Last week, I interviewed writer Owen Sheers about Black Mountains College, the world’s first college dedicated to the climate crisis. The inaugural Bachelors, Sustainability: Arts, Ecology and Systems Change launches this September, aiming to educate young people in how to navigate the polycrisis, and how to steer us to safety. Set in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, BMC focuses on the challenge of our times: how to build a fair and just society within safe planetary boundaries.
You can listen to the episode to learn exactly how Black Mountains College is radicalising education by putting creativity and systems thinking at the heart of this educational experiment, in a bid to unlock the imagination of young people to build a better world. But why is it that education needs to be radicalised?
In the interview, Owen says that our current educational system is still very much built for the industrial revolution, creating graduates who are educated in very niche, hydrocarbon intensive degrees. These degrees are, essentially, built to keep the engine ticking over, whether that’s the engine of industry, the energy intensive economy, or the engine of our economic superorganism.
Our graduates are like fuel into the engine. You can't change an engine from inside it as the fuel. You have to be the mechanic tinkering away on the outside. Perhaps you have to be the designer innovating new possibilities. Perhaps you have to be the artist who imagines a completely different way of organising the system.
Our educational system splits students into siloed degree programs where they only learn one thing and, importantly, they don't learn how to communicate with one another. They don't learn what each other are learning. They don't learn a holistic picture of the world that we live in. They learn how to be a cog, and how to keep that machine running and oiled. That was a very important part of the industrial revolution, surely, even though we are now seeing the effects of such a revolution in the climate.
The boom that happened around the industrial revolution, the technology, the access to fossil fuels, the release of capital and private financing, meant that nations were scrambling to keep up with the growth and scrambling to educate enough people who could run the machine.
But the machine is old and tired and rusty now. The machine is poisoning our water. The machine is polluting our skies. The machine is driving inequality. Yet, still we are educating the propagation of the machine, despite its colossal failures, and despite the fact that time to dismantle it, put it to rest, and envision new possibilities.
But it's very difficult to envision new possibilities in the way that our education system is set up. At no point do we teach imagination. At no point do we teach creativity. Creativity only exists, or is only allowed to exist, within the possibility of passing exams. Creativity is dictated. Creativity is graded. Creativity is competitive.
No wonder we are suffering from a crisis of imagination when we haven't taught our young people, not only how to learn about themselves, but how to learn about the world that they live in in a way that inspires them. We haven’t taught them how to change that world, how to see that it could be different. Instead, we teach our young people that things are fixed.
Our education system is built to suggest that the world can only be one way—because you fundamentally can't have people dismantling the machine while you're trying to drive it.
But the world is not fixed, and the rigidity with which we view the world masks the systems that are evolving themselves, memetically, in keeping it going.
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I'm fascinated by this question of uncertainty, of fluidity, of in-between-ness, of space where potentiality arises. I'm obsessed with this image of the womb; that which is empty in order to be filled, which can only be filled because it is empty.
That to me is what creativity is. We have to give individuals this space to be both empty and filled with potential. We have to give them the space to grasp at their own understanding of the world. We have to give them the space to learn that which they think they need to, rather than that which they are told to.
We have to give them the courage to face the uncertainty of the world and understand that in that very uncertainty is the strength to change it. Only that which is uncertain can be changed.
Nothing is truly fixed when you remember that the sun will explode in the distant future.
It's almost as if we have understood our human systems to be equal to earth systems; these unchanging earth systems—even though they are changing right now with the climate crisis—these natural laws, these forces, the elements, gravity, the interaction of all things. These physical earth systems are in many ways unchanging even though they still achieve a sense of fluidity and something that we should marvel at; even the unchanging is fluid.
And yet, it is as if we have looked at our human systems, these short-lived, new, systems upon which we depend—capitalism, fossil fuel energy—as if they are fixed. We have only lived such lives of intense luxury in the West for a very short period of time, yet it’s as if we hold the systems of the globalised human world we live in to be equal to the earth systems upon which we truly depend. We have become so divorced from biophysical reality that we believe our own creation is more real than the earth systems, as if we can outwit the earth systems, as if we are in a war with the planet and human civilisation can come out on top no matter the cost.
This delusion—this madness—is a lack of imagination. It also lacks understanding of how wonderful it is to be a part of this magnificent earth system, to be part of the only known life in the universe. It lacks the imagination of appreciation for being part of something greater than ourselves, and for our own collective intelligence. It lacks the imagination which could behold the myriad ways in which we could radically change the world for the better not only for us, but for the species with which we share this home.
In this sense, it is not the climate crisis which may devastate us, but our devastating lack of imagination. An imagination so denied, so rejected, it sees forest as carbon stock, fruit as produce, citizens as consumers, and energy as fuel.
This is why the stories that we tell ourselves are so important. This is why radicalisation is so important, why radical imagination is critical. This is why creativity is key to the future.; the only way through is through.
But so many can't even see the through-ness and the depths of the world that we live in.
Some people grasp at the ledge, fearful to fall between two things, completely unaware that we are only ever between: biological organisms which come into life, and one day decompose are only ever between.
And what a joy that is to live.
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“our devastating lack of imagination”
Pair this with Indra Adnan’s call for “the missing architecture of agency for human beings”, and we have a new manifesto for 21st Century education: how do we imagine the social architectures for agency as human beings collaboratively co-creating the world of technology choices that we make for ourselves in which to live out of the world of Nature into which we all are born?
The “how” is less about content, and more about process.
Which is difficult. Content is easy. Everybody has our own opinions. Process is hard work. And partnership. With ourselves. With each other. With Nature. And with our shared Future.
Yes, indeed, more and more people are realizing what you so eloquently describe. But what do we do?? I think the doctors orders would be to practice doing with our world what we do with our work, at the end of rapid expansion of a new idea, get ready to make a choice. The basic options are A) keep going with rapid expansion till it fails like SO many civilizations before ours seem to have done, causing them to then vanish, or B) using growth resources to care for both out way of living as a whole and its world, while perfecting our economic and cultural; designs, confident of a healthy future.
How's that sound? It refers to what you can see as the natural response of self-preservation for systems that start with a long period of growth, like natural systems, like careers and communities. The secret is it only comes naturally when a new life develops a survival instinct, and our civilization has not done that yet. An odd sounding challenge but a very real one that will produce an enormous relief if we are able to do it!!