Educating For Climate Change

1 The need for a syllabus of radical hope

The mission of the University Consortium of Small Island States was operating 2014-18 to enhance its education institutions. The aim was to facilitate development of the capacity needed to implement the UN’s Programme of action, popularly referred to as the Barbados Program of Action (BPOA).  BPOA is an important historical policy document that comprehensively addresses the economic, environmental, and social developmental vulnerabilities facing small island states.  It outlines a strategy that seeks to mitigate those vulnerabilities.  BPOA remains the only internationally approved programme specific to Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which has been collectively and unanimously endorsed by SIDS since the 1990s.

The full text of the BPOA was produced in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1994 at the first Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States.  This  was a conference mandated by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 47/189. The need for an island’s specific conference was highlighted some two years previously at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit), held in Rio de Janeiro where 179 governments voted to adopt Agenda 21.  Chapter 17, section G of Agenda 21 acknowledges that small island developing states are a special case both for environmental protection and education for sustainable development.  We now know that SIDS are considered extremely vulnerable to global warming and sea level rise, with predictions of social upheavals that will be associated with climate change.  Local communities must meet this situation with hope (Fig 1).  In this context the BPOA is the global model for learning how to live sustainably.

 Fig 1  Creating a community syllabus of radical hope 

Survey what is good and bad about where you live. Design an action plan to celebrate what is good and improve what is bad.  Reflect on what the community has learned about local culture and its ecology as the basis for a  community syllabus of radical hope linking schools with the communities they serve.

Hope can be defined as ”the belief that circumstances in the future will be better.” It allows us to be optimistic about a positive outcome and increases our chances of realizing our goals and dreams. Although there are many obstacles in life, hope allows us to approach them with a successful mindset.  Radical Hope is an idea that helps us to imagine the future after a moment of upheaval and change. The term was first defined by philosophers looking at the big questions of human existence, knowledge, reason and the mind. They wanted to better understand how people can recover after a traumatic experience, such as the loss of their culture. Jonathan Lear illustrates this idea with the experience of the North American Crow Nation after the 19th Century destruction of the buffalo herds upon which these peoples were totally dependent. The Crow were faced with the end of their traditional way of life, yet with firm leadership, they reimagined a future without buffalo.  

Everyone needs a personal syllabus of radical hope to focus their values that will carry them successfully into a post 2030 future. This blog outlines a syllabus of radical hope produced for teaching the new Welsh Humanities Area of Learning and Experience (HALE).  HALE encourages learners to engage with the most important issues facing humanity, including sustainability and social change, and helps to develop the skills necessary to interpret and articulate the past with the present.  The aim is to awaken a sense of wonder, fire the imagination, and inspire learners to grow individually in knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  

The Welsh HALE is being presented to members of the Green Forum as an online educational resource that could be developed for meeting the two key objectives of the BPOA. namely: 

  • improved information flow between SIDS on courses offered, facilities available, student needs and relevant online content.
  • cooperative curriculum development through research into managing, indigenous knowledge and outreach in the key areas of sustainable development of SIDS that support resilience building for sustainable development.  

Strengthening a pedagogy for environmental issues requires action in two main areas: training for educators in environmental issues and syllabus development with the production of appropriate indigenous teaching materials.  Both areas introduce environmental issues unique to SIDS.  These can be mind mapped across a range of disciplines (Fig 2) , to support an anthropological syllabus of radical hope.

2 Starting With Anthropology

Fig 2 Anthropology online

Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, cultures, societies, and linguistics, in both the present and past.   Social anthropology studies patterns of behavior, while cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values.  A portmanteau term, sociocultural anthropology is commonly used to explore how people, variously positioned within the world today, live and understand their world. It includes their aspirations and struggles to share systems of ideas (i.e., culture) which are related to the structured ways that people act and interact in society (i.e., power) and the environment (i.e.natural resorces).

Anthropology of art is a sub-field in social anthropology dedicated to the study of art in different cultural contexts. The anthropology of art focuses on historical, economic and aesthetic dimensions in non-Western art forms, including what is known as ‘tribal art’

The anthropology of art studies and analyses the wide range of material objects produced by people around the world. These are considered not merely as aesthetic objects but are understood to play a wider role in people’s lives, for instance in their beliefs and rituals. The materials studied include sculpture, masks, paintings, textiles, baskets, pots, weapons, and the human body itself. Anthropologists are interested in the symbolic meanings encoded in such objects, as well as in the materials and techniques used to produce them. Perhaps the simplest, yet most appropriate distinction between artefact and art would be that an artefact is primarily the product of craftsmanship and skill, while a work of art is invested with an emotional, philosophical, spiritual or aesthetic quality that reaches beyond. It has an ambiguous something that is not always easy to define, perhaps a special element that elevates it from the realm of workmanship to a more-significant level, where arts reasoning is applied to explain sustainability.  In this respect the culture of members of indigenous communities in SIDS directly relates to a specific way of being, seeing, and acting in the world. Their culture is developed on the basis of a close relationship with their traditional territories and the resources they harbour, not only because they are their main means of subsistence, but also because they are part of their worldview, and therefore, a part of their culture as an ecological entity. Objects in human life can become integrated into social relationships: for example, strong emotional attachments are found between people and material culture that is connected to ancestors. Such objects transmit culture with them, creating and reinforcing cultural norms: this kind of object needs tending, this does not. Scout badges, fraternity pins, even Fitbit watches are “symbolic storage devices,” symbols of social identity that may persist through multiple generations. In this manner, they can also be teaching tools: this is how we were in the past, this is how we need to behave in the present.  Those objects leave “traces,” that have established narratives associated with them.

