By Christina Kwauk
As the world continues to respond to a second, third, and potentially fourth wave of COVID19, global leaders targeting the ever-elusive “end” of the pandemic have been focused on plans to rebuild the economy. But surely we cannot build back better post-COVID economies using the same pre-COVID economic thinking. Such thinking is rooted in values of human exceptionalism, resource extraction, and unfettered economic growth—values driving the very social, economic, and ecological crises we are trying to fix.
It goes without saying that we cannot expect to create new economic thinking with the same education systems that have raised generation upon generation of economic thinkers with these unsustainable values and assumptions about the economy. To manifest and sustain a new economy, we need education systems to challenge these long-held values by transforming our ways of seeing, being, doing, and becoming in the world in balance. But, as my fellow 36×36 femxle protagonists reminded me during a peer-learning session earlier this month, education-as-usual is often missing foundational lessons on economic topics like personal finance let alone getting into the thornier topics of how colonialism, racism, and patriarchy have deeply influenced our economic values and dominant economic lenses.
This is where I believe a new green learning agenda informed by feminist principles, social justice, and climate action becomes the linchpin to the social transformation necessary for new economic thinking.
What is a new green learning agenda for a new economy? It is essentially a new way of educating children, youth, and adults aimed at building the knowledge, skills, and mindsets for three economic shifts: 1) a just transition to a greener economy that values care work, 2) the reorientation of mindsets and behaviours toward social, economic, and ecological sustainability, and 3) the transformation of underlying systems of oppression exploiting our life-giving systems.
Core to a new green learning agenda is the goal of nurturing in learners of all ages a feminist planetary consciousness—an awareness that our social challenges are intricately tied to our planetary challenges. Such a consciousness promises to confront the problems of education, including its colonial, racist, and patriarchal legacies, and its complicit role in perpetuating neoliberal mindsets that drive our present models of consumption and production.
While some cities, states, and countries are beginning to propose new visions for their economic systems that attempt to break free of these legacies, many are lagging behind when it comes to proposing new visions for their education systems to foster new forms of economic thinking.
As of May 2021, according to Climate Interactive’s Green, Resilient, and Equitable Actions for Transformation (GREAT) Database, there are only 49 examples of COVID recovery policies and actions at the city-; territory, state, or province-; or national or regional-level that address economic recovery with an eye toward multi-solving for climate mitigation and adaptation that could produce co-benefits in racial, gender, and economic equity. For example, Spain’s Recovery, Transformation, and Resilience Plan describes a new vision for the Spanish economy as a circular economy, a green (and blue) economy, a digital economy, a decarbonized economy, and a care economy. Notably, Spain is also one of nine examples in the database that have a focus on gender equality.
But of these 49 examples, only eight allude to education and training. Even more disappointing, these eight references to education can be described in two ways: one, as passive references, suggesting educational access is a positive secondary outcome that comes from taking action in other sectors like shifting to clean energy (e.g. Afghanistan), or it becomes collateral damage if climate action is not pursued (e.g. San Jose, California). Second, education is referenced as an investment pathway for re-skilling and/or training a workforce to support the jobs necessary to fuel a transition to a greener economy—defined as digital- and technology-based, rather than care-based. Only one example (again Spain) talked about education and training as a sector of investment to support an ecological transition that reduces gender gaps and meets the needs of the vulnerable. Such re-skilling efforts echo traces of one approach to a new green learning agenda. However, the Plan’s intersectional ambition is confined to training in digital skills, does not address education beyond workforce training, and lacks what I and my co-author Olivia Casey have defined elsewhere as a breadth of “green skills” needed for broader social transformation.
Indeed, what we need global leaders to focus on is not building back better, but what environmental educationalist Stephen Sterling might describe as building back differently—a semantic refinement to help us break free from the temptation to merely reform our existing systems but rather to transform them entirely. COVID should have been the wakeup call urging global leaders to focus COVID recovery strategies on balancing our social, economic, and ecological relationships within what Kate Raworth calls the “sweet spot” of doughnut economies: the safe and just space for humanity nestled between our ecological ceiling and social foundation. But unsurprisingly, discussions around new economic models seem to stop short of discussing the new economic thinking behind those models and the new education systems needed to generate this.
So, as the 36×36 protagonists work together to co-create a new feminist manifesto for economic system transformation, it is vital that we include a vision for the education system, too. After all, education is the intergenerational bridge from the present to the future.