In: Survival How?
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During the first decade of this century I worked on a project that drew together scientific findings about the critical state of the biosphere, factors that affect the behavior of individuals and groups toward their environment, and educational approaches towards heading off the worst of the coming crisis. The resulting book, Environmental Ethics for the Future (Lautensach 2010), contributed a new perspective to the growing body of literature on education for sustainability. Education for a sustainable future was defined by Jamie Cloud (2014), an outstanding teacher in the field, as “a transformative process that equips students, teachers, schools, and informal educators with the knowledge and ways of thinking that society needs to achieve economic prosperity and responsible citizenship while restoring the health of the living systems upon which our lives depend”. As for sustainability itself, I would prefer readers to define it for themselves after reading chapter one; most popularised definitions tend to oversimplify or outright mislead. Sustainability means living within limits set by global geophysical processes, by ecological support structures and their capacities, by social groups and interactions, and by the basic needs of all living organisms, including Homo sapiens. A concise definition was given by Richard Heinberg (2010) as a set of necessary and sufficient axioms governing growth, resource use and pollution.

The body of educational literature I referred to above included detailed assessments of the global environmental crisis and its drivers, critiques of values and beliefs that amounted to variously helpful or harmful ‘modern’ world views, learning outcomes that would render human aspirations and endeavours more sustainable, along with conducive teaching methods for the classroom and the outdoors.

Beyond the educational sector, a growing concern for human security1 has galvanized efforts in many disciplines to analyse and evaluate the situation of humanity in the context of accelerating global change and to assess our prospects for the future. The emergence of the Anthropocene in the form of a mass of physical observations about unprecedented changes in the global environment and as a conceptual framework for making sense of those observations has fuelled that concern.

One idea that has united those multidisciplinary perspectives up to the present is a shared sense of potential, of a conviction that humanity can solve the present and future challenges of a world in crisis and build a future for ‘all’ that meets everyone’s needs and aspirations – as long as enough of us commit to common agenda. Perhaps the most publicized example are the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its 2030 Agenda which was endorsed by the majority of the UN General Assembly, including their educational targets, and came into force on 1 January 2015 (UN 2015a; 2015b). In the education sector this optimism has diffused from the literature into many mainstream curricula, mission statements, political programs and agreements. One of the SDGs (#4) was designed to promote education for ‘sustainable development’.

In contrast to that optimistic outlook, many experts, and increasingly the general public as well, have expressed concerns that the crisis may be more urgent and more severe than has been admitted by the optimists. Many manifestations of the crisis – the growth of human demands on the global support system, ecological deterioration, pollution and climate change, disappearance of species and entire ecosystems, resource scarcity – continue to worsen at accelerating rates (Steffen 2019; Nikiforuk 2019). The latest manifestation was the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, which brought the global and biological aspects to people’s awareness worldwide.

The division between those two perspectives and the intense debate between them has come to dominate public discourse. Many of the advocates in the ‘optimist’ camp still seem to assume that humanity could manage to meet the challenges and avoid serious disaster without deviating too much from business as usual. They are being increasingly questioned by the ‘pessimist’ camp who acknowledge the actual magnitude of the crisis, warn of an ‘age of consequences’ that has already begun2, who call for fundamental reforms of organisations and new ways of organising, new forms of discourse, goals that include an open acknowledgement of the crisis, and a genuine commitment to action on the various social, political and environmental fronts that have opened up.

The debate has become more heated during the past decade. The sense of crisis and calls for drastic solutions have heightened both in the general public and among experts, particularly in the natural sciences. Official warnings by large groups of scientists to the general public have been issued (World Economic Forum 2020; Ripple et al. 2017). Waves of public protests, involving especially young people worldwide, have underscored that growing shared awareness of a threshold in world history. Equally palpable has been the emergence of resistance to those voices, powered by vested interests in the status quo and by the worldwide movement of economic capital from public into private hands. Official curricula are still dominated by the optimistic perspective while many educators and learners are becoming less enamoured by it.

