What on Earth We Can Do to Save the Planet
PAUL BROWN / Guardian Weekly 17jul03
A pioneering course aims to help students pre-empt an environmental disaster
With scientists and environmental groups wondering out loud whether the human race will survive to the end of this century, it is a good moment for people in education to consider whether they are teaching the right subjects, or teaching them properly. After all, the people about to pass through universities are those who will decide whether Homo sapiens makes it beyond 2100. If the next generation of students do not get the message about the way the planet is heading, and act on the information, the future does indeed look bleak.
It is not that the environment is ignored in education; nearly every institution now has courses that mentions the word in its title. But mostly it is a fashionable add-on to something regarded as more mainstream. And even the best courses do not take in the single big question - will the world as we are shaping it survive? Perhaps every academic should take a moment to ask themselves another question. Will their subject, as currently taught, make a difference in saving the human race?
A group of academics from the Open University in the UK began looking at this idea more than five years ago. How can people educate themselves so they are best equipped to save the planet? What do the students need to learn, and how do we teach them?
What was needed was a course that helped people already with education in other fields, or no education at all, so it was relevant to the real problems facing the world. At the lowest level it would help to shape the student's lifestyle and the way they did their work, so as not to make a bad situation worse. But hopefully it would be much more than that.
Already the threats facing the planet are well documented. Some changes in natural systems always occur, but too much is happening too fast. Whether it is climate change, destruction of rainforests, the spread of deserts, loss of species, or the lack of clean water, the root cause is humankind's overuse and misuse of limited resources.
Eleven years ago, at the first Earth summit in Rio, this message had finally got into the political system. But for the politicians it was an inconvenient fact that carrying on as we are - consuming more and more while continuing to destroy the planet - was no longer possible. To do something about it would surely cost votes.
To get round the problem a new, all-encompassing, completely boring phrase was born. All we apparently needed was "sustainable development" and the world would be saved.
Apart from the phrase itself being guaranteed to send everyone to sleep it was such a difficult concept that it was not really understood, still less acted upon. Apart from a few pioneers who took the message seriously, the world carried on as before.
At the second Earth summit in Johannesburg last year everyone agreed that matters had gone downhill fast since 1992. The Bush administration and associated oil and heavy industries took most of the flak for this state of affairs, although all the world's politicians should bear some of the blame.
But the world of education should be having its knuckles rapped, too. If the students do not understand the crisis their generation faces, and have a burning desire to go out into the world and do something about it, then surely it is the education system that is at fault.
Realising that very few students at any level, and perhaps even their teachers, would be able to have much of a stab at what sustainable development means, the Open University decided to set up a course to teach it. The idea is to get the students to incorporate its concepts into whatever course they were learning, and every career they might choose. Using video and audio tapes, CR-Rom and four textbooks - the last of which is published this week - the first 1,000 students are grappling with the big question facing the planet: survival.
Not that the academics at the Open University put it like this. Nor, thankfully, do they mention sustainable development. This is an accessible course. It is called Environment: change, contest and response.
Topics that students can expect to cover range across the globe and across subjects - from environmental justice in Nigeria and biodiversity loss in Brazil, to the economic impacts of tourism in Bhutan and the challenge of meeting energy needs in China. And the focus is not only on the developing world: case studies are also drawn from the most developed parts of Europe and even from the remote realms of Antarctica.
With so many desperate challenges facing the human race, the course might have been depressing, but the underlying message is a cheerful one. If we understand the issue, we can do something about it, says Professor Andy Blowers, one of the lead authors of the large line-up of academics from different disciplines. The aim is to show that once people understand the problems, it is possible to find compromises and solutions, and that - doing nothing is not an option.
In the same way the course points to the fact it is possible to halt, or at least drastically reduce extinctions, but first we have to understand the value of the species that we so carelessly consign to oblivion.
The course - which is "level 2" in Open University parlance, providing 60 points, or one-sixth of a degree - is open to Britons at home and abroad, so long as they can provide a UK address.
Professor Blowers, who is soon to retire, knows that many of the course books will form the basis of other related and copycat courses at other institutions as many previous Open University courses have done.
He says: "It has been one of the most difficult and rewarding courses I have ever worked on. It is for anyone who wants to really get to grips with how to make the world work without destroying it, or us, come to that. I am glad to have been part of it." The course is expected to have a 10-year run before it is updated. By then the next Earth summit will be upon us.
The Guardian Weekly 20-3-0717, page 24
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