3  Cultural Ecology

Culture and ecology merge in cultural ecology as a sub-discipline of anthropology that sets out the complex relationships between humans and the environments which they inhabit. This takes many shapes and forms. For example it includes examining the hunting/gathering patterns of humans tens of thousands of years ago and, archaeological investigations of early agriculturalists and their impact on deforestation or soil erosion.  In modern times it deals with how human societies are adapting to climate change and other anthropogenic environmental issues.  Cultural Ecology is a growing subfield of anthropology because of  the challenges of understanding and addressing human-caused environmental problems.  Like climate change, species extinctions, plastic pollution, and habitat destruction all require an understanding of the complex cultural, political, and economic systems that have created these problems (Fig 3).

Fig 3 A mind map of cultural ecology as the managerial balance between conservation and exploitation of natural resources.

Cultural Ecology developed in the 1960s as anthropologists borrowed methods and terminology from growing developments in ecology and applied them to understand day to day issues of living in an overcrowded polluted world.  In the first decade of the 21st century, there are publications dealing with the ways in which humans can develop a more acceptable cultural relationship with the environment. An example is sacred ecology, a sub-topic of cultural ecology, introduced by Fikret Berkes in 1999. It seeks lessons from traditional ways of life in Northern Canada to shape a new environmental perception for urban dwellers. This particular conceptualisation of people and environment comes from various cultural levels of local knowledge about species and place, resource management systems using local experience, social institutions with their rules and codes of behaviour. It takes a world view through religion, ethics and broadly defined belief systems.  The global message is that culture is a balancing act between the mindset devoted to the exploitation of natural resources and that which conserves them. Perhaps the best model of cultural ecology in this context is, paradoxically, the mismatch of culture and ecology that have occurred when Europeans suppressed the age-old native methods of land use and have tried to settle European farming cultures on soils manifestly incapable of supporting them.

There is a sacred ecology associated with environmental awareness, and the task of cultural ecology is to inspire urban dwellers to develop a more acceptable sustainable cultural relationship with the environment that supports them.

As a knowledge framework, cultural ecology can be customized with information from environmental anthropology to assemble a personal syllabus of radical hope about human adaptations to rapidly changing social and physical environments.  Human adaptation refers to both biological and cultural processes that enable a population to survive and reproduce within a given or changing environment.This may be carried out diachronically (examining entities that existed in different epochs), or synchronically (examining a present system and its components). The central argument is that the natural environment, in small scale or subsistence societies is a major contributor to social organization and other human institutions concerned with sustainability.

Cultural ecology is expressed physically in a group’s material culture, a term used  to refer to all the corporeal, tangible objects that are created, used, kept and left behind by past and present cultures. Material culture refers to objects that are used, lived in, displayed and experienced; and the term includes all the things people make, including tools, pottery, houses, furniture, buttons, roads, even the cities themselves. One focus is the meaning of the objects: how we use them, how we treat them, what they say about us.  Some objects reflect family history, status, gender, and/or ethnic identity. People have been making and saving objects for 2.5 million years.  Material culture studies, however, focus not just on the artifacts themselves, but rather the meaning of those objects to people. One of the features that characterize humans apart from other species is the extent to which we interact with objects, whether they are used or traded, whether they are curated or discarded  .

4   Circularity

Fig 4 The environmental outcome of a linear economy

Circularity is a topic within cultural ecology  which models human systems of production and consumption.  It involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.  Circularity aims to manage global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution by implementing the three base principles of the model. These principles are: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and the regeneration of nature. Circularity is defined in contradistinction to the traditional waste-generating linear economy (Fig 4). The idea and concepts of circular economy have been studied extensively in academia, business, and government over the past decade. Circularity has been gaining popularity since it helps to minimize emissions and consumption of raw materials, opens up new market prospects and principally, increases the sustainability of consumption and improves the efficiency of the use of natural resources.

5 Degrowth: a syllabus for a democratic pedagogy

All economic value is derived from nature by way of society.  Economic value is therefore rooted in human values and ultimately in the spiritual values that give purpose and meaning to human life.  In the absence of purpose, there is no logical motivation for sustaining human life or sustaining human economies. Thus, economic sustainability is deeply rooted in spirituality.  So fundamental challenges in achieving sustainability are ethical, moral, and ultimately spiritual rather than technological or economic. Therefore, sustainability ultimately depends on creating a moral and ethical culture that gives long term economic sustainability priority over short term economic expediency. 

