By Joern Fischer
Today it’s Friday. And our children and students are back in the streets, doing what they can to bring about social change from the bottom up. The next generation is seriously concerned, and this concern is particularly prevalent among those studying subjects like ecology, sustainability, or environmental science. How do we, as teachers and lecturers, best meet these students?
Things are different now than they were just a few years ago. The sense of urgency is higher among those interested in sustainability issues; and the general sense of frustration is also heightened. We live in a polarized era, “dancing around the volcano”, with major change in the air, but with little clarity of what exactly that major change is going to be. There’s a backlash against science (in some countries more than others), but there are also more and more concerned young people specifically interested in the science of sustainability. Virtually all students I meet these days are interested not only in the science of the environment, but are also seriously and deeply concerned about the state of the world.
This poses three challenges, which have probably always been there, but are somehow more acute now.
First, how do we draw the line between sustainability science and sustainability activism? What is a good scientific argument, and what is merely a political argument? I see in our students that their passion to change the world for the better, collectively, is at an all time high. But what is the role of science in this?
We need to be clear about what academic training can and can’t do. Academic training can’t, hasn’t and won’t single-handedly solve the world’s problems. However, it can make sure our arguments are rooted in reflected positions underpinned by a sound understanding of the problem at hand. One widely recognised aspect of this is to base arguments on facts rather than argue simply by assertion. In our teaching, we can make sure that we get students to disentangle what is a passionate argument versus what is an academically strong argument. Mind you, it’s not only certain narcissistic politicians who argue by assertation without a factual basis – weak arguments and unfounded assertions are also made by supporters of sustainability, including at times, by sustainability scientists.
Second, we can try to teach a certain degree of mental agility – depending on our assumptions or worldviews, what is a rational and obvious course of action for one individual is not at all sensible for someone else. Ongoing questioning of the deeper foundation of our arguments thus is central to meaningfully engage with the glut of information we are now confronted with. Is agricultural modernization going to help Africa, or is the green revolution paradigm underpinning such modernization just a new type of colonialism?
When there is no obvious right or wrong, listening, reasoning and ongoing learning are needed – there is no simple answer to complex and value-laden problems. Especially in the natural sciences, where many students still expect that there should be right and wrong, it is healthy to acknowledge that scientists and non-scientists alike construct discourses that are rooted in certain worldviews; where different discourses will lead to different recommendations for policy or management.
Third, a more recent challenge when teaching environmental science, is to confront growing levels of worry, anxiety and grief about the state of the world in our students. Deeply engaging with issues such as environmental destruction or institutionalised inequity can be truly depressing. As student activists in the street are shouting for climate justice, they feel a sense of empowerment, and anything seems possible. But when these same students come back to their classrooms, being taught in intricate detail how the world is falling apart, but without a sense that things are going to change anytime soon … things can feel pretty heavy. I suggest making space in our classes for discussing questions of hope and despair, of worries and anger about the state of the world.
Last but not least, the issues raised here are not only relevant to students, but also to more experienced scientists. We are grappling with the same challenges as our students, just perhaps with a few more years of experience – making us older (definitely) but not necessarily any wiser (unfortunately). We, too, need to regularly differentiate between a passionate argument and a good argument. We, too, need to remain open to multiple different perspectives, which includes listening to and engaging with worldviews we’d rather stay away from. And we, too, need to cope with the state of the world.
I am humbled by our children and students. Thank you, next generation, for not closing your eyes to the many sustainability problems of our times. Science won’t give you all the answers, but perhaps scientific training can help you apply your intellect carefully to the complex problems you will face over the coming decades.