As I will argue in the introductory chapter, those developments have reached a point where programs such as the 2030 Agenda and its underlying beliefs, sentiments and ideals can no longer meet the needs of humanity and the biosphere; nor can an education that merely reproduces values and goals conceived in the 20th century and before. Perhaps they never could, but what seems clear is a growing fundamental disconnect between official ambitions and the physical reality of the planet at hand. The former dwell too often on what we want more of – while the biosphere urges us to aim for less of it. Like a good number of others, I sometimes picture her as the goddess Gaia, shaking her head at her children as they blunder from one folly to another.

In the introductory chapter I will also outline in more factual detail how this disconnect between the two perspectives becomes ever wider and more striking as the crisis unfolds and the world heads for an inevitable transition to a lasting equilibrium within the biosphere. It will be up to our collective decisions and actions whether that equilibrium will include a sustainable role for humanity; and only if that sustainable role involves an acceptable quality of all human lives can we rightfully refer to it as a deliberate ‘Great Transition’ in the sense that Paul Raskin (2002) and Van Rensselaer Potter (1988) framed it – the former from a position of global ecology and the second from bioethics.3

The teacher in me insists that it is primarily our treatment of children that determines to what extent the next generations will simply duplicate our mistakes – many will not even have that opportunity – or how they will be able to learn from our mistakes and conduct their affairs more wisely and more responsibly in the context of the Transition. In either case they will not look kindly upon the legacy we will have left them. Therefore, turning to education in the second chapter, one of the pedagogical aims to be introduced there will be the development of a more distinct sense of history, a way to experience the present as the product of numerous historical processes, each with its own rate and direction – adding to, subtracting from, multiplying and dividing each other like the currents and eddies in a river. I borrow Malm’s (2016) view of diachronicity to describe this aim, as a complex sequence of stages in a chronological development, conglomerates of trends with diverse rates, scales and direction.4

Empirically, diachronicity is best described by its absence, which can manifest as an obsession with the present, a lack of awareness of its historical ontology, and a careless naiveté about alternative futures and the inevitability of change. For example, organic farming is nowadays often presented as an innovation instead of the millennia-old and globally diverse tradition that its historical track record indicates. The pedagogical benefits associated with a diachronic perspective of history is that the learner

  • interprets temporal historical snapshots (at any scale) not as independent scenarios but as a continuous sequence; for example: the 2016 election of president Trump was not a surprise but a plausible step in a chain of events including the defeat of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in 1977.
  • as a consequence, develops a more pronounced sense of responsibility towards future generations;
  • as a consequence, is aware of potential status quo bias when evaluating innovation and compensates for it;
  • regards historical change holistically as the sum of innumerable variables, where cultures change along with their natural habitat [described as ‘environmental history’ by Merchant (1980) and Isenberg (2014)]
  • in conjunction, avoids the ceteris paribus fallacy5 when projecting future developments.
  • connects historical change with scopes of possibility; the qualitative difference between a world familiar with Beethoven’s 10th symphony and a world who never even heard Beethoven’s name (ours being situated between those alternatives) may only lie in the availability of effective medical treatment of a common infection. Diachronic awareness opens the mind to the scope of infinite historical possibility.

Acknowledging diachronicity reduces the temptations to overly idealise or trivialise the past, and to succumb to the modernist tendency of discounting the future in the effort to perpetuate the present.6 A diachronic perspective might also render the study of history more enjoyable for the learner, potentially turning what may seem to a child like a jumble of seemingly random snapshots and dates into a moving picture that can make sense, of a road which all of humanity has inhabited since our evolutionary origins, with every culture and society at every stage along the way acting in the conviction that they were the most enlightened, most proactive, most modern in human history. Much of mainstream history education produces the opposite notion in the learner, implicitly picturing past societies as backward and unthinking, and portraying indigenous non-Western cultures as ‘stuck in the past’ and therefore inferior.7

