Meditations on an emergency

The devastation caused by floods in Europe is a wake-up call with regard not only to climate change, but to lifelong learning too, writes Paul Stanistreet

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At the time of writing, the death toll from the sudden, catastrophic flooding in western Germany and Belgium has passed 170, with many more people reported missing. Thousands have lost their homes, after two months of rain fell in just two days, causing buildings to collapse and large swathes of terrain to be submerged under water. Roads crumbled and landslides reshaped the topography, all in a matter of hours. It was a demonstration both of the ferocious destructive power of nature and of the reality of the climate emergency.

Experts predict that extreme weather will become more common as a result of climate change. For people in the Global North, largely sheltered from the worst effects of the climate crisis that have thus far fallen disproportionately on the poorest, the events of the past week have been a shocking, heart-rending lesson. As Malu Dreyer, the Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate, noted, climate change is ‘not abstract any more. We are experiencing it up close and painfully’. There are no safe places; no exemptions for the wealthy.

The Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, while calling for Germany to move more quickly towards climate neutrality, observed that the problems caused by the climate crisis ‘cannot be solved in North-Rhine Westphalia, or Germany’. This is true, of course, as unilateral efforts to prevent accelerated climate change can have only limited impact, but it is, in another sense, false, because these are problems that must be solved, and can only be solved, by action everywhere, on every front, in every community, wherever we live in the world.

This is what makes the challenge so daunting. We are used to experiencing the world as unsolvable. As Fredric Jameson observed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. While systems of power are more nebulous and harder to challenge than before, it is also the case that we have forgotten that change can and does happen and that collective action can make other worlds possible. It is important that we believe this. The old, dying orthodoxy of endless economic growth and limitless consumption will take all of us with it, unless we can find a new language of hope, founded on planetary sustainability, collective action and a commitment to equitable and inclusive futures.

Education has an important role to play in this, not just in response to change, but as a driver of it. This is a challenge to the global education community, at every level. We cannot wait for change to arrive, but must, instead, in all of our practice, strive to embody the sort of change we recognize as essential in wider society. Among other things, this means reframing our understanding of lifelong learning, and reviving some old, now unorthodox and unfashionable understandings of the term, making them meaningful to a new generation of people facing new, unprecedented challenges.

Gert Biesta wrote some 15 years ago that lifelong learning had come increasingly to be understood ‘in terms of the formation of human capital and as an investment in economic development’, a transformation felt both at the level of policy and the level of the learner and learning provider. If anything, in the years since, this trend has become more established, more seemingly permanent. Learning for purposes other than work is, by comparison, more marginalized than ever. It is under pressure everywhere. Yet, despite the predominance of what Biesta terms the ‘learning economy’, it is increasingly evident that we need something else: lifelong learning that prepares us not only to be good and efficient workers, but also thoughtful, active citizens, adaptable and resilient, yet creative, cooperative and imaginative enough to mould new futures based on collective thought and action and a desire for social and environmental justice.

Biesta’s call for us to reclaim ‘those forms of collective learning – learning with others and from otherness and difference – which are linked to empowerment, collective action and social change, and to the translation of our private troubles into collective and shared concerns’ is more pertinent and urgent than ever. The horrific images from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other places, and the astonishing heatwaves in North America, which saw new record temperatures four or five degrees higher than the previous ones, are a wake-up call, with regard not only to climate change and the prevailing economic model driving it but to education too. They tell us that business as usual is no longer an option. We need to create a new normal based around the idea of sustainable living, and realize the potential of lifelong learning to empower people to make the change we need.

While we all have an obligation to be mindful of our environment and ethical in our behaviour in the different aspects of our lives, there is, I believe, a special obligation on those of us who work and learn in education to highlight the wider value of lifelong learning and foster its democratic function.

At the level of the learner, this might mean becoming a learner-activist, championing environmental concerns at school or college and taking what you learn into your community. For teachers, it could mean embodying democratic practice and the principle of co-production of knowledge in your teaching, and building networks of mutual support. At the level of local and national government, it may mean rebalancing the dimensions of education and lifelong learning and recognizing that, in some key respects, the system is broken, its resistance to change indicative not of health or robustness but of dysfunction. At the level of the international education community, so critical in all of this, it must mean renewing the education discourse in a way that makes change thinkable and hope possible.

Of course, the kind of cooperation that is required to respond to the climate crisis is unprecedented, but so too is the emergency. It is on an entirely different scale to every other challenge we face, the pandemic included. We cannot know that we will be successful or anticipate what will emerge from our response to the crisis. But by acting as though another world is possible, we optimize our chances of getting there. There is no chance at all if we don’t.

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications and Executive Editor of the International Review of Education – Journal of Lifelong Learning (IRE), UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

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