A Problem in Need of Solving
At some point soon, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will run up against the very real limits of our planet’s finite natural resources and pollution sinks. The implications for education are immense.
Our lavish lifestyle – a trajectory we in America have been on since the 1870s – has been made possible by the release of vast stores of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels (millions of years' worth of stored solar energy), the most concentrated energy known in humanity’s long history. A powerful positive feedback loop established itself, whereby increasing consumption of this ancient energy encouraged economic and population growth, which, in turn, led to increased fossil fuel consumption. Today, our economic health is dependent on consumption and growth. Clearly, this is an unsustainable scenario – economically and environmentally.
The great challenge before us now is to come to terms with the realization that unless we – someone – discovers a renewable energy source with the same net energy capacity as fossil fuels, then we and our children must confront a prolonged period of decline and contraction.
In this new “post-carbon” world, leaders worldwide will be challenged to meet basic human needs in the context of depleting resources, shrinking economies, increasing social and political unrest, and a changing and volatile climate. Many of these ideas have been articulated by Richard Heinberg in his Post Carbon Reader. So what can we, and the next generation, do to change the world?
Teaching Resilience and Sustainability
In this new context, the process of education must change from encouraging consumption and waste to teaching principles of sustainability, connection, and wholeness. Make no mistake: this will be no easy task.
All of us - regardless of country of origin – are products of highly complex societies. Because of this, we are in a sense “brittle” and easily knocked off our paths. Children today are often easily bored in educational settings and display little tolerance for what they consider unusual subjects taught in unconventional ways (which, surely, “resilience” and “sustainability” must be considered). Teaching this type of thinking to young people, then, necessarily involves helping them understand and cope with change.
For clarity's sake, we shall use the following definitions for resilience and sustainability:
Resilience: “the capacity of a system [or person] to withstand disturbance while still retaining its fundamental shape and function” (Heinberg, The Post Carbon Reader)
Sustainability: “The ability of a community to satisfy its needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations” (Fritjof Capra, How Nature Sustains the Web of Life)