How could a sense of diachronicity empower learners to help towards the Transition? First, the pedagogical benefits listed above would probably allow them to regard the Anthropocene more clearly as a product of past developments and as a source of possible futures, and also as an occasion for personal engagement. Secondly, in view of the profusion of operative factors (many of them unknown or poorly understood) learners would be more likely to employ the Precautionary Principle (Akins et al. 2019) when making decisions about the future. These two learning benefits will play a decisive role in our efforts to manage a Transition towards a sustainable future of acceptable quality for all. Despite its importance, diachronicity has not been receiving enough attention in existing curricula, as I will document in the second chapter. In the third chapter we will explore its ethical ramifications and in the fourth focus on assorted learning outcomes that might amount to a diachronic world view.

To explain the rest of the book’s title: This project arose from my vision of a global crisis for human security and for the biosphere, a crisis from which we can neither escape nor exempt ourselves as Menschen. It also came from the urge to use my expertise as an academic to advocate and to practice a model of education that prioritises both humanitarianism and ecocentrism, doing my small part in compensating for massive crimes of omission. Also involved was my conviction that the survival of humanity and human civilisations, along with many of our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth, can no longer be taken for granted either in principle or in its mode of quality.8 Survival per se is not the most desirable moral goal under the principle of maximizing welfare; most desirable should rather be the acceptable mode of survival, in which injustice is minimised and happiness in a holistic and ecocentric sense is supported for humanity-cum-biosphere. Consequently, the Crisis of the Anthropocene has not only an ecological face but cultural, social, political, educational and, above all, ethical faces as well.

The downside of that vision is that acceptable survival is only possible for a limited population size. This limit is dictated by the biosphere in the form of the maximum ecological impact that she can sustain for the average lifetime of a species (estimated by paleontologists at about 7 million years). This realization leads to the Limited Survival Paradigm, which will be presented in the first chapter. Suffice it for now to point to evidence suggesting that our current population size of 7.8 billion (August 2020) does not qualify by a long shot; that the actual limit will be closer to a total global population of about two billion (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 1990). This suggestion is a hard pill to swallow for anybody with any positive feelings toward people and humanity. I will argue in chapter three that by itself it is neither fascist, nor Darwinist, nor misanthropic, nor whatever other accusations have been slung at the few individuals who dared to openly advocate it. The concept of the naturalistic fallacy dictates that a mere fact cannot by itself imply a course of action in any moral sense; moral scrutiny should be reserved for our courses of action (or inaction) in response to such facts.9

The title of this book is intended as a jolt of reality check in a lukewarm sea of false promises and self-delusion which extends over much of the literature in the areas of sustainable ‘development’ (a term about which a good deal more needs to be said), economics, social policy and social justice, political economy and international studies. Reality checks are rarely welcomed by those who need them most urgently. The view from our living room in northwestern British Columbia features a stunning panorama of coastal mountain ranges. Most people around here rarely connect the large expanses of clear-cut mountain slopes, logging trucks thundering along highways day and night, endless freight trains exporting raw material and jobs from the land that I love, bearing the logos of transnational corporations who neither know nor care where their ‘stuff’ comes from. And the questions rise in my mind, “How could a world population of 7.8 billion possibly NOT treat its remaining wilderness areas in this way?” and “How could this destruction possibly NOT get worse as the population keeps increasing?” Because the context – including ecological overshoot, transgression of environmental and social boundaries and all the associated misery, as well as our historical track record – suggests that further increases in numbers will spell more desperate competition, more scarcity, more poverty, more violence against people and non-human nature. To my South, the world’s biggest kakistocracy (meaning ‘government by the worst’; see Text Box F in section 1.4) is already beginning to extract resources from its surviving conservation areas.

