CEO of Black Mountains College, Ben Rawlence, shares his thoughts on public education in a rapidly changing world.
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m 48 years old. I was born in Salisbury in Wiltshire at 330 ppm. But now I live in Wales where I run Black Mountains College – a new
experimental institution dedicated to climate action and adaptation.
Why am I speaking to you today? I’m not an academic, I don’t have a PhD. I did a degree in Swahili and before I moved to Wales ten years ago my career was
in politics, journalism and human rights.
So what’s a journalist doing setting up a university? It’s a fair question and one I will try to answer by telling you a story – and raising a few questions along the way.
The journey to Wales from Wiltshire is not far – about two hours on the train, via Bristol. But we going to go the long way round – first to Africa then the
Arctic then back to the UK.
Working in the horn of Africa in the early two thousands, I was researching the human rights of people displaced by war in Somalia and Sudan. People were
beginning to talk about the conflicts being “climate-driven”, and noticing a pattern of shifts in the monsoon, drought and famine. And of course when the
bare necessities get scarce, people fight. I’m a researcher, I’d been trained to ask questions. But I was not prepared for the long journey – ten years and
counting – that a single question can spark.
The question I asked myself was the one I am going to put to all of you today:
Do you feel you know enough about climate breakdown and the impacts that are unfolding?
Of course I had read the news, I’d seen Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” from 2001, but I wanted to know what did global warming mean in practice, on
the ground, in real terms? If societies in the Horn of Africa were disintegrating and life was becoming untenable how long before similar tensions hit Europe?
The Sahel region, like the Arctic, is particularly sensitive to earth system changes. They are our early warning system.
So, I started reading and reading and then, to get a closer glimpse of the future, I went North, to the Arctic. There, I discovered, the trees were on the
move. Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, the Arctic treeline, the growing limit of trees, was creeping north at a rate of inches a year. Now the
forest is zooming north at hundreds of feet per year turning the white Arctic
The story of that journey is told in my book The Treeline. It’s a trip across the far North from Scotland, to Norway, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. I
spoke to scientists and indigenous peoples living inside the Arctic Circle and I gained a first hand view of the monumental earth systems changes taking
place. There are many learnings and further questions raised by what I saw but they can broadly be summarised as follows:
Number one: Holy Smoke! We are not ready for what is coming, and,
Number two: Why did no-one tell me this before?
These points are inter-related as we shall see, but let’s start with the second.
Nobody had told me in so many words. The government has spectacularly failed to communicate what is happening. But there is a deeper issue related
to how we learn. I had read a lot of IPCC reports and scientific articles but I had not integrated the learning into an experience of climate change. To use the
jargon, the learning had not been embodied. No amount of reading would have made me feel it. And, of course feeling is essential to learning, to action and to effective communication.
I can read you facts such as this excellent summary from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change about what’s already non-negotiable: “Characteristics of ocean and cryosphere change include thresholds of abrupt change, long-term changes that cannot be avoided, and irreversibility (high confidence). Ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation, ice sheet and glacier mass loss, and permafrost degradation are expected to be irreversible on time scales relevant to human societies and ecosystems… These characteristics of ocean and cryosphere change pose risks and challenges to
In simple terms, we may not be able to adapt to the changes that we have already unleashed. The earth systems functions we are talking about here:
deoxygenation of the oceans so marine life cannot survive, ocean acidification so plankton will die and ocean warming leading to the deaths of coral and the
collapse of marine food chains are predicted with high confidence. These are happening now and will continue to get worse. I can tell you that sea level rise is irreversible due to existing emissions and warming, possibly by up to 16 metres. It is rising slowly but accelerating and there is “deep uncertainty” about the possibility of abrupt ice sheet collapse in Antarctica and Greenland.(2) And that the IPCC has only “medium confidence” that the Gulf Stream ocean circulation will not shutdown completely this century.(3) If that were to happen – and it has happened abruptly in the past – models suggest it would lead to the drying out of the UK and the effective end of arable agriculture in Europe.(4)
We can note that biodiversity collapse is just as, if not more, critical to human civilisation than emissions alone. Insects are declining at 1% a year and 80%
already gone.(5) But I suspect you’ve heard many of these facts before. I can even emphasize that we are talking about twenty years time, if not less. This is not a question of climate “change” that will trouble my kids. This is a question of human survival on decadal time scales. This is about how we will ensure fair distribution of scarce resources of food, water and habitable territory for 10 billion humans within my lifetime. And I’m not young.
