After almost a whole year away from classrooms for far too many pupils, educators everywhere are having to rethink how to teach. But they should also be rethinking what to teach in terms of preparing for a different kind of economy.
When politicians and commentators refer to a ‘green recovery’ or a ‘Green New Deal’, it is open to interpretation. Most people understand ‘green’ to essentially mean ‘in harmony with nature’ but, by that definition alone, some consider nuclear power to be green while others apply the same label to natural gas, which is a fossil fuel.
Natural processes can also be used to decide what is green because constructive natural processes never use high temperatures – unlike, say, fire or nuclear reactions. Trees make wood, animals make bones and teeth, birds make eggshell – all at ambient temperatures. But how they do it remains a mystery so not easy to replicate.
Defining green education
The ongoing debate about the true meaning of green also applies to education and should be taking place worldwide with schools, colleges, and universities greening their curricula. Students and scholars should be studying both how nature works and how human society works – with all its flaws and failures – and how to make them work better together, not only for humans but for the other species which share the planet.
This means green teaching should be incorporated into all the critical topics – not just in science and engineering or in technology and mathematics where clean energy and biomimetics are already making an impact, but also in humanities and design subjects as well as professional training in business and finance.
Governments, companies, and academia all have their roles to play in this comprehensive transformation of education. Information technology and the internet makes a major contribution but far too much information online is inaccurate, misleading, or just plain dishonest. Deciding what is valid and worthwhile is the real challenge – indeed, the need for critical independent thinking is an essential component of green education.
More broadly, green now means finding a way of living which benefits our health and mental well-being and so, in this sense, all education and all jobs should become green. Many more jobs could be created and valued more highly in care, health, education, the arts, and social work. Although not traditionally seen as green jobs, the education needed for them should emphasize our interdependence not just on fellow human beings but on the nature we share. Valuing these jobs more and investing more in them should be part of the green vision, bringing human activities more into harmony with nature.
Greening global society means understanding, respecting, and cherishing the natural systems which everything depends on. Restoring the soils, forests, and waterways requires knowledgeable, capable, and dedicated stewardship. Greening cities is particularly challenging but exciting examples such as Copenhagen and Medellin already exist, and the potential is vast.
A key aspect of this is how education can foster the skills needed. Some green skills are specific and practical with jobs to match, such as the Civilian Climate Corps being launched by the Biden administration in the US with the aim of providing good training and jobs for young people in environmentally-friendly careers.
The hope is that those taking part go on to work on restoring public lands and waters, planting trees, improving access to parks, building green stormwater management systems, installing insulation and solar panels on homes, helping clean up toxic waste sites, and developing urban gardens.
The opportunity for similar programmes elsewhere is obvious. Chatham House runs a free Summer School online, to give young people 16-18 years old experience of the way governments and businesses work, how they decide what to do, and how to do it. And a UK organization Speakers4Schools (S4S) enlists senior people from across society to offer their services free as speakers to state schools which do not have the resources of wealthier private-funded schools.
In April 2021, S4S is presenting a Green Skills Week to introduce pupils to sector leaders and potential employers within green technology and finance to offer young people ‘valuable insight days, practical experience, and access to unique training and recruitment opportunities’. The topics covered include science, nature, construction, infrastructure and utilities, technology, travel, accountancy and investment, public policy, and consultancy – all with a green focus.
Nature always recycles and nature loves diversity. The monocultures currently created by humans, with vast hectares of a single species such as wheat, rice, or conifer trees are vulnerable to disease and disaster, whereas nature’s diversity provides robustness and resilience.
If human activities are brought into harmony with nature, they can become similarly robust and resilient. Integrating this mindset of harmony into the global education system is essential if such an ideal is to be realized.