Those who know most about climate change have the biggest carbon footprint. What does sustainability education have to look like in order to be effective?
For academics, the news are bleak: there is little evidence that greater knowledge about climate change will lead to more sustainable behavioural choices. In a sense, this is not surprising: highly educated as some people may be, they can still commit the most atrocious crimes or treat their fellow human beings in the most unethical ways. I’m not a climate scientist so I’ll let questions around rising sea levels, biodiversity loss and garbage mountains be answered by specialists in their respective fields. What interests me, from a pedagogical point of view, is the link between knowledge acquisition and behavioural change.
My question is quite simply: when does someone start to care?
I’m meeting up with Christopher Baird, who has explored approaches to sustainability education from a Resonance Pedagogy point of view. In a way, Resonance Pedagogy is driven by the same motivation: how do we relate to each other and our lived environment in a way that is careful and engaging?
Let me get my facts straight first. Can we really say that greater knowledge about the environment doesn’t lead to greener decisions? “Yes,” says Baird. “We’ve seen real increases in carbon and sustainability literacy in recent years, but there is a conspicuous lack of evidence that gains in knowledge have been accompanied by ecological improvements. In actual fact, the opposite seems to be true: the very population groups who are most knowledgeable about sustainability issues almost unequivocally have the largest ecological footprints.”
That’s a real problem for the planet, but it makes me doubt the way we educate our students too. Is the indifference we sometimes encounter in a tedious and underwhelming seminar session the same as the lack of care we see ascribe to callous polluters?
“Let me explain,” says Baird. “Mainstream approaches to environmental goals tend to view unsustainability as an epistemic problem—if only we can get the facts about sustainability out there, behavioural change will follow. However, this misses the fundamental insight that behavioural change requires, among other things, emotional and passionate engagement.” Here’s where Resonance Theory and, ultimately, Resonance Pedagogy come into play: “From the perspective of Resonance Theory, the problem of (un)sustainability is not primarily an epistemic one, but a problem of how we relate to the world.”
Hartmut Rosa’s concept of Resonance was developed to counter an attitude that treats the world as a resource to be controlled or mastered. His view is that experiences of burnout, anger and isolation are the result of an objectifying take on the world that refuses to let our surrounding speak to us and doesn’t bother to respond. If all we have is skills and knowledge, the world won’t matter to us, and we won’t feel that we matter at all.
So what can we do? Baird’s own teaching is multisensory – he brings the sounds of nature, the rainforest, the metropolis, the abattoirs into the classroom to allow for immersive experiences. “We need to actually hear the ‘call of nature,’ to ‘feel touched’ by the non-human entities with which we share the planet, and to respond to them in an open-ended process that transforms all those involved.”
Like Anna-Lena Demi’s work on classroom responses to literature Baird’s practice seems to combine ethics and creativity without giving up on intellectual rigour. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t learn more about nature but, rather, that “learning” will be effective when it allows for a personal, experiential response to our objects of enquiry.
Like meaningful classroom experiences in any subject, a greener world may emerge out of a more resonant form of teaching and learning.