On a personal note: The prospects that most concern me aren’t even featured in the media commentaries. For example, when the methane in the arctic gets turned loose the planet will heat very quickly beyond any of the estimates based on CO2 emissions alone. All glaciers and ice fields will disappear, major river systems will turn into seasonal creeks and millions will starve. I find no consolation in the fact that among the famine victims will be former climate skeptics. Other observations that keep me awake at night include the horrendous rate at which our species extinguishes other life forms, the casual violence and cruelty we impart on those that we hold captive, the disdain we display for anything natural, and the small-minded pseudo-ideals that dominate the cultural behavior of many people around me. Bendell (2018) captured the futility and hubris of humanity’s efforts to cope with these challenges in the metaphor of “walking up a landslide”.

In chapter one I will briefly discuss some popular objections to those dire predictions, objections asserting that humanity has never had it this good. I will summarise the evidence suggesting that those objections are based on misinterpreted (for lack of a diachronic perspective) observations, suffer from internal contradictions and invite unsavoury and counterproductive consequences. Here I would point to the genuinely positive aspects of those challenges: That every crisis also brings opportunity; that every moment in history opens the doors to multiple potential futures and diverse modes of transitioning to sustainability; that an unprecedented number of people from all cultures has begun to think about our collective situation and to engage in its mitigation in some form, to contribute in their own personal ways towards the Great Transition.

One observation that has buoyed my confidence over four decades as an educator is that one cannot with any confidence predict a young person’s ability to learn, based on the behaviour, appearance or discourse they exhibit at any given moment. History is full of stories of profound personal transformations that transmuted individuals into completely different persons. On the flipside it is also true that for every one of those transformation accounts there exist dozens of individuals who were either unable to rise to such occasions or for whom the right combination of stimuli never appeared to trigger profound personal growth. On balance, I still feel confident that in times of crisis such as now, leadership can sometimes emerge from directions least expected. In chapter two I will discuss the most prominent contemporary example of this – Greta Thunberg – and what educators can learn from her example.

In this book I use the term education in its widest possible sense. From the learner’s perspective it includes any experience that leads to personal growth in some dimension. For the teacher this means that any action or feature in the teaching environment, intentional or accidental, can lead to learning (or not). This includes the explicit curriculum, the hidden curriculum with its school rules and conventions and numerous implicit norms and messages, as well as the null curriculum: cultural taboos and blind spots that are rarely if ever addressed explicitly. The impact of the latter on the learner can be more profound than much of the preceding; numerous personal accounts reflect how the impact of the explicit curriculum often pales compared to what ideas children learn from the hidden and null curricula to regard as unimportant, unsavoury, or even dangerous.

The impact of education is usually circumscribed by compilations of formal learning outcomes in official curricula, complemented, if possible, by the teacher’s own intentions and rationales. Despite their selectivity, those fulfil an essential role in the planning of instruction – a dictum in anglophone pedagogy that dates back to Ralph Tyler. The generally used ‘Bloom’s’ taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) classifies learning outcomes into cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains which complement and influence each other in complex ways. Especially affective learning outcomes (attitudes10, beliefs, norms, values, ideals, interests, etc.) exert a powerful influence over all learning (Krathwohl et al. 1964), and quite often it is the hidden curriculum that causes most of them (Giroux & Penna 1979). Many more complex learning outcomes (such as ‘wisdom’) consist of numerous subordinate objectives and require years of learning at advanced levels. The German language aptly features a special word for that kind of complex learning (Bildung), as opposed to the rest (Erziehung). Another complex and extremely important learning outcome that will receive our attention in chapter 4 is learning to learn, summarised as Learning II by Gregory Bateson (2000).

