Education in the Anthropocene
no. 04_april 2019
Scientists from various disciplines have announced a new phase in earth history: the Anthropocene. What they are suggesting, to be precise, is that somewhere in the (relatively) recent past (when, exactly, is a subject of heated debate) we have entered a new geological epoch, characterized by humankind’s unmistakeable and profound influence on the earth system.
Human beings have made a mess of things, both for themselves and for countless multitudes of other life forms that inhabit this planet. There are so many of us, inflicting so much damage on the planetary systems on which we depend, doing so ever more rapidly, on an ever larger scale, with increasingly powerful built systems, that the survival of civilization as we know it can no longer be taken for granted.
The increasing reference in the literature of education to the idea of us having entered a new geological epoch – the ‘Anthropocene’ – is telling in two important ways: one good and the other bad. It is good in the sense that it encourages a full acknowledgement that much environmental degradation is anthropogenic. Species extinction on a grand scale, pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans, habitat destruction and global heating are down to the activities of human beings.
Ever since the educational shift away from the life one was born into towards conceptions of a general openness of life’s trajectory, modern education has set its focus on enabling a better future. Moreover, this imagined future connects a better future for the individual child with a better future for humanity.
Almost two decades ago Crutzen and Stoermer coined “The Anthropocene”, positing a new geological epoch, which started in the late eighteenth century after the invention of the steam engine. This invention marked humans’ transition to the use of fossil fuels – the combustion of the latter gave rise to different forms of pollution and to what is known today as global climate change.
The anthropogenic nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide emissions are greater than natural sources, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and CH4 has not been as high as it is today for at least 650,000 years. The average erosion rate of soils has increased thirty-fold due to human activity, the extinction rate of organisms is at least a hundred times higher than the natural extinction rate.
In late November 2018, thousands of Australian school students went on strike, holding rallies in capital cities and regional centres, to protest about lack of governmental action on climate change. Their signs included a report card, giving the government a ‘Fail’ on climate action, ethics and responsibility, as well as: ‘There are no jobs on a dead planet’, ‘Don’t burn our future’ and ‘I’ve seen better Cabinets at IKEA’.
One of the greatest challenges – if not the greatest – facing humankind at the beginning of the 21st century is arguably the state of our planet and, coupled with this, our relationship with the natural environment. Most, if not all, other concerns – however significant – are necessarily secondary in this regard. The human impact on the environment has been, and continues to be, enormous. Human population growth and advances in technological ability and control continue producing previously non-existent environmental problems.
In their article, “Why solving intergenerational injustice through education does not work,” Hanno Su and Shia Su present at least two claims. The first claim is that the fact of climate change refutes the “progressive” bias in modern educational thought and shifts the task of education away from preparing children for a better future to preparing them for what will likely be a worse future.
Both Su and Su (2019) and Niebert (2019) in this issue have argued against sustainability education. Su and Su argued we should focus on educating adults instead of children if we want to tackle pressing environmental problems and achieve intergenerational justice. Niebert argued in favour of political education, as the effectiveness of sustainability education is questionable.
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