We know that climate and ecological breakdown are eroding the earth’s capacity to support life, imperilling human security more profoundly than anything else in modern times. Systemic environmental collapse is now nothing less than an existential threat. In the words of climatologist Hans Schellnhuber, “We are now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences”.
With rapid biodiversity loss and climate disruption threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people, amplifying the threat of global conflict and risking societal breakdown, the consequences of continuing on our current path would indeed be dire. To avert a full-blown catastrophe, we must find new ways of thinking about sustainability and wellbeing, and about the consumption, pollution, exploitation, and inequality that corrode them.
In her Aeon article Philosophy Can Make the Previously Unthinkable Thinkable, ethicist Rebecca Brown celebrates the role of philosophers in offering “a counterpoint to received wisdom, established norms and doctrinal prejudice”. She points out that philosophers can contribute to shifting the ‘Overton window’ by adopting positions that are counterintuitive and outside mainstream thought; by testing arguments, identifying errors, and upholding standards of academic rigour and intellectual honesty; and by “pushing the public and political debate towards reasoned deliberation and respectful disagreement.”
As a classroom practice, philosophical inquiry makes space for intentional dialogue and deliberation, engenders mutual understanding, and facilitates the co-construction of shared visions. It fosters a range of competencies needed for civic engagement, such as encouraging students to co-operate in good faith and to build relationships based on such values as autonomy, agency, consent, trust, participation, authenticity, and self-determination. It introduces students to controversial issues, uncovers shared values, and supports nonviolent engagement with what education researcher Nancy Erbstein calls “the deep splits in values and understandings that exist in communities”. What’s more, philosophical inquiry inducts students into norms of communication that are indispensable to a well-functioning democracy – norms like attending to a wide range of voices, and responding in ways that are accountable to standards of reason and evidence. And to the extent that it asks students to consider how to address injustices in real-world situations, philosophical inquiry offers practice in just decision-making.
Philosophical arguments have long been pivotal to overturning historical orthodoxies. On this note, Rebecca Brown echoes fellow philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Social progress has always depended on philosophical arguments, they both argue, citing examples including women’s suffrage; the prohibition of slavery, of cruel and unusual punishment, and of unjust wars; and the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships.
“This is what we have to teach our children: Even things that go against their intuition they need to take seriously,” Goldstein says in The Atlantic. “What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.”
But such change has been and can again be achieved. As the historical examples show, just because a belief is strongly and pervasively held, this doesn’t mean that it is either true or immutable. That we can continue business-as-usual without catastrophic consequences is one such pervasively held belief.
Against this backdrop, schools have an obligation to develop in children what philosopher Meira Levinson describes as “the agency…to change the world in ways that make sense from their perspective”. In the words of Talia St Clare, a 14 year old participant in our collaborative project ‘Too Small to Make a Difference?’ (co-designed with Grace Lockrobin of Thinking Space):
We didn’t create this problem but it’s our responsibility to fix it if no-one else is, because we are going to be living in the world… And also, for generations and generations to come, we don’t want the world to die; we want it to continue being a beautiful place.
This is the second of two posts concerning the role of philosophy in ecological citizenship education. (The first, ‘A thriving public sphere’, is here.) Parts of this post are reproduced from my 2019 article We need to shift the Overton window on the climate and ecological crisis. Here’s how.
The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.