A Terrible but Unmissable Opportunity
The hopes and fears of the last year and a half of activism now seem like a distant memory. Sometimes I struggle to reconnect with those feelings - the urgency and excitement of being on the streets, the endless days of planning and the constant sense that we must act now because there is no time left. Then everything stopped. I’m now on a narrow boat in rural Wiltshire, surrounded by green growth, white blossom and the quiet chatter of ducklings and cygnets. There’s a sense, natural to the season, that everything might just be alright. The clouds are undisturbed by planes, oil producers are panicking and global emissions could drop by between 5 and 8% in 2020.
That reduction will probably be sharpest in April and then balance out over the course of the year with a return to business as usual driven by cheap oil and governments desperate to restart their economies. China’s emissions are already back up. We now need to make annual reducations of 7.6% over the next decade to avoid the effects of 1.5 degrees of warming and the catastrophe that awaits us beyond that. The media, business leaders, policy makers and the general public are all at least vaguely aware of this. Yet even a global economic pause of several months will only be a blip in the otherwise steady rise in concentrations of greenhouse gases. See https://www.carbonbrief.org/ for regular updates on the data.
The coronavirus pandemic is a terrible tragedy in itself. The UK death toll is now around 30,000. It’s not only a tragedy for those who have died and their families, it will also have devastating knock-on effects for health, psychological wellbeing and the sudden impacts on people’s incomes and future employment. While my own view is that mainstream schooling does not offer what I would call an education, it must be heartbreaking for those young people who worked so hard for years only to be denied the conclusion to their academic journey.
It is right that we acknowledge these heavy human costs and also pay tribute to healthcare and frontline workers. But we must also put this crisis in context. Every year 40,000 people die in the UK as a result of air pollution - every year. These are avoidable deaths and it’s not obvious why these lives are less important than those at risk from coronavirus. The current crisis is not a direct effect of climate change, but it is likely the result of human interference in natural ecosystems, like ebola and HIV. It also demonstrates our lack of preparedness and the fragility of our just-in-time economy. Scientists have been warning of an epidemic virus like this for years, as we have been warned of the climate and ecological emergency that is now upon us. If it weren’t so upsetting, I would laugh each time I hear a representative of the government talk about being ‘led by the science’.
Why are we so collectively stupid? Why do we allow ourselves to be led by such self-interested idiots? Why is it that our inept government is at least willing - if not exactly able - to address this epidemic but totally unwilling to seriously tackle a crisis that poses an existential risk to the entire species?
Here’s a suggestion: a culture of self-interested short-termism as the outcome of a seriously **** education. We are taught to compete. Our schools, universities and almost all of our working lives are driven by short-term, easily quantifiable success criteria. The people in our society who make decisions and have power are the winners of this competition-fuelled educational and economic system. Students are taught to care, above all else, about their exam results, educators about their students’ exam results, business people about their annual profits, journalists about selling stories and politicians about winning power in the next election. When we reflect on how this system has taught us all to think and to work our collective negligence of what’s important makes more sense.
We have an opportunity now like never before. The public have been woken up and emotionally as well as intellectually shocked by what’s happening. The carelessness and risk of how we live has been laid bare. There is also a profoundly dull vacuum in media output waiting to be filled. We must connect the dots and show what’s wrong with going back to cheap holidays, cheap consumerism and cheap profits - those in power will be desperate to sell these temptations. We have an opportunity to say - as education unions are now saying - that we will not go back to a toxic system that makes us exhausted and depressed; we will not go back to a system that is killing us.
Instead of learning how to pass exams - which teaches us nothing except how to pass exams - why aren’t we learning to think, to care and to work together on real-life, complex, interesting issues? Why are we constantly telling young people to suppress their feelings in order to get the job done? Why are we even thinking about going back to a system that crushes young people’s resilience, hope and autonomy? We teach in unimaginative Victorian subject-categories because it’s easier to write standardised exams this way. Why don’t we have flexible, project-based curricula in which students can plan their own learning? There could be far more learning in a six week immersive project on coronavirus or climate studies or ‘why do we have financial crises?’ than in six years of the English Baccalaureate. Why do so many students see teachers as authoritarian? Why are teachers still taught not to smile before Christmas? Why can’t learning be a pleasure for everyone? Why can’t we trust teachers to assess their students qualitatively, as humans instead of numbers?
Let’s demand answers to these questions. Educators, students and parents, together in solidarity and mutual respect, must use the power of a collective refusal to return. When they reopen the schools, let’s stay at home, demand better and save all of our futures.
Tim Jones, XR Educators and former teacher