“Deep sustainability” goes beyond the normal shallow or instrumental strategies, which focus on resource efficiency and substitution, motivated by economic incentives. Deep sustainability explores the philosophical, ethical, and transcendental roots of ecological, social, and economic integrity. In so doing, it calls for a spiritual-rooted, cultural revolution. This revolution must be motivated by an understanding that the pursuit of economic sustainability is synonymous with the pursuit of authentic happiness—which is inherently social and spiritual as well as material. A degrowth economy would be one which simply provides the material requisites and means for a pursuit of happiness motivated by a spiritual sense of wellbeing.  

Spiritual wellness comes from having connections to something greater than yourself.  It is about having a set of values, principles, morals and beliefs that provide a sense of purpose, hopefulness and meaning to life.  Applying those principles to guide your actions generates a personal prosperity that can make life worthwhile in a steady state economy.  However, currently we are demanding more from Earth than it can regenerate. For more than 40 years, humanity’s demand on nature has exceeded what our planet can replenish. We would need the regenerative capacity of 1.6 Earths to provide the natural resources and ecological services we currently use. Only for a brief period can we cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of “overshoot” are already clear: habitat and species loss, and accumulation of carbon waste we throw in the sky.  In order for the poor world to get richer, the rich world has to become poorer. These are the outcomes of the rich nations signing up to a global strategy of equal shares for all nations.

6 Teaching with hope

Hope is about the belief that you can make an impact. Hope is about allowing students agency in their own learning. Hope is about ensuring that students are looking ahead, identifying for themselves what needs to be improved, and giving them the skills and confidence to go out and do it.  There are many different curricula for teaching a syllabus of hope, most of them hoping that science will lead the way.  ‘Starting from within anthropology’ is just one of them.  

In his keynote address to the Royal Anthropological Institute Conference entitled ‘Art, Materiality and Representation’, on 1st June 2018,  Tim Ingold presented his view that art and anthropology potentially afford new ways of thinking about democracy and citizenship — ways that could give hope to future generations. The universal goal is to reach a zero waste in ways that are ethical, economical, efficient and visionary.  Education  guides people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for other systems to use.  Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing a zero waste strategy will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Regarding a curriculum that applies arts reasoning to explain sustainability (AARTES), Ingold believes that this approach has been pushed to the margins, above all by the relentless expansion of big science, aided and abetted by multinational corporations and neoliberal globalisation. With them has gone the question from which all inquiry must begin and indeed from which Ingold began his lecture: how ought we to live? His standpoint is that big science is not interested in this question because it believes it can deliver the answers that will maintain a growth economy through mega-projects of geoengineering, if not already, then within the not too distant future. Ingold’s parable is that, when the dinosaurs went extinct, it was the small mammals that inherited the earth, among them were some weasel-like carnivores. On 29th April 2016 it was a weasel that bit through an electric cable, putting the largest machine ever built, CERN’s vast £4bn Hadron Collider, out of action for a week. 

For many, the collider is the greatest expression of scientific hubris we have yet seen. Its interaction with the weasel… 

“…is the delusional project of our time, truly a machine for the end of the world.  But when big science collapses, as it is bound to do, along with the global economy that sustains it, art and anthropology, like that famous weasel, will hold the future in their hands”  

Educationalists must be ready for it with a syllabus of radical hope.

7 The Green Forum

The growth economy is now failing in two ways:

1. positive growth is becoming uneconomic in our full-world economy;

2. negative growth, resulting from the bursting of financial bubbles inflated beyond physical limits, though temporarily necessary, soon becomes self-destructive.

This leaves a non-growing, or steady-state economy, as the only long-term alternative. Herman Daly  has articulated the basic rules of a steady state economy as follows:

  1. It should exploit renewable resources no faster than they can be regenerated.
  2. It should deplete non-renewable resources no faster than the rate at which renewable substitutes can be developed.
  3. It should emit wastes no faster than they can be safely assimilated by ecosystems.

Presuming depletion and regeneration rates and resilience of ecosystems can be accurately determined, two basic strategies follow these steady state rules:

(1) an economizing strategy 

(2) an innovating strategy. 

Economizing involves reducing the inputs used in economic activities and minimizing the waste outputs. It entails conserving, re-using, maintaining, and generally embracing the wisdom of ‘enough’ rather than succumbing to the consumer demand for ‘more’. 

Innovating entails doing things more efficiently. It means learning, inventing, adapting, and using appropriate technologies to achieve desired ends. Innovation (and the increased efficiency it engenders) in a non-growing economy, is the basis of conservation management.  

A steady state economy, therefore, will adopt some combination of economizing and innovating to achieve sustainability, supported by a local syllabus of radical hope.

To discuss this proposition an international Green Forum has been created to connect schools and the communities they serve,  across the globe who are interested in making local action plans to adopt a circular, steady state, zero waste economy.  It is for those who require space to discuss Ideas for a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources.  To participate in The Green Forum, which is free, go to-

8  Internet references

Learning from each other

Building the circular economy through education and infrastructure

Cultural Ecology1

Culture ecology2

Material culture

Material Culture2

Environmental anthropology


Teaching with hope

Zero waste curriculum toolkit

Zero Waste International Alliance)


Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.