Adult education for a change

Adult education has a critical role to play in combatting climate change, not only in supporting changes in behaviour but also, and much more crucially, in giving people the means to challenge, change and galvanize political will, argues Paul Stanistreet

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You know that moment in a disaster movie when a TV anchor conveys the terrible news that the world is facing a catastrophic threat and hope is all but lost. Well, it happened yesterday for real. The funny thing is, hardly anyone noticed.

4 April 2022 may go down as one of the darkest days in the late history of humanity, a marker not only of our inhuman treatment of one another, the harrowing cruelty of war, but also of our failure to act on climate change, despite a mountain of evidence and the starkest warnings yet from climate scientists that we are passing the point of no return when it comes to staving off its worst effects.

The latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published yesterday, predicts a devastating level of climate change unless leaders make deep, radical and immediate changes, including the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. Current climate policies and pledges are insufficient. It is ‘almost inevitable’ that temperatures will rise above 1.5 degrees, the level beyond which many of the effects of climate breakdown will become irreversible. Any chance of meeting the target will require the world to use 95 per cent less coal, 60 per cent less oil, and 45 per cent less gas by 2050, the report says.

The Secretary General António Guterres described the report as a ‘file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world’. He urged leaders to lead but also called on people to hold leaders to account and ‘demand that renewable energy is introduced now at speed and at scale’, to build a ‘grassroots movement’ for climate action no one can ignore.

At the end of last year, UNESCO published the final report of its Futures of Education initiative, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. It also painted a stark picture of a world at a ‘turning point’, facing ‘grave risks to the future of humanity and the living planet itself’, beset by existential crises but also, still, with a choice, the chance to do things differently. At the centre of the report is the idea of a ‘new social contract for education’, one that can ‘repair injustices while transforming the future’. It must, the report says, ‘build on the broad principles that underpin human rights – inclusion and equity, cooperation and solidarity, as well as collective responsibility and interconnectedness’, and be governed by a commitment to ‘assuring the right to quality education throughout life’ and ‘strengthening education as a public endeavour and a common good’.

The report offers a new vision for education to support a shift to a more sustainable world, looking past the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to 2050 and beyond. It is a timely and exciting attempt both to confront the new reality in which we find ourselves and to create new stories of who we are and our place in the world of which we are part. Its diagnosis of the problems we face is acute, while it offers a hopeful and potentially transformative framework for thinking about the future. It also reasserts the relationship between education and citizenship and makes learning throughout life central to empowering people and communities. However, it leaves many questions unanswered, chiefly how education can effect such radical change in society while wider socio-political issues go unaddressed.

Perhaps the report is right to leave these issues open. They are, after all, questions for us all, as we approach the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda behind schedule in achieving the 17 goals it set, and in some cases going backwards. How can education contribute and what can it do to build the grassroots movement for climate action Mr Guterres demands? Climate change represents an unprecedented crisis in the history of humanity. But there is another crisis that we need to address: a crisis of hope. Too many people lead lives of quiet despair, unfulfilled and indifferent, ground down by poverty and work or laden down with debt, devoid of hope. Adult education represents one means of changing this. It gives people not only hope for something better, but also the means of transforming their lives and communities, of challenging and galvanizing political will, creating change from the bottom up. One of the problems with debate about climate action and sustainability is that it tends to see the role of education in terms of behaviour change and neglects its role in enabling people to hold politicians’ feet to the fire and make radical change a reality.

As we approach the seventh International Conference on Adult Education – CONFINTEA VII – in Marrakech, Morocco, in June, there is an onus on us all to reflect on how we can reframe  adult education so that it can fulfill its potentially transformative role in creating fairer, more peaceful and sustainable societies. We must reassert the link between adult education and social purpose and also redress the neglect of adult education for active citizenship that we have seen globally in past decades (the focus of the fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, to be launched at CONFINTEA). While there are limits on what education can achieve by itself, it is just as obvious that meaningful social, economic and political change is not possible without it. As the latest IPCC report demonstrates, we know what to do, the cost of action and the much greater cost of inaction. It’s the politics that stands in the way and only a mass movement of people, fortified and emboldened by education, can change that.

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications at UIL

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