Lucie Sauvé: Schools avoid climate change for fear of being ‘controversial’

Lucie Sauvé

UNESCO has published its 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, linking education and sustainable development. But Lucie Sauvé is “far from convinced” that this is the right approach to ending poverty and tackling climate change. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

Lucie Sauvé is a professor of environmental education and eco-citizenship at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada.

What do you think of the decision to combine the subject of environmental education and the Sustainable Development Goals in this UNESCO global report?

This year UNESCO chose to pin its Global Education Monitoring report to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Education is the 4th of these 17 goals.

I am both appreciative and critical of this report. Its intentions are laudable: education helps reduce poverty, end hunger, improve health, gender equality, etc. This is all well and good.

But at the same time, we have to realise that eradicating poverty, hunger and inequality requires supported economic growth, which is promoted by the SDGs. Yet if we are to believe analysts like Edgar Morin, Riccardo Petrella or Serge Latouche, this is precisely the caue of the problem.

There is some quite striking data in this report, like the fact that the education programmes of more than half of all states do not explicitly mention climate change. Is this because states have their attention taken up by other emergencies (war, poverty, etc.) or is it a deliberate omission?

With a few exceptions, like certain Scandinavian countries or Latin America, environmental concerns have not adequately penetrated educational programmes. We are afraid of controversy and engagement at school, despite the emerging discourse on the importance of youth engagement in society.

But when it comes time to train teachers or update programmes, we see reluctance: people are afraid of a school that could be seen as “activist”.

Do you think it could wreak havoc with the school system and society more broadly if we were to tackle all the issues related to climate change at school?

Questions like climate change are by their nature interdisciplinary, and this interdisciplinarity is something that is completely missing form school culture. Also, these questions are eminently political, and many people would find this inapropriate for a school that wants to be “neutral” and is not prepared for a debate.

But we have to realise that the very fact that we do not discuss the environment, pesticides, GMOs, climate change or deforestation in school is itself a political choice. These subjects are being removed from education programmes. Those that choose to avoid these questions may not even realise what they are doing.

But in spite of everything I am not a pessimist. We can do a huge amount of work with teachers, who, in spite of educational programmes, show a lot of creativity and manage to bring these questions to life in their classes.

We should take note of what is being done on the ground by the more audacious teachers who also see themselves as citizens with an important social role to play. So I am not discouraged, even if I am very worried to see education being covered with the lead blanket of sustainable development.

The concept of sustainable development was developed for the world of business. That is where it is relevant. But when we make it a central objective of our education systems, I am sorry, but that is not acceptable, that is a development we need to resist.

Except that environmental education, in a broader sense, will be vital for populations whose very survival will be at stake in the face of increasingly frequent floods, fires and droughts. Are there not some “deadly” gaps in this environmental education?

Indeed, it is extremely important to learn to build that kind of resilience. And to do so together. But are schools ready to become the laboratories of collective action?

In any case, when we talk of climate change, we must take care not to focus on the consequences we need to protect ourselves against, but also to look at the question in terms of equity and climate justice.

As it is described in the UNESCO report, we could be forgiven for thinking that education consists of teaching the most vulnerable populations to adapt to floods or droughts, to defend themselves against the worst consequences, but without ever giving them the possibility to cast a critical eye on the situation, without encouraging them to denounce, resist and fundamentally change the issue that is causing the problem.

In the report I read, for example, that “education will not deliver its full potential unless education systems fully embrace sustainable development”. But if the education system embraces supported economic growth, we are in serious trouble.

All the vocabulary of “social capital” and the “labour market” that is used in this report deserves our close attention. It is full of the best intentions in the world, but I am far from convinced that the framework employed is the right one to achieve the results it sets out to achieve.

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