Dr. Benjamin Freud is a learning dialogist, advisor, writer, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, an advisory that supports educators, schools, and learning organizations answer the question: how do we design systems that contribute to the thriving of the bio-collective? Benjamin’s first career was in consulting in Silicon Valley, Europe and Asia. He then moved into to education and held a variety of leadership roles as Head of School, Director of Learning and Teaching, and Vice Principal Middle & High School. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, and an MA in International Relations.
As I write these words, New Zealand’s North Island is struck by the most powerful cyclone in the nation’s history. Last week, storms battered the entire country, leading to inundations in serval cities. New Zealand has been in a state of emergency for over a week. A fortnight ago, several parts of the United States and Canada suffered the lowest temperatures on record. Eastern Africa is on the verge of its sixth consecutive failed rainy season, putting millions at risk of starvation. Thirty three million people were affected by floods in Pakistan last summer. In a few months, will we enter yet another hottest summer on record in Europe?
I sit here anticipating that you, the reader, will discern that little voice in your head that whispers, “More bad news. More doom. You’ve heard it before. Look away.” Before you do, I invite you to consider these questions: What are schools doing to prepare students for the future of chaos and uncertainty we know will come? Better yet, what are schools doing to prepare students for the chaos and uncertainty that are already here? If you struggle as I do to find responses full of conviction and hope, then don’t look away just yet.
Let’s ask another question now: What would it take to consider the impact on Nature (and future generations) of all the decisions we make in schools? Decisions at strategic, curricular, community, infrastructural, well-being, and every other level.
Schools often introduce sustainability by creating an eco-club, or starting a composting program, or growing vegetables in a community garden and these are laudable initiatives! Sometimes schools introduce sustainability in parts of their curricula, or tie in service learning with climate action, and these too are laudable steps. Whether these are enough to prepare students to face climate breakdown is anything but clear. The journey to become a civilization that lives in sustainable balance with the earth is a long one—and the journey toward a regenerative civilization, even longer.
What if schools made a statement by putting a physical, human spokesperson for Nature (and future generations) on their board? This person would speak on behalf of Nature, advocating for Nature, reminding the board that Nature is central to all that we do. This person would not be the anthropomorphization of Nature, pretending to embody Nature: they would consider what Nature could have to say about the decisions made. Just like any spokesperson, this person would appreciate that they can’t know everything, but their presence is one of advocacy, perhaps of representation. Their presence would ensure that school remembers that it has a duty of care to its current students, to future generations, to all living things.
Unless we consider the impact on Nature of every decision we make, we will not have the conversations we need not be able to shift the values we hold to respond to the first cataclysmic crisis in human history that will affect every member of our species—and millions of non-human species as well. Having the conversations and working toward shifting our values are also processes that open us up for considering the impact on Nature of our decisions. This is a dynamic flow that rushes energy through the spaces we hold for this work, through each node in the system.
Schools will struggle to centralize sustainability unless those with the authority to centralize sustainability do so with conviction and courage. How many sustainability coordinators—in the few schools that even have such a role—have the remit to embed sustainability in the curriculum, in the community, in infrastructure, in well-being? How many sustainability coordinators have the space to support teachers in designing learning experiences that provide students the opportunity to understand and respond to their local sustainability contexts? How many sustainability coordinators have the time to work with teachers to create opportunities for students to ask why and then do something about it.
Again, it isn’t that first steps aren’t wonderful. No one will say that doing a beach cleanup isn’t a valuable contribution. Asking why there is plastic on the beach in the first place and what can we do to make sure we won’t need to clean up any more beaches allow for deeper questions that shift the system. To set up a program that collects food for composting is amazing! Asking how we can feed our bodies with healthy foods that are low in price and carbon footprint and make these foods available at the cafeteria might just be transformative. Discussing the need for renewable energies happens in many classrooms. Asking what it would take to make the school carbon negative and working with local businesses to make this happen might just cause ripples in the community. (By the way, all of these questions can build knowledge, skills, and mastery in every discipline in a school’s timetable.)
What would it take to put Nature on the board of your school? Perhaps this is a longer-term ambition; perhaps it starts with putting Nature on your senior leadership team. Perhaps schools should start asking themselves if they can live up to their missions and visions, if they can ensure student success if they do anything less.
Of course there are other tangible benefits to embedding sustainability in all aspects of strategy, operations, and curriculum of a school: cost savings, publicity and branding, student products and outcomes that set them apart for universities and employers. Of course there is the possibility to strengthen ties with the community and build a stronger culture. Of course, there are significant professional development opportunities. Of course, there is all of that.
There is more at stake. There is the vital—in the literal sense of word—need to re-consider our responses to the climate crisis, to position schools at the forefront of creating a better world and ensuring that students are successful and safeguarded from a future whose uncertainty may play out for the worst.
To paraphrase Oliver Matikainen, we live in radical times: if we don’t find radical solutions to the problems we face, we may end up with a future radically different from the one we want.
Putting Nature on the school board (or at least senior leadership) may be radical, but this is a sign of our times. It is time that considering our impact on Nature become the normal.