Challenges of the Anthropocene: Education in a world dominated by human activity

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Abstract

This overview article reflects on the Anthropocene, the era of humankind, and its impact on both the natural and non-human realms of the earth. My point of departure is the possibility of the sustainable, harmonious co-existence of the human and the non-human on the planet. The article engages with the challenges that the Anthropocene poses in and for education (and specifically environmental education (EE) in schools).

Although the phenomenon still has to be officially acknowledged by geologists (Clark 2015:1), the term Anthropocene refers to a period during which the earth’s surface has been changed to such an extent that the biophysical conditions of the Holocene (approximately the last 11 000 years) have been adversely affected. A central notion of the Anthropocene is thus an acceptance that humans have already left the era of the Holocene behind. During the Holocene human civilisations flourished and prospered, while the Anthropocene is regarded as a time of unpredictability and danger, when human interventions are undermining and seriously jeopardising the plant’s life-support systems. According to Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen and Crutzen (2010:2231), the Cartesian dualism of nature and society is breaking down in the Anthropocene, which in turn implies a profound interconnectedness in the destiny of nature and of human beings. Atmospheric scientists thus call the geological epoch that started around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s the Anthropocene. The characteristic feature of this period is the reality that human actions and activities have altered the course of the earth’s history (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010:2228).

According to Carstens (2016:255), as a consequence of the actions of anthropos, a new ontology and epistemology have become necessary, namely an onto-epistemology (a mode of being and thinking) that will be inclusive, flexible, fluid and multifarious. Such “transversal thinking” acknowledges the interwoven nature of the human sphere and a range of non-human “others”. This in turn entails a critical engagement with the unknown, the strange and the uncomfortable. A consequence is that people will need to detach themselves from their familiar world of hierarchical and binary constructions, and take into consideration the strange and interconnected world that we share with animals and things. It is necessary now to acknowledge the harm that humankind has done and is doing (and may perhaps still do) to the network of life within which we are so inextricably embedded.

The article reflects on the contribution that the social sciences can make to a critical discourse on the Anthropocene. The question is whether this field of study does, in fact, possess the necessary theories or analytical tools appropriate for greater socio-ecological engagement. Yet researchers such as Lövbrand (2015) regard the Anthropocene as a socially and culturally bound object with many possibilities, since the social sciences do have precisely the analytical and theoretical traditions that can lay the foundations for creative, critical thinking about the Anthropocene.

The article also examines the contribution of ecocriticism. According to Clark (2015) ecocriticism reflects a changing culture and groundbreaking new ideas – the programme of ecocriticism represents the consolidation of this emerging culture, a metamorphosis of our way of thinking, understanding and reading. The points of contact between ecocriticism, eco-pedagogy and EE are examined.

Reference is made throughout to the contribution made by post-humanism to the sphere of EE in the Anthropocene. Post-humanism may be seen as a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it can generate greater awareness as well as interrogation of the human-nature relationship and the privileging of the human species, but at the same time it raises the question about the fate of humankind, or rather just how expendable humans are as earthly creatures and a species.

The enormous task currently facing critical post-humanist educators is to ensure that appropriate Anthropocene-oriented curricula are developed which engage directly and critically with industrialisation, capitalism and globalisation, as well as with local challenges such as xenophobia, domestic violence, patriarchal structures and so on (Carstens 2016:269). The most important skills that learners should be equipped with involve the development of a critical knowledge framework that will enable them to appreciate the way that culture, ideas and actions are determined in relation to the self and others. They should also be taught about the concept of “nature on demand” (Carstens 2016:269). The reality today is that we live in a world of dramatically increasing environmental changes, where stability can no longer simply be taken for granted and where the future is no longer guaranteed. It would be unproductive to shelter those we teach from these harsh realities, and it is necessary to talk absolutely frankly about (for example) erosion, pollution, the horrifying accumulation of waste, and the massive loss of biodiversity.

Here one could refer to the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1998) and his idea of “conscientization” – that transformation of knowledge into consciousness and awareness, and the subsequent “praxis” or informed action. Freire (1998:499) argued that the critical dimension of conscientization lies in the fact that human beings can become active agents who can transform their worlds:

It is as conscious beings that men [read: humankind] are not only in the world, but with the world, together with other men. Only men, as “open” beings, are able to achieve the complex operation of simultaneously transforming the world by their action and grasping and expressing the world’s reality in their creative language. (Freire 1998:499)

According to Fien (1993:43), as there has been growing appreciation of the complexity of EE over the years, a number of paradigm shifts have occurred that are reflected in three orientations, namely education about, education in and education for the environment.

Barad (in Carstens 2016:263) advocates a critical post-humanist and new materialist onto-epistemology that will entail thinking and teaching without “presupposing dualist structures such as subject and object, word and world, nature and culture”. This entails a kind of involvement in typically speculative “thought experiments” via our prescribed works, assignments and classroom discussions (and I would add literature, and especially eco-literature).

The article presents an overview of education in the Anthropocene. The school classroom is the ideal place from which to proceed to equip people with knowledge about the Anthropocene and the necessary consequent actions. There should be a critical examination of the ways in which knowledge is produced and presented to children in schools. Responsible educators should develop environmentally oriented pedagogical strategies that are relevant to the current situation.

According to Lotz-Sisitka (2014:1) a “new pedagogy” is necessary to adapt and respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Environmental issues also make it imperative that educationists think again about and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Monodisciplinary knowledge and teaching are no longer capable of making proper sense of the complex socio-ecological issues that confront human beings in the 21st century. Different forms of learning are investigated by Mezirow (2002) for instance, such as transformative learning (TL) and learning as change or learning in order to make a difference. According to TL theories, learning for sustainability emphasises a more profound questioning as well as a reforming of aims, policies and practices. Learning for change, and learning as change, are inherent parts of sustainable education.

This could promote a curriculum for an environmentally friendly existence as well as encourage respect for the “more-than-human” (Whatmore 2002:146). Brief reference is also made here to published research on EE in South African schools, for example, on action learning (O’Donoghue 1993) and the Eco-School programme (Rosenberg 2008).

This article should be considered as providing the background for a follow-up article that could give practical guidelines and suggestions for the use and application of the nature-centred text (the eco-text) in the classroom.

Keywords: Anthropocene; anthropocentrism; curriculum development for environmental education; ecocriticism; ecological awareness; environmental education; environmental issues; environmentally friendly curriculum; environmentally oriented pedagogical strategies; new materialism; post-humanism; sustainable co-existence; transdisciplinary learning; transformative learning

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Uitdagings van die Antroposeen: onderwys in die era van ’n mensgemaakte wêreld

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