How to convert climate grief and anxiety into hope in higher education

Amidst the apocalyptic nature of the climate crisis, Sean Porter calls for education that builds hope and liberation from the current state of the world

Sean Porter is Academic Developer (Transformative Education) at the University of Exeter.

Amidst the increasingly apocalyptic nature of the climate crisis, there’s a need to cultivate educational spaces that help to facilitate a sense of hope and liberation from the current state of the world.

This is where the notion of “critical hope” emerges as a compelling concept to explore.

Critical hope embodies an educational paradigm rooted in the art of envisioning and living an alternative narrative to the status quo.

This paradigm is fortified by a comprehensive scrutiny of our current predicament – urging learners and educators to not only understand the challenges we face but also to actively participate in reshaping our collective future.

Nothing to hope for

The prevailing reality starkly highlights the gradual erosion of “hope” within established institutional frameworks. This erosion is especially evident as nation-states struggle to effectively address the climate crisis, casting a doubt-inducing shadow over their credibility.

The top-down change approach advocated by NGOs and related sectors has demonstrated an increasing vulnerability to practices like greenwashing, co-option, and neutralization.

These vulnerabilities compromise their ability to confront powerful vested interests, rendering them less effective over time. Relying solely on these avenues for our hopes seems increasingly unrealistic and simplistic.

This perspective not only contradicts the essence of critical hope but also hampers its potential to flourish within grassroots spaces and community-driven initiatives.

Often given a more peripheral status by more dominant technocratic forces, these areas are where critical hope can truly thrive. This premise asserts that genuine hope is nurtured when individuals come together and actively engage as committed members of a democratic collective.

This narrative of hope resonates deeply through a shared sense of purpose and mutual support, transcending external structures to cultivate authentic meaning and solidarity.

This pedagogical approach to Hope finds its genesis in the fertile grounds of social movements and activist spheres. It necessitates a collective sharing of space and an imaginative exploration of new social dynamics and coexistence models.

It is within these spaces that we see familiar concepts such as experiential and embodied learning, democratic pedagogy, and an array of other concepts that educators within HE may come across when developing their teaching practices. The remainder of this article will explore a couple of approaches to this framework.

From self to place

At the heart of critical hope within climate education lies a transformative shift in perspective – an invitation to perceive oneself not solely as an academic or professional expert, but as an inseparable part of a larger ecological tapestry.

This shift is best exemplified in the emphasis on bottom-up solutions, an approach that propels learners to purposefully engage with their surroundings, unearthing the deep-rooted connection between self and place.

Climate education tends to be approached from a more distant or ambiguously defined standpoint and relationship to community. However, the paradigm of critical hope endeavours to dissolve this detachment, urging individuals to recognise their intrinsic ties to the environment they inhabit.

Embracing bottom-up solutions redirects focus on grassroots initiatives, acknowledging that the most impactful solutions stem from within the very communities facing environmental challenges.

In this transformative approach, both learners and educators embrace the role of active participants, immersing themselves within their communities. They become attentive listeners and effective communicators, attuned to the nuances of their own and their neighbours’ concerns and aspirations, as well as the intricate interactions within the ecosystems they inhabit.

By recognizing and tackling environmental challenges at a local level, learners embark on a journey that unveils the deep influence of their actions within the wider tapestry of human and ecological connections.

Sparking transformation

As learners embark on this experiential journey, they directly observe the tangible effects of their actions. The trees they plant, the waste they recycle, or the community gardens they cultivate serve as living evidence of their agency, resonating within the spaces they occupy.

Through active engagement, learners move beyond passive observation and emerge as catalysts for change, deeply connected to the combined results of their efforts. This endeavour should be democratically pursued, in collaboration with their community kin, differing from more technocratic style voluntourism/saviour models of student engagement.

Crucially, this connection extends beyond personal gratification. Rooted within the fabric of their community, learners recognise that their efforts are not isolated, but ripple outward to touch the lives of others. The impact of bottom-up solutions is inherently relational, an interconnected movement that unites individuals through shared purpose and collective endeavour.

This realisation fosters a profound sense of agency, galvanising learners to believe in the potency of collaborative efforts to enact transformative change.

Storytelling – nurturing resilience and action The concept of critical hope takes on a practical and compelling form when intertwined with the art of storytelling. The act of sharing narratives, keeping diaries, and crafting community manifestos becomes a dynamic pedagogical approach that not only fosters understanding but also serves as a catalyst for nurturing resilience and inspiring action within the context of climate education.

Harnessing the narrative thread Storytelling, in its various forms, serves as a bridge between abstract concepts and lived experiences. It invites learners to delve into personal reflections, to navigate emotions, and to engage deeply with the world around them. Through storytelling, learners are encouraged to chronicle their own experiences, thoughts, and concerns, crafting a narrative that weaves their unique journey into the broader fabric of the climate crisis. These narratives provide a tangible entry point into discussions about complex issues, enabling learners to connect with the subject matter on a personal level.

Diaries as reflective tools: Diaries, in particular, play a pivotal role in this pedagogical journey. By keeping diaries that document daily interactions, observations, and feelings, learners embark on a reflective process that fosters self-awareness and a deeper connection to place. This practice encourages critical introspection, helping learners recognise their own role within the larger ecological context. As these diaries evolve, they become an invaluable resource for understanding the impact of personal choices, revealing patterns, and sparking meaningful conversations about sustainable actions.

From reflection to manifesto The process of crafting community manifestos emerges as a natural extension of this reflective journey. Formed by the narratives and insights gleaned from diaries, manifestos embody a collective and democratic commitment to imagining new sustainable futures. Learners collaboratively articulate their desires and proposed actions to address the climate crisis within their local context. This practice not only consolidates the insights gained through storytelling and reflection but also galvanises learners to transform their ideas into tangible things.

Inspiring action The power of critical hope, as infused into the pedagogy of storytelling and community manifestos, lies in its ability to inspire action. Learners, armed with a deeper understanding of their connection to the environment and their community, are emboldened to take concrete steps towards creating something new. As narratives are shared and manifestos take shape, it is hoped that learners are instilled with a greater sense of agency and purpose.

Hope and action in climate education

Amidst the intensifying climate crisis, the concept of critical hope gains prominence as an imperative and timely notion to explore and build on. It may offer an antidote to despair and anxiety by inviting learners to transcend the confines of conventional solutions, inspiring a paradigm shift rooted in the power of community engagement and grassroots action.

Critical hope reminds us that hope is not a passive sentiment but a catalyst for transformative change. As we navigate the complex landscape of climate education, we are called to embrace an intimate connection to our environment, recognising that our individual actions resonate within the broader fabric of human and ecological relations.

By adopting a bottom-up approach, we shift our focus from distant and technocratic solutions to tangible initiatives born from within the creative power of our communities.

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