Changes to our climate near point of no return


In a recent speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, UN Secretary-General António Guterres drew attention to the severe impact of human-induced climate change on the environment. Guterres emphasised the need for collaborative action to reverse this worrying trend, and to forge a peaceful and sustainable future on a healthy planet before we reach a point of no return.Guterres is not, and will not be, the last global leader to highlight the danger our planet is currently facing.

Since the start of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, there has been a growing social awareness of the negative consequences of most human-environment relationships. There is increasing evidence of ecosystem change and destruction and thus malfunction, making it impossible for the environment to support human needs and life.

Environmental problems are diverse and include global warming, deforestation, biodiversity depletion and population resource-imbalances.

In her 2011 doctoral study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Jane Edwards suggests these relationships are “unsustainable and detrimental to human life and will undoubtedly lead to an irreversible plummet: a rapid decline in life caused by a cascade of global environmental changes unprecedented in human history”.

Even more ominously, Canadian academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki argues that the rate of population growth and use of the Earth’s (natural) resources will lead to a decline in the capacity of the Earth’s systems to continue to support human needs.

Environmental problems have reached unprecedented levels, to the extent that few would disagree that our planet is on the brink of ecological disaster. But how did we get into this mess and so estranged from “Mother Earth”?

Scholars in the social sciences seem to suggest that from the end of World War II in 1945 until the present, we have seen many negative socio-ecological interactions. This is now considered to be the period in Earth’s history during which humans have had the most significant impact on the environment.

Referred to as the Anthropocene, this period has been characterised by sharp increases in the world’s population, rampant industrialisation and gross exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of humans.

The proliferation of shopping malls, golf estates, industrial parks and housing in what were pristine and functional ecosystems is relatively recent evidence of this rampant development ethos, with its associated negative impacts and range of maladies.

In times of societal difficulties and crises, we often turn to education to remedy or fix pressing issues and problems.

Global organisations like Unesco have always spearheaded such initiatives and the most recent Unesco documents (Sustainable Development Goals 2030) are further evidence of this commitment.

The field of environmental education (EE), in particular, has played an important role. In an article in Connectivity (2002), Lucie Sauvé, professor of environmental education and eco-citizenship at the University of Quebec, writes that EE “is not a form of education among many others; it is not simply a tool for environmental problem-solving or management.

“It is an essential dimension of basic education that lies at the root of personal and social development: the sphere of relationships with our environment, with our common home of life.”

Thus, this form of education suggests the existence of or a development of a close relationship between humans and the environment.

While fostering an awareness of the interdependence and integrated nature of human existence with the environment is crucial, it might not be enough as a response to the issues and problems we face.

Unsurprisingly, some EE scholars developed the idea of environmental education “About, In and For the environment” as an integrated model or process of pedagogies and experiences for both formal and informal education.

These processes advocate for knowledge “About” the environment/issues, experiences “In” the environment and opportunities for dialogue and discussion, and possibly action to reduce current degradation and prevent future problems “For” or in the interest of the environment.

We need to reconnect with nature and also focus on our “integratedness” and equitable position as a species in nature and our collective responsibility to and with other species.

In this way, we can ensure that we contribute to the continued “working” of the biological processes that sustain our very lives.

An integrated approach to education About, In and For the environment has the potential to help us start a personal connection with and commitment to living in ways that sustain life on planet Earth and also to improve social, economic, political and biophysical conditions.

As a species, we need to realise the importance of living in harmony with the environment of which we are an integral part and with which we share the precious and fragile planet.

* Chris Reddy is a professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University. He is also the co-ordinator of EEPUS, an Environmental Education Programme in the university’s Faculty of Education.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.