And yet, out the window, we see the people on the Strand happily going about their day. It does not look like an emergency, or a crime scene of biodiversity
and habitat destruction. It is a process of slow invisible violence. The reality of the planet is not real for most people most of the time. As I write at the end of
The Treeline, “the planet you think you live on no longer exists.”
To put it another way, we are not ready for what’s already happened. We have not incorporated the reality of the changes into our actions and everyday lives. And to the extent that we have embodied this information but the structures of discourse and power obstruct meaningful action, we are left feeling to varying degrees confused, anxious, depressed, angry or powerless or all of the above.
So what do we do?
The response to the question ‘what can we do about climate breakdown’? depends to a considerable extent on your answer to the question: ‘how did we get into this mess’?
And here the lessons of The Treeline journey looking at the long history of global warming and the over-exploitation of nature and people is instructive.
Climate disruption and mass extinction are not simply a result of carbon dioxide pollution nor will we avoid the collapse of civilisation by simply switching to renewable energy. This is a human crisis of values, of worldviews, of inequalities and historic injustice. Ever since human societies that managed habitats sustainably increasingly lost out to societies seeking to over-exploit nature, a process driven by capitalism and accelerated through colonialism, we have been on a collision course with physics, biology and chemistry, with the hard limits of what the earth can sustain.
I am not alone in locating the roots of this tragic story in the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body and the separation of humans and nature. If we see ourselves as part of nature, as many societies still do, then it would be much harder to destroy the web of life that sustain us. And so to the problem of education and the idea for Black Mountains College.
Why did the experience of The Treeline not lead me back to politics and journalism, to try and push for laws and policies that might limit the damage?
Because I have come to the conclusion that what needs to change goes much deeper than specific laws or policies, although these are important to fight for as well. You cannot change a worldview through laws alone. Systems change when there is a culture that demands it.
How do you begin to change culture? Answering that question is the link in my journey from the Arctic to the Black Mountains.
Education, the formal school system in particular, is the point of transmission of skills, knowledge and culture where a society reproduces itself. This, in my view, is among the social spaces with the most potential as a site of transformation. Indeed, I’m not the only one.
The public education system has been hotly contested since it was founded in 1944 with the Butler Act at the end of World War Two. It has been the target of relentless lobbying from corporate interests who have, in the words of a team of academics from the Manchester Institute of Education promoted a “40 year ideological experiment in marketisation and necoconservatism,”(6) aided by the influence of fossil fuel companies in a process some have called “petro-pedagogy.”(7) To the point where today, the Department for Education website says it’s number one priority is:
“1. Drive economic growth through improving the skills pipeline, levelling up productivity and supporting people to work (cross-cutting outcome).”(8)
Economic growth is the priority not even jobs, let along the well-being of people. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the government has been so obstructionist on climate education. A so-called “world-beating climate education” was promised in 2021 only for a strategy to emerge that is more of a justification for inaction on climate education than a plan. To quote one particularly miserable line:
“An environmental science A level is already available for those that have a keen interest in the sustainability of our planet…”(9)
The failure of the current government is so apparent that children through the Teach the Future campaign have actually resorted to drafting an alternative law themselves, the Climate Education Bill, currently on its second reading in parliament this week. But even if, when, this battle over content is won, a deeper and more insidious problem of worldview, culture and how these are taught and learned, remains.
A bit like my own epiphany on the Greenland Ice Sheet in The Treeline, we can read and learn about things in the abstract but what must we do to translate that information into actually knowing something so that it can inform our experience and our practice in the world? For example, you can read about how to play the piano for years but you’ll be no closer to being able to play it.
The Cartesian worldview of separation has come to dominate western society and has led to an emphasis on abstract, objectified, cognitive knowing ‘about’ something. The idea that the ‘best’ sort of knowledge exists in the form of a textbook that describes the world from afar, rather than a knowing in the world. Formal education teaches us that we can relate to subject matter as if it doesn’t really matter, as if it is somehow separated from us: we don’t actually have to act within or in response to it. It is also the reason why the education system fails when it comes to addressing climate change, because again it is trying to teach it as if it is a ‘subject’ somehow separated from us. Climate change isn’t a ‘subject’ that we can learn about at our leisure ‘symbolically’; it’s a new era, a new reality of life. And so the problem is forever perpetuated, and it is unsurprising that young people grow increasingly frustrated as they are given the abstract definitions but not the actual actions and life skills to do anything about it. The worldview of separation is ingrained, and continues to shape how we relate to the rest of the world when what is needed is a new way of being in the world.