Education includes much more than what goes on at schools. In fact, many people claim that they learned as much or more from their social, recreational and professional experiences than from formal schooling. The influence of families, peers, and of the advertising and entertainment industries (especially online) on the learning of children plays a crucial and often catastrophic role with consequences for dietary habits, prejudices, beliefs and attitudes. In the context of this book it is the development of behavioural norms towards the social, cultural and natural environment that determines how entire groups behave in terms of future sustainability. Education in its formal and informal manifestations has much to answer for, as we will see in chapter two where we engage with the complex charges of failure of education systems. But because education amounts to so much more than what happens formally at schools, efforts to devise strategies to improve learning can also draw on those informal areas. Clued-in reformers can draw on complex cultural interactions and relationships, traditions and ideals, worldviews and beliefs to bolster their pedagogical practice and truly educate for the Transition.

To summarise my reasons for writing this book: First, my impression of crisis, present and future, and my assessment of its causes and driving forces convinced me that humanity bears culpability. This collective guilt is not equally distributed; my generation and cultures carry a whopping portion of it. It consists of the knowledge that we are responsible for a massive amount of suffering, injustice and loss throughout the biosphere, with much more to come. It is to be understood as a huge responsibility for every person in my generation. My personal sense of responsibility towards non-human nature probably exceeds the average. But overall much of the discussions that will need to be conducted in order to sort out our messes and to address past wrongdoings will have to address ethics, and a good deal of that should include the moral standing of non-human entities, including ecosystems. This view will be developed in chapter three. Some of the fallout from this crisis has begun to threaten humanity itself, most plainly in the form of COVID-19, and much more is on the way, challenging our very survival. Most of humanity seems ill prepared for those challenges and little effort is officially being made to change that.

Secondly, as a professional educator I feel bound by the official ethical code of conduct (there is one for public teachers and another one for university faculty in every Canadian province or territory). In addition, I harbor my own convictions what I personally owe to other living beings in return for what they offer me every day. There is an impression of neglected duties, both in the professional, the personal and the collective sense, that contribute to the culpability mentioned above. This will be discussed at the collective level in chapter three where we discuss the implications of the failure of education and, in a wider context, the failure of governments worldwide.

Thirdly, in spite of the purported extents of failure of my profession, of our governments and electorates, of all of us as consumers and Homo sapiens, I remain convinced that education can make a crucial difference, if only to avoid the worst possible futures for ourselves and for the planet. I feel supported in this by my interpretation of the unpredictable successes of teaching as I mentioned above. As my students demonstrate to me again and again, amazing amounts of learning can happen unexpectedly in places and persons, despite purportedly disadvantageous circumstances. This fills me with confidence. Chapter four will present a Transition curriculum in the form of lists of prioritised learning outcomes that can make a suitable difference, generating collective potential to get humanity on its way. Chapter five will extend those ideas into the context of globally diverse cultures with all their differences and commonalities.

If I had to state a single purpose for this book it would be to make a case for education as an indispensable tool in our efforts to strategise toward a Great Transition. To make it so, education will need to be profoundly reformed. Chapters two through five will be devoted to presenting a blueprint for that reform. To summarise the agenda: It must engage with planetary overshoot and its implications in a no-holds-barred, uncompromising manner and empower learners to work towards real solutions. This reform will be grounded in a new ethics to replace the norms and values – historically adaptive but now counterproductive – that have brought humanity to the edge of catastrophe. The Transition curriculum will include some learning aims that apply universally, but many will need to be flexible to adapt them to diverse cultural environments. One of the substantial challenges for educators will be to arrive at the right balance between universal goals dictated by ecology and human rights on the one hand and the diversity of cultures, world views and ways of thinking on the other. One standard for gauging that balance of cultural reform against cultural pluralism will be the concept of cultural safety, as laid out in chapter five.

My confidence in the potential of education derives from the numerous historical precedents where teachers and learners made a difference, changing profoundly how entire societies viewed slavery, gender relations, their relations with animals, and more. At times teachers took great risks, speaking out against powerful interest groups and ruling plutocracies, at a huge personal cost for some. I interpret this counterhegemonic potential both as a source of empowerment and a source of professional duty, suggesting that every teacher is obliged to question, and to empower her students to question dominant power structures – especially where they are doing obvious harm. I regret to observe that in the present circumstances there is no shortage of targets that meet those qualifications. My interpretation of my own counterhegemonic duty as an educator contributed to this book in no small way.

