At the Bonn climate talks the complexity of the challenge before us was set out. Ecological, economic and social knowledge are vital
One of the most encouraging, and challenging, events that I attended at the Bonn climate talks was the launch of a new international research initiative, The World in 2050 (TWI2050), which aims to explain how to act on Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to have a world free from hunger, injustice and absolute poverty, while providing universal education, health and employment, and dignity for all, while collectively living within the boundaries of our one fragile planet.
The SDGs provide, as I’ve written elsewhere, the roadmap for the way forward for the world, against which I’d suggest every policy, investment decision and political choice should be judged.
But to achieve that, we need a huge amount of information and analysis on a complex range of quantitative and qualitative criteria.
As the initiative’s brochure says: “”A sustainable development pathway must … take into account the critical drivers of human capacity, demographic changes, opportunities for technological innovation and diffusion, sound institutions and transformative capabilities, sustainable diets and other critical socioeconomic developments.”
At the launch event for the initiative, Nate Hultman, director of the Centre for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said he was kept awake at night worrying where the people with the necessary skills and training could be found to do this crucial work. “We certainly need 10 times the number we have now; maybe 100 times.”
That’s at the top of the educational ladder where far more people are needed, but what also was clear in many discussions in the climate talks now concluding in Bonn was that we also need the whole world, its citizens, its voters, to how at least a basic understanding of ecology, of society, of what their economies are doing to their lives.
Martin Bazurco, of the wonderfully named Plurinational Authority of Mother Earth in Bolivia, said the world had “suffered an ecological rift due to capitalism”, and education was an important part of repairing that. “Most residents of New York don’t understand the importance of the Catskills to the city. They think water comes from a tap.”
That thinking had to also be global, he said. “The Global North must acknowledge its ecological debt to the South.”
Even Bolivia, where among the indigenous people, particularly the forest-dwellers, there’s deep and wide understanding of ecology, in the cities, there’s little, he said. “Even the professors are not very familiar with what the forests are. It will help if people in the cities plant trees, to help them understand how dependent they are on them.”
Ecological education – and even more foundationally an education that allows children simple contact with nature, as many are not now being exposed – is getting footholds, and the subject of isolated programmes in a variety of places.
In Bonn I came across ResponSEAble, a European Horizon 2020 programme to build knowledge of the marine environment, what it calls “ocean literacy” – understanding the influence they have on humans, and humans have on them.
In the UK, the National Association for Environmental Education has been hoeing a sometimes lonely furrow, speaking up for understanding and action.
But some parts of the world have gone much further. Maryland requires every high school graduate to have studied and be able to illustrate environmental literacy. The City of Austin created an Outdoor Bill of Children’s Rights, guaranteeing access to the simple pleasures and deep knowledge that can be acquired by even the very young in the “Great Outdoors”.
And 150 nations have backed a call for a “right to nature” to be included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
And not all education of course has to be formal. Nebojsa Nakicenivic from the IIASA in Vienna produced in Bonn a wonderfully incongruous example of the promotion of SDGS – on the security monitors at a St Petersburg airport duty-free shop.
But it is clear that if we’re to navigate the next difficult decades, to transform our societies, as we must, environmentally and socially, education that enables informed decisions at every level is vital.
It didn’t surprise me that after the TWI2020 talk I ended up chatting with some Oxford University geography students. This is one discipline that seems to be getting to grips with the complexity of the modern world better than most – and I’m finding some of the most useful and radical thinking about the world we need to build in it.
But what we need is thinking that bridges and builds on understanding from the social and physical sciences, from the humanities, from economics that’s routed in the real world. I asked the TWI250 panel for their thoughts on this interdisciplinary demand, and Professor Nakicenivic responded that we indeed needed strong horizontal links, but that had to be built on deep pillars on single subject understanding.
That’s a big ask of our education systems.