So the problem isn’t just that climate change isn’t taught, not even that it is taught wrongly, the whole worldview underpinning this teaching is fraught, which is very hard to change from within a society that is shaped by the same worldview. So that is how deep we have to dig to uproot the educational system. And why we need new models to pioneer new approaches which is what we’re doing in Wales.
One hundred years ago, the American philosopher John Dewey warned of the danger of public education becoming ‘symbolic’, concerned with the acquisition of the symbols of what we think learning is, if it became too divorced from real life. “There is the standing danger that the material of formal instruction will be merely the subject matter of the schools, isolate from the subject matter of life-experience. The permanent social interests are likely to be lost from view.”(10)
This tension between the symbols of learning and the current social interests is now acute. And it leads to contradiction, paralysis and bad decisions.
I was struck by an essay by the sociologist Alex Steffen recently which pointed out that climate breakdown and related inaction is largely the result of bad decisions made by an incredibly small group of people, mostly white men.(11) Every day, CEOs and boards of fossil fuel corporations, banks and governments choose not to be radical or choose to actively harm the biosphere and future generations because they cannot imagine doing anything different. Nearly all of those people understand the science of climate change. They are very well educated. They went to the best, most expensive universities on the planet. But, it turns out, the education on offer at those elite institutions is less likely
to be what we – and the world – need right now.
An analysis by the campaign group 1.5 Degrees of the relevant sustainability content of curricula in top courses at the world’s top universities found all lacking and many with almost no relevant content at all. The worst, at the top of the league table were MiT, Princeton, Peking and Tsinghua closely followed by Cambridge, Oxford, Yale and Havard.(12)
We will not dig ourselves out of the hole we are in with the spades that got ushere in the first place. Or, to misquote another saying: we will not dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. An entirely new approach is necessary.
In 1931, a group of renegade American academics inspired by John Dewey’s ideas and his dictum that “education is not preparation for life it is life,” founded an experimental college in North Carolina, USA at a small town called Black Mountain. They were joined by Jewish refugees from Bauhaus, the German art school shut down by Hitler. Bauhaus, was interested in cultivating humanistic values in opposition, as they saw it, to the mechanised, instrumental view of humanity that had led to fascism. Together they constructed a way of learning that involved the practise of the arts, growing food and building the college together with traditional subjects of history, literature and so on. The college was an experiment in community, for example, admitting black students years ahead of the civil rights act.
Black Mountains College in Wales is partly inspired by the name and the example of the original Black Mountain in trying to close the gap between life and learning, and the gap between humans and nature. But it is also inspired by the Future Generations Act in Wales – a unique law that provides a framework for all public services to measure progress towards a healthier, more equal, more sustainable Wales.
At Black Mountains, we are building a whole school approach that not only rehearses the adaptive skills needed to survive in changing environmental and economic conditions but also re-imagines the mission of the institution as a node of learning for the wider community in a collective struggle to transform our social and economic systems and rehabilitate our habitat. This means teaching new kinds of literacy necessary for the future: learning how to learn, growing food, understanding ecological and human systems and engaging in
climate and justice focused project-based learning with social outcomes; particularly through ‘change in practice’ modules in each year of our degree, including a year-long project and placement within organisations in the final year.
It is what theorists call ‘values-based’ education using activist pedagogies: the idea that the content, territory and outcome of the learning is social change in the real world. At the moment this is a somewhat fringe approach in the UK. However, it holds tantalising possibilities for the role that public education could play in mitigating and adapting to climate breakdown.
Education and information is a critical component of a major social movement. Think of the public information campaigns during Covid-19. The government’s scientists Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance became household names. Imagine if they had been talking about climate change with the same profile! How different would our national conversation be?
Moreover, the Paris Agreement, the international treaty that commits all nations to action on climate change includes a little-known clause, Article 12,
“Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.”
194 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, and yet, the UN reports, none of them have committed to mandatory climate change education as part of their National Action Plans. This is not just a dereliction of duty under international law, it is a missed opportunity.
Research by the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, estimates that mainstreaming climate education in schools would have a disproportionate impact on behaviour change reducing energy consumption and waste: “if only 16 percent of high school students in high- and middle-income countries were to receive climate change education, we could see a nearly 19 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.”(13) This is comparable to massive scale ups in wind and solar.
