, a GTEC educational curriculum incorporating the humanities can provide an expanded historical, philosophical and poetic context in which climate change causes, solutions and alternatives can be explored and the impetus for social change enriched. [ix]

The GTEC Vision

GTEC is striving to create and operate a centre that is at the forefront of delivering educational programs that address the social and environmental challenges of our time. GTEC’s conviction is that accessible, relevant and highly focused education has a critical role to play in enhancing society’s response to the climate crisis.

GTEC Education programs are designed to accelerate society’s shift to a sustainable, just and resilient  economy by providing educational programs that deliver:

  • Up to date, practice informed knowledge and skills about specific domains of the response to the climate crisis
  • Enhanced qualifications that assist participants in obtaining meaningful employment in positions related to sustainability and the climate crisis
  • Broadened connections to senior practitioners in fields related to social and environmental sustainability
  • Access to an emerging commons of persons and organizations responding to the climate crisis

What distinguishes GTEC as an educational centre is the singularity of its focus on the climate crisis and related issues, innovative use of practitioner focused instruction, development of practice informed knowledge and emphasis on the community building role of education.

The GTEC educational centre houses the Climate Action Solutions Centre (CASC). With up to date, Artificial Intelligence driven computing systems CASC receives and catalogues information about climate crisis developments, solutions and initiatives 24 hr./day. A team of analysts summarizes this input in the form trend analyses and digestible summaries. Subject matter experts surround the team of analysts converting data and preliminary findings into applied research projects, more systematic analysis, usable curriculum material and policy proposals.

GTEC’s emergence from a group of concerned community leaders with extensive experience in education, community development and green technology enterprise contributes to its unique flavour and differentiates GTEC from programs that emerge in university settings. Both are critical for the future.

[i]There is wide agreement among scientists that a concerted and immediate response to the climate crisis is required. The world is currently on course to heat up to a disastrous 3.1 C . A Summary for Policy Makers of the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report asserts that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in how we engage with land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

[ii] Klein, S. (2020). A good war: Mobilizing Canada for the climate emergency. Toronto: ECW Press

[iii] Australia has an average per capita footprint of 17 tons, followed by the US at 16.2 tons, and Canada at 15.6 tons.

The global average in 2017 was 4.8 tons per person – https://ourworldindata.org/per-capita-co2

[iv]Picketty, T. (2020). Capital and Ideology. (trans. Arthur Goldhammer).London: Belknap

[v]https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2021/understanding-journalism-or-its-absence-in-the-age-of-conspiracy/

[vi] This section is based on an article by Banwait & Henley entitled The Role of the Humanities in Environmental Education in this issue of The GTEC Reader.

[vii]https://www.gteccanada.ca/reader/cultivating-the-horizon/ Sanders, C. (2020). Cultivating the horizon. GTEC Reader, vol. 1, #3

[viii]https://www.gteccanada.ca/reader/sheltering-in-place-thoughts-on-gary-snyder-in-a-time-of-plague/ Lawrance, S. (2020). Sheltering in place: Thoughts of Gary Snyder in a time of plague. GTEC Reader, vol. 1, #5

[ix] The authors are indebted to Colin Sanders for his constructive commentary on this essay.