A great deal of literature on sustainability still describes modes of living for a future that caters to everybody’s wishes, that disadvantages no-one, where ten billion and more live in harmony on this single planet, along with a few non-human species who managed to hang on. That kind of naïve nonsense has been doing a lot of harm. In my view such visions are scientifically disqualified, socio-culturally naïve and pedagogically outright harmful. You will not find them represented in this book, except as negative examples that we should learn from. Instead, I reiterate my personal platform as stated in Environmental Ethics for the Future (Lautensach 2010: 1):

My conviction is based on five assumptions, considered by many to be axiomatic, but by no means universally accepted among humanity: That the Earth represents a quasi-closed system with definite limits to all physical resources; that at the biological level, all humans have in common certain behaviour patterns, dependencies and interests that help define them as Homo sapiens; that species interact within ecosystems according to well-characterised ecological principles from which no species can be exempt; that future human generations have moral standing; and that humans possess or may acquire the capacities to make the choices necessary for a sustainable future.

From this platform emerges what I consider a more realistic picture of a future profoundly different from the status quo. The most striking difference, at least at first glance, will be that it houses no more than two billion people, probably far less than that, and that many of them will make their living in very different ways from today. It is that kind of vision that might lead readers to construe a measure of partisanship in this book, and I would happily concur with that impression. This book represents my best partisan effort in favour of a sapient humanity, ecocentric justice and the rule of law, the dignity and beauty of all life forms and this wonderful planet.

Many people deserve my thanks in connection with this book. I am grateful to Professor Ralf Koerrenz and the Advisory Board of this Series for presenting me with the opportunity. The people from Ferdinand Schoeningh Verlag have been exceptionally helpful and patient over the months of gestation. Most of the authors and organisations from whom I learned will never know how much I owe to their scholarship and accomplishments. Above all, my partner Sabina Lautensach made this book possible through her unflagging support and loving encouragement.


According to the Four Pillar Model of human security (Lautensach 2006) it consists of the four pillars of socio-political, economic, health-related and environmental security. The latter is the most important, affecting in many respects the other three. See Text Box B in section 1.1.2.


Jared P. Scott’s (2016) documentary The Age of Consequences outlines how world affairs are being affected by climate change, including the consequences of the consequences.


Throughout this book I will refer to the inevitable, passively experienced kind of transition in lower case and to the deliberate, planned and actively pursued strategy to optimise it as the capitalised Transition.


According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, diachronicity implies a concern with the way in which something, especially language, has developed and evolved through time. For example, ‘the census is also a diachronic data set’ expresses its position on the time axis. It contrasts with synchronic and emphasizes change over time: ‘linguistic change is the diachronic aspect of linguistic variation’.


The ceteris paribus fallacy (literally meaning ‘the rest being equal’) refers to the implicit or unquestioned assumption that only a small set of preferred variables determine the outcomes of a process while all other operative variables remain constant.


While a regular ‘modern’ gardener might counteract flooding by digging a drainage ditch, even through amphibian habitat, a diachronic gardener would plant willows and wait.


Throughout this book the term culture is used as defined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1972: 261): “the shared patterns that set the tone, character, and quality of people’s lives”. See section 5.1.


As will be further explained in chapter one, Potter (1988) suggested the following modes of human survival: mere, miserable, idealistic, irresponsible, acceptable.


However, it is quite acceptable, and often even imperative, to scrutinize a person’s selections of facts and their underlying priorities when they attempt to justify a course of action.


In this book, I refer to attitudes as mental states that are informed by underlying values. When we are striving to get someone to change their attitude about something, what we are hoping for is that they will examine their values and reprioritise them or even reformulate them, at least with respect to a specific issue.

Survival How?

Education, Crisis, Diachronicity and the Transition to a Sustainable Future