Teaching on a Warming Planet

In Review: Educating for the Anthropocene: Schooling and Activism in the Face of Slow Violence

As Peter Sutoris puts it in the introduction of his latest book, today’s youth are confronted with “a life marked by immense historical responsibility that perhaps no other generation has ever faced.” So isn’t it about time we rethought our education systems to help them prepare for this challenge?

Let’s assume we do want to reimagine education for the twenty-first century. Let’s say we want to prepare young students to take on the biggest challenges their generation will face — like climate change — and encourage them to imagine ways to move forward that won’t lead to even greater problems for future generations. What would that look like? What kind of schooling could prepare students for such a gargantuan task? Such are the questions Sutoris tries to answer in Educating for the Anthropocene.

Through ethnographic research conducted at schools in Pashulok, India, and Wentworth, South Africa, Sutoris examines schooling in communities where residents’ lives are deeply impacted by decades of environmental racism and pollution, what he refers to as slow violence. Sutoris is repeatedly inspired by activists in these communities — which he describes as the “frontier of the high anthropocene” — particularly by the inclusivity embodied in their work and their ability to think beyond the present political systems, or even the present generation. Which is why he suggests that an adequate environmental education requires three key ingredients: radical imagination, agonistic pluralism, and intergenerational dialogue.

We need to cultivate radical imaginations because seriously mitigating climate change — another form of slow violence due to the disease and displacement it will bring to places like Pashulok and Wentworth, as well as around the world — demands a re-think of our economic, political, and social systems so drastic it is entirely unimaginable to most. Agonistic pluralism, which refers to a democratic process in which all views and ideas are treated with respect, is crucial for ensuring that solutions proposed by one individual or community aren’t detrimental to others. Intergenerational dialogue breaks our focus and our politics out of the present, and forces us to reckon with the potential consequences of our actions for future generations.

Sutoris grounds his findings in a theoretical framework that primarily draws on the works of philosophers Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricœur. Arendt’s work on the concepts of bureaucratization and politics comes up again and again, as well as Ricœur’s understanding of historical responsibility. That said, Educating for the Anthropocene is not a book solely for researchers. It balances chapters that are dense with academic sources and terminology with others that offer vivid descriptions of the places and people that Sutoris spent time with during his investigation.

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What is perhaps most surprising about Sutoris’s work is his ability to find hope, again and again, in what appear to be irredeemably bleak places. He finds hope among those in Pashulok, who, despite being displaced by a mega dam, say they are happy to have contributed to India’s energy security. And among activists in Wentworth, who despite battling unregulated corporations and corrupt politicians, continue to fight for a healthier community. He even finds hope within schools that are failing to properly teach students about environmental challenges. Because in spite of their schools’ failings, the students demonstrate an inherent understanding of the crises they face and the ability to imagine an alternative future.

Ultimately, Sutoris’s findings are also relevant beyond the realm of education. In his dialogues with local experts about environmental catastrophes — such as the Bhopal chemical disaster in India that killed thousands, or severe air pollution in South Africa that contributes to a range of health problems — he uncovers insights into the forces that allow these kinds of problems to occur and often to continue in perpetuity. Thinking about how to politicize communities around concepts like debt to the dead and debt to the unborn is useful not just for educators and school administrators, but also for activists, environmental communicators, and policymakers who seek to create a cleaner, healthier future.

Taking the time to consider how we want to teach young people about one of the defining issues of their time is perhaps the most effective way to shape humanity’s future. This book offers readers a well-thought-out place to start, if they wish to do so.

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