On Power and Climate Change

At some point in the last couple of months, someone recommended that I read Seth Kreisberg’s 1992 book Transforming Power: Domination, Empowerment, and Education.

To whomever that person is, sincere thanks. It’s an amazing read. And it’s connecting really deeply with my recent thinking about the tension between schools as a public and private good and the greatest aspirations we have for students as they experience school.

Real fast here, I just want to riff a bit off one paragraph in particular from the last chapter which was written by editors after Kreisberg died suddenly at the age of 33 before finishing the final manuscript of the book.

A Challenging Future

It’s difficult not to be concerned with how our kids in school today are going to cope with and thrive in their futures with the effects of climate change bearing down on them. It’s equally difficult to look at the future with a sense of hope, not just for the world but for the ability of schools to actually make that the focus of our work.

Kreisberg’s book tells many stories of teachers and students who were involved in a group called Educators for Social Responsibility which was founded in 1982 to address the concerns of both students and teachers about the possibility of nuclear war. It grew to be a “national grassroots organization of teachers and other educators who believed that schools can help students develop the values, insight, skills and commitment to address contemporary problems and to shape a more peaceful and just world” (92). In other words, it was a group dedicated to pursuing the “public good” potential of schools (as opposed to the “private good” that I wrote about in my last post.)

So, here’s a snip from the book that talks about the work of those educators under the threat of nuclear war. But I’ve taken the liberty to replace “nuclear war” with “climate change” because the sentiment holds. And it’s pretty powerful.

“The omnipresence of climate change is sufficient to make anyone feel helpless, overwhelmed, and speechless. The problem seems huge, above and beyond us. Young people in our society have lived their whole lives under the threat of climate change, and many of them believe that the effects of climate change will only worsen. The problem makes them and us feel small, nearly invisible. In addressing the threat of climate change, these educators found themselves addressing the issues of power in our society, in their daily lives, and in education. They saw that there was a relationship between addressing the problem and how they acted toward one another. Further, they saw that education could play a role in addressing the threat of climate change and changing relationships; but for students and teachers to do so, they both had to become empowered and emerge from the invisibility and silence into which they were relegated. The struggle against the threat of climate change was not separated from the struggle against the social conditions that disempower people. In struggling against the threat of climate change, they transformed themselves, others, and the pedagogies they brought to their classrooms” (214). [Emphasis mine.]

While daunting, I read that last line as hopeful. The idea that we can “transform” ourselves and our practice around the urgency of a collective and existential challenge is a hopeful frame. But only, only if we choose that path.

Climate, Democracy, and Power

I worry, however, that we are failing to understand the significance of this moment. I worry that we will wait to begin to address both the intellectual and emotional aspects of climate change until some curriculum writer or policy wonk decides it’s appropriate. And I worry that when we do begin to embrace this challenge in schools that we will do so with a disregard to the larger context of how power relationships in our society really hold the key to whether or not we’re going to solve it.

As Kreisberg’s editors write, schools don’t take democracy seriously, and that has much to do with power. Democratic communities are places where “people enter into critical inquiry characterized by mutual support, cooperative decision making, and synergistic learning”. Yet schools are places “characterized by human isolation, competition for scarce resources, and relationships of dominance and submission” (215). Harsh words, but true nonetheless.

Fact is, unless you are a technological determinist who believes that some app will save the day, we will only solve this crisis if we dive into it headlong in schools and choose to make it the primary context for our work. Not just the context of climate, but equally the contexts of democracy and power as well.


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