At the start of the UK’s Climate Learning Week, XR York activist and university lecturer Catherine Love discusses the importance of education to the fight for climate action.
One of the most disingenuous retorts to the ongoing youth climate strikes is the scolding cry that “they should be in school!”. It both misunderstands the aim of a strike – the whole point is that they aren’t at school – and fails to grasp the severity of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing. As the striking students recognise with bleak clarity, there’s not much point educating themselves for the future if that future itself is under threat. More than that, our new environmental reality may well call for a complete rethinking of the education system, which currently equips young people for an unsustainable business-as-usual scenario.
Luckily, there are lots of teachers who get it and are trying to reform the education system, as well as using education as a tool to push for the climate action that we desperately need. Today is the start of Climate Learning Week, a themed week of teaching around the climate and ecological emergency at schools, colleges and universities across the UK. The initiative is supported by groups such as the National Education Union (NEU), the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS), who are providing a wealth of resources and ideas for teachers. Here in York, members of Extinction Rebellion are going into local schools to deliver workshops and share their expertise, while York St John University’s theatre department is holding a rebellion activity day on Wednesday.
As a university lecturer and UCU member myself, I’m heartened to see this action and pressure from within educational establishments. I agree with UCU’s General Secretary Jo Grady that “education unions can play a pivotal role in the global climate movement, if we build alliances with other trade unions, students and environmental organisations”. We educators should be working with the youth strike movement, not against it, building a broad coalition of climate activists. All of us should also be thinking about how we can build awareness of the climate and ecological crisis into our teaching – whatever our particular field or area of expertise. For example, I teach theatre, which is perhaps not an obvious discipline for climate learning. But I often speak to my students about the role of the arts in responding to the climate and ecological emergency, include eco-theatre in my curricula, and ask students to consider environmental protest actions as a form of performance.
Of course, education is only one part of a vast picture. But it can be a stepping stone to climate action; a driver of more sustainable individual choices; a route to train workers for the green sectors that will need to expand if we want to mitigate the effects of climate crisis; an opportunity to show solidarity with the incredible young people across the world who are demanding action from our leaders; and a way to better equip all of us for the difficult future that we face.
The young people behind Teach the Future, a brilliant campaign to urgently repurpose our education system, put the case most powerfully: “Our education system must teach the truth and prepare us for the future, because we are the future.”
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