So there is a strong common sense argument for climate and environmental education of any kind simply to raise awareness. But there is an even stronger argument for an activist pedagogy that re-imagines the role of schools, colleges and universities within society. Not just as places to go and learn ‘about’ the world but as catalysts for change ‘in’ the world.
In moments of crisis and change, educational institutions have always played an outsize role. In Africa where I have taught, in emergencies and natural disasters, in refugee camps or in contexts of ‘development’, the notion that schools and students should be involved in making change as part of their
learning is taken for granted.
During World War Two, the United States ran an ambitious and comprehensive ‘Schools at War’ programme that linked learning to the war effort. The theme of the programme was ‘Save, Serve and Conserve’. Students studied lessons in thrift and self-sufficiency as well as “good citizenship”, the “preservation of democracy”, first aid, communications and propaganda, plane spotting, childcare and mending clothes. Social engagement included art campaigns for public instruction, dig for victory drives and a huge fundraising effort to buy stamps and war bonds; schools could even sponsor a plane with their name on. In total, schools raised $2 billion ($30 billion in today’s money) for the war effort.
The parallels with a potential model for engaged public education framed entirely around an urgent re-wiring of society are clear. At a time when schools and universities are often being asked to consider or reclaim their ‘civic mission’ – here is an urgent challenge and a method for engaging with it.
But there is another, final, and perhaps most important point about learning as action: climate change is a safeguarding issue.
To be coming of age into this world at this time is a uniquely challenging experience. Our world is degrading in ways that can be overwhelming. The lack of control, the uncertainty about the future and, most of all, the disconnect between what we know needs to happen and the apparent indifference of those in power can be demoralising and disempowering.
Holding those feelings whilst continuing to inhabit a world shaped and underpinned by hydro-carbons and hydro-carbon thinking can, not surprisingly lead to trauma and anxiety. If we were to be utterly ethical in every single decision, it would be exhausting. We have to ignore so much just to get through the day.
Good mental health is about surfacing difficult feelings, acknowledging them and working through them. Learning that incorporates action is healing and empowering. An activist pedagogy allows us to address the dissonance head-on. It offers us a solution to the existential dilemma facing society as a whole: how to work within existing systems whilst simultaneously seeking to transform them.
Following the first question: did I feel I knew enough about climate breakdown, led, inevitably to a second one – which I will also pose to you:
Where do you see yourself in the arc of the struggle for a habitable planet?
The state of the world is scary. Our fear is justified. But we are not alone. And although accepting that the status quo is irretrievable and that your planet will be very different from the one my parents bequeathed us, is hard, it is also a historic opportunity to do things differently. Apocalyptic thinking is lazy.
Climate breakdown is not the end of the world, but the end of what we have been told about the world. It will be a catastrophe for many species and people in many places but there will still be work, community, making art, falling in love and having children and grand challenges aplenty. We must prepare our children and young people for those likely futures, but not as
victims, as capable and responsible stewards of the earth, inheritors of our mistakes but also of our successes and endowed with the values and judgement to be able to tell the difference.
For an analysis of how we got to this point of emergency:
Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse
And for an eye-opening alternative view about new ways of thinking to get us
Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World
- IPCC, 2019: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C.
Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegrı́a, M. Nicolai, A.
Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)]..
- IPCC Ar6, Climate Change the Physical Science Basis, 2021, Chapter 9.
- Ritchie, P.D.L., Smith, G.S., Davis, K.J. et al. Shifts in national land use and food production in Great Britain
after a climate tipping point. Nature Food 1, 76–83 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0011-3
- Goulson, D. Silent Earth, Jonathan Cape, 2021.
- Emily M. Eaton & Nick A. Day (2020) Petro-pedagogy: fossil fuel interests and the obstruction of climate
justice in public education, Environmental Education Research,26:4, 457-
473, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1650164
See also: https://newsocialist.org.uk/fossil-fuels-and-corporate-takeover-higher-education/
- DfE Outcome Delivery Plan 2021-2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/department-foreducation-outcome-delivery-plan/dfe-outcome-delivery-plan-2021-to-2022
- Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1913. 11 Steffen, A. “Old Thinking Will Break Your Brain,” Substack, May 22, 2022.
- Steffen, A. “Old Thinking Will Break Your Brain,” Substack, May 22, 2022
- Kwauk C. and Winthrop R. “Unleashing the creativity of teachers and students to combat climate change: An
opportunity for global leadership” Brookings/Centre for Universal Education, March 2021.