Climate Justice in the Higher Education Context
“No Justice on a Dead Planet” reads a popular placard at recent climate protests.
But is it true?
On face value, yes. There can be no justice for humans if humans aren’t alive.
But the implication of the placard is that justice can wait (or must wait, even)… until we sort out the climate change mess.
This is debatable. And the debate is winnable.
The Definition of Insanity
During my seven years as Education for Sustainable Development Project Coordinator for the Higher Education Academy (2005–2012), we funded numerous innovative and lovingly-developed courses and projects. University-wide programmes attempted to embed sustainable development goals into the curriculum and throughout the campus.
Here we are in 2021, in the middle of a pandemic. University students and staff are suffering, people are glued to their screens in Zoom meetings and events. And we all know the scientific evidence for climate and ecological catastrophes.
Pre-Covid-19, some of us joined Extinction Rebellion, fed up with the same-old political rhetoric and bad news. And we were attracted to fresh messages and an empowerment that came with blocking “business as usual” in London and seeing the seriousness, the direness, of the situation finally getting media coverage. The Overton Window was shifting.
Here we are in 2021, with untold suffering happening in Yemen (due to war), in India (due to Covid-19), and species going extinct, female-presenting humans afraid to walk alone at night, and billions of humans still without safe drinking water.
A Somatic Break
Every single phrase in the sentence above deserves our full attention. A bodily acknowledgment of where this information sits within us — how we ignore it, hide it — find it too much, too scary, too sad. Let’s do as Resmaa Menakem teaches us to do: Have a look around where you are right now. Where are the windows and doors, the escape routes from these feelings? Breathe and gently sway.
Particularly if you are white, European-heritage, middle class, and living in the West, you are part of a culture that likes to keep the intellect separate from the body. Thinks it’s possible, even.
Recognisable Patterns and Characteristics
As a mixed-race, white-passing Latina raised in the US and having worked in the UK for 17 years (and now living in Colombia), I’m well-trained in what Tema Okun calls “white supremacy culture”. Patterns include defensiveness, worship of the written word, paternalism, power hoarding, individualism, “I’m the only one”, objectivity, and the “right to comfort”. All of which lead us to, among other problematic behaviours, the notorious “Ivory Tower” thinking.
And when you add in elitism, discouragement of dissent, and the amount of time that lecturers are expected to put into their university careers, you start recognising characteristics of cults. (This is not to say that universities are cults, but that some of the characteristics of cults are present within the ecosystem.)
Getting Close to the Majority World
What does all this have to do with climate justice?
Appropriate responses to climate and ecological destruction won’t come from us in (Western) higher education, where we benefit quite a bit from the toxic system that brought us said destruction.
Seeing through the system is much harder when we have such privileges.
And if we benefit from, or especially thrive within, the system, we lack experiences in surviving outside the system, or surviving a collapse at all –particularly with our humanity intact. So we fear that prospect.
We, in the West, with power + privilege + platform — we have a lot of work to do. Work that will enable us to get close to our fellow human beings of the majority world. The people who understand the system well, who have unprivileged hope, and the skills necessary to create a world where we take care of one another and keep each other as safe as possible.
Heather Luna spent seven years working within UK higher education (2005–2012), and the past two years in international environmental movements, where she has been facilitating workshops related to decolonisation. She credits this personal development to fellow activists from Sri Lanka, Bolivia, and Iran — and to a young, white, male, anti-racist activist in Stroud, England. She offers these workshops widely now. Learn more at keduzi.org.