Our member, Dr Stuart Tannock (University College London, UK), talks about his book, Educating for Radical Social Transformation in the Climate Crisis (Springer, 2021).
Over the last few years, there has been a growing claim by mainstream bodies such as the United Nations IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that to address the climate crisis effectively, we need to make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” – in other words, incremental and purely technical fixes will not be enough. There has also been a recognition that to enable such changes, education of all kinds will have a vital role to play.
The central question that this book examines is how exactly education can play this role: how can education help learners think through both what kinds of radical changes are necessary to address the climate crisis, and how they can help to make such changes happen. This challenge is not one that is commonly embraced as a central purpose of education in current society; and indeed, many schools, education systems and educators may be somewhat uncomfortable with or even opposed to such a transformative educational agenda.
To address this central question, therefore, the book considers what we might learn from the broad field of radical education, where the problem of how to use education to create a radically transformed and more just society has long been grappled with by theorists, researchers, educators, and activists. This is a field that encompasses the rich traditions of popular, progressive, feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, labour, and democratic education, among others.
While there has been an explosion of writing on climate change education, some critics have raised concerns that this education is often framed too narrowly: as a specialist form of science or environmental education, rather than rethinking education across the curriculum; as expanding knowledge about climate change, despite evidence that knowledge in itself doesn’t necessarily lead to action or social transformation; as promoting individual behaviour change, rather than teaching learners how to push for structural change in society; as embracing universalist and apolitical forms of learning, rather than recognizing the central claim of climate justice that some groups are more responsible for or impacted by climate change than others.
In response to such concerns, there has been a call for a different kind of climate change education. This book responds to this call and seeks to contribute to the conversation about what a more political, transformative, and effective climate change education might look like. This is a contribution that I felt well positioned to make. For though climate change is a new focus in my work, I have long been interested in the question of how we can use education to change society.
My first book, published twenty years ago, was interested in the question of how young workers in low-wage service-sector jobs could learn to transform their own working conditions, in particular, through engaging with trade unions. There is a direct line we can draw between such forms of critical labour education, and the transformative, political forms of climate change education that some are trying to bring into practice today.
On the internet, there is a video that was produced by a group of secondary students from Notre Dame Girls’ School in South London, a school made up almost entirely of black and minority ethnic students, many from low income and immigrant families. In the video, the students introduce and role play the steps they say one needs to take to make progressive change in society:
Step One: First, if you want to make change, you have to have power.Step Two: If you want power, you need people.Step Three: We then listen to people within our communities to find out what the issues are.Step Four: Then we take action. We usually take action to get a meeting with the decision maker around the issue we have chosen to try to change.Step Five: We then negotiate with decision makers and politicians.Step Six: We then evaluate to see what we can improve and think about our next steps.
These steps to social change are a version of what is known as the cycle of community organizing. The students learned the steps through participating in their school’s partnership with the nationwide Citizens UK community organizing alliance, a partnership that has seen students at Notre Dame push for a range of changes in their community: from challenging the UK government over the high cost of child citizenship fees that prevent children from registering as British citizens; to seeking to change the narrative around young people in London, by asking police to stop promoting negative and harmful stereotypes of youth.
Though short, the Notre Dame Girls’ School student video focuses on something which has been missing from most discussions of climate change education, and yet which is central to any possibility of effectively addressing the climate crisis: the importance of power and taking collective action. These are the first steps the students point to in learning how to make changes in society, arrived at within seconds of the opening of their video. In climate change education, on the other hand, one often has to look long and hard before being able to find any similar discussions. As Joseph Henderson and Andrea Drewes write, in their edited collection on climate change education in the United States: “While climate change education has a decent history of teaching the physical mechanisms of climate change, it lacks much of an analysis of social or political power and is often unwilling to engage those crucial aspects of life.” Others have made parallel observations. Magnus Boström et al. argue that, “even if there are exceptions, within the greater body of literature on learning for sustainable development, … power remains largely undiscussed and untheorized.” When action is invoked in climate change education, it is often individualized, apolitical and non-confrontational. Discussions of power, too, tend to be found in relation to agendas of individual “empowerment,” that look inward and refer to changes in individual attitudes, abilities and behaviors brought about by increased knowledge and understanding of the climate crisis. Thus, students may be “empowered” by climate change education to adopt sustainable lifestyles and consumer choices in the context of their own homes, families and daily routines.
At the same time, there is widespread recognition that questions of power and collective action are central to addressing the climate crisis. This crisis, as Naomi Klein writes, “has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power—specifically whether there can be a shift in who wields it, a shift away from corporations
and toward communities.” “Actually shifting the social and material conditions of climate change,” argue Henderson and Drewes, “means confronting entrenched systems of power.” “If learning activities do not engage in issues of structural inertia, power, inequality, vested economic interests, denialism, [and] resistance to change,” warn Boström et al., “that is, in the conflict dimension of sustainable development, … these will likely be insufficient in terms of transforming society in a sustainable direction.”
Where we can find more discussion of learning how to analyse, contest, build and shift social power is away from the literature on climate change education, and away from formal education classrooms, in activist groups participating in the climate movement. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a marked turn within the climate movement to focus on the question of how to build and mobilize movement power to the degree that it can overcome the power of vested interests—such as the fossil fuel industry—in preserving the status quo, and begin pushing through the kinds of radical social, political and economic changes needed to address the climate crisis.
Does this mean that to develop climate change education that addresses questions of social power and collective action, we need to turn our backs on schools, universities and other institutions of formal education? This would be a problematic conclusion to make. As the story of Notre Dame Girls’ School suggests, this clearly is not a necessary response: in certain contexts, at least, it is possible for schools to embrace these kinds of educational approaches. It is also not a strategic nor sufficient response. For the formal education sector remains an essential site for social change education of all kinds, even if social movement activism and non-formal education are important as well. The reason, as Rebecca Tarlau and others suggest, is the universal, compulsory and mass nature of formal education, as well as the significant financial and material resources invested in the sector by the state and other actors. Schools and universities engage with and educate children, youth and young adults on a regular, often daily, and continuing, long term basis, in ways that few social movements can hope to replicate. If we are going to be able to address the global climate crisis effectively, then social power and collective action are concepts and practices that can be and need to be brought to the foreground of what students learn in formal education today.