Philosophy education and the climate crisis
Like many in our community, I find myself moving between shock, anxiety, grief and frustration as news reports indicate that our planet is heating even more rapidly than predicted in the worst-case scenarios outlined by the IPCC. Political and corporate leaders around the globe have largely ignored warnings of the impact of interacting tipping points that threaten to set off irreversible chain reactions and escalate climate change beyond human control.
The climate crisis now poses a risk to humanity that is not just grave but existential. It is no longer controversial that we are killing the things needed for our own survival. On the current trajectory of global carbon emissions, we risk, within this century, the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, the loss of most animal and plant species, and severe shortages of clean air, water and food – which, if realised, would likely lead to the collapse of civilisation.
As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I grew up struggling to conceive of the deprivation, sacrifice, suffering and loss that my grandparents endured, and despite my own parents’ admonishments I failed to understand the fragility of the freedom and security I was lucky enough to inherit. I am still straining to comprehend the fact that within my lifetime we may witness the unfolding of another global humanitarian tragedy, one of our own making.
The severity of the risks is hard to fathom but catastrophic to ignore. Climate breakdown is happening on our watch, and if we continue business as usual, we will exhaust our remaining carbon budget in as little as eight and a half years. To mitigate existential threats to the safety of our species and our biosphere will take unprecedented structural change and a massive international effort at a speed and on a scale never before seen in peacetime. In the words of youth leader Greta Thunberg, we
must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.
Although The Philosophy Club is just a tiny business with a small platform, I accept the responsibility of using that platform to communicate the urgency of change.
While my work has always been motivated by ideals of social justice, I have in the past avoided making political statements, not wishing to compromise my reputation as a politically neutral facilitator of classroom dialogue. I’m speaking out now because the stakes are too high to stay silent.
I am furthermore committed to taking action. I believe that I and my fellow philosophy educators can contribute to climate action in four key areas, but we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions along the way.
1. Listening to young people
By listening to the voices of young people and taking them seriously, we can empower young people with the confidence to contribute to public debates, and we can swim against the tide of adult opinion that unduly dismisses children’s views as insignificant or noncredible.
The clamour of voices in the School Strike for Climate movement shows that young people are politically engaged and eager to be heard. The struggle of young leaders like Ms Thunberg to be heeded by adults is a symptom of epistemic injustice. We must ask ourselves what more we can do to act as responsible hearers and to foreground young people’s concerns in a society that grossly underestimates the civic capacities of children.
2. Fostering critical thinking
We can equip young people with skills in open enquiry, argument literacy, critical reflection and metacognition – skills that are necessary not only for developing a nuanced understanding of the climate crisis, but also for considering alternative paths forward.
We must ask ourselves whether there is a place for this work not merely in traditional contexts such as schools, but in new contexts where it might more directly and immediately support the efforts of climate activists.
3. Fostering ethical thinking
We can offer young people the skills to develop, interrogate and revise their values and principles; to take responsibility for the consequences of their opinions; and to consider the integration of their beliefs and actions. We can achieve this in part by providing safe forums for the frank and rigorous discussion of climate-related issues, such as our moral responsibilities to non-human species, to future generations, and to the global poor.
We must ask ourselves whether abstract ethical enquiry can contribute constructively to climate activism, and if so, whether such a contribution would be welcomed by activists or whether it would be perceived as an impediment to decisive action taken on the basis of settled science and existing moral conviction.
4. Building a culture of collaborative dialogue
It is now clear that new forms of political engagement are needed to overcome the crippling inertia and deadlock of our current political system with regard to the global climate. More broadly, there is growing public interest in models of deliberative democracy that invite grassroots participation, restore trust in political institutions and release government from the disproportionate influence of privileged elites. As Hugh Atherton writes in our local context,
the revitalization of politics in Australia has become necessary; the re-assertion of pluralism, the attenuation of ideological thinking, the inclusion of young people, the revival of political discourse … and the growth of informed popular participation in political activity would all seem to be reasonable objectives.
Extinction Rebellion is a rapidly growing social movement that is grappling with the climate emergency. One of its central demands is the adoption of citizens’ assemblies that would empower citizens to determine how our society should achieve the rapid decarbonisation needed for survival. For such deliberative groups to work effectively, various conditions must be met, and it is here that philosophy educators may be able to contribute to the development of a healthy dialogic culture.
The culture of collaborative dialogue that we foster here at The Philosophy Club meets many of the conditions required for a successful citizens’ assembly: for one, developing in participants certain dispositions; and for another, upholding norms of constructive discourse. These include considering and negotiating a plurality of views, trying to reconcile these views to whatever limited degree is possible, acknowledging the contestability of ideas and the contingency of circumstances, restoring civility and argumentative complexity, attempting to build on the ideas of others, and avoiding manipulation, tribalism, polarisation and ‘warrior politics’.
There’s one further point of synergy. A commitment to citizens’ assemblies implicitly assumes that all participants are capable of epistemological evaluativism: that is, they understand that some views are better substantiated than others, and they’re capable of making evaluative judgements based on reason and evidence. Yet as I’ve discussed previously, relatively few adults operate at an evaluativist level of epistemological understanding. Our work in schools is centrally concerned with fostering evaluativism through genuine dialogic argument. We are impelled by the ambition of furnishing students with the skills they need to evaluate arguments and to draw their own well-reasoned conclusions. We aspire to create supportive communities of thinkers in which each participant can truly say, as Maughn Gregory puts it,
that I have made myself accountable to a community of my peers, who have challenged my ideas; that I have double-checked my reasons for believing – the methods of inquiry or the authorities I’ve relied on; that I’ve been willing to self-correct; that my current beliefs help me cope with experience – help me understand it in ways that enable me to act intelligibly; and that I have no other reasons for doubting them now, though I’m open to finding reasons to doubt them later.
We need to ask ourselves whether our training resources and facilitation tools can play a useful role in tackling – and not merely contemplating – the climate crisis. We need to consider to what extent our approach might help activists and other citizens work together in collaborative communities to make evaluative judgements, taking into account swathes of complex information and varying degrees of uncertainty.
Finally, we need to think carefully about the connection between philosophical ‘inquiry dialogue’ and other normative dialogue types such as information-seeking, persuasion, negotiation and deliberation, each of which has its own goals and its own place in the wider conversation about anthropogenic climate change.The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, often credited as a progenitor of philosophical enquiry with children, wrote a century ago that
philosophy… must assume a practical nature; it must… face the great social and moral defects and troubles from which humanity suffers, to concentrate its attention upon…understanding and rectifying specific social ills.
If ever there was a time to be reading from Dewey’s playbook, that time is now.
Founding Director, The Philosophy Club
A public statement on behalf of The Philosophy Club
The Philosophy Club joins with concerned governments, businesses and community organisations to declare a climate emergency.
We stand in solidarity with the students in the School Strike for Climate whose courage in speaking out is instigating change.
We stand with those citizens whose nonviolent acts of resistance, disruption and civil disobedience are helping to overcome the inertia of our current systems.
We stand with any government that takes serious action to curb emissions, restore the carbon balance and halt biodiversity loss.
We pledge to do whatever we can to support grassroots action for the restoration of a safe climate and for the protection of future generations.
Please join us.
Michelle Sowey and David Urbinder
Co-founders, The Philosophy Club
The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.