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An Essay on the Ecological Crisis: Some Reflections

13 December 2021 | Britt Baatjes Ecological Crisis

Once I learned this stuff, I needed no convincing that ‘people and planet matter’ and that we need education - not necessarily formal - to assist us with this.

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In the following journal entries, I reflect on my feelings, frustrations and fears as I attempted to write an essay about ‘educating as if people and planet matter.’ I look back on my own unlearning and re-learning; on what I experience in South Africa when it comes to the ecological crisis and education; and also on how things that work in the Global North do not necessarily work in the Global South and why. I do not offer a list of solutions, but rather share many thoughts, feelings and questions I grapple with daily.


Dear Diary

I have read about and studied many extraordinary and doable ideas and propositions and witnessed actual demonstrations of ‘educating as if people and planet matter,’ that I can’t think of anything to add to this already-existing, irrefutable evidence. So what do I offer in my essay, Dear Diary? I could just say, please go read or re-read. Go take a look. This stuff exists. FULL STOP.


Dear Diary, the above is not quite the requisite word count. So I could say something about education - as you know I have long critiqued formal education - I just don’t agree with what is taught, how or why. Today, more than ever, I think we are wasting our children’s and youth’s time. In South Africa, where I live, the official youth unemployment rate is 74%, which means it’s actually higher. Some of the unemployed are graduates. They are told they are not ‘work-ready,’ whatever that means. I don’t think I was at 22 when I got my first job. It’s the dominant discourse way of saying we need to think of a way to explain our way out of this. Oh yes, we’ll blame the victims. On the radio the other day I heard: ‘We must introduce youth to big business, big celebrities and big brands.’ I reacted with my usual steps: I argue with the radio; I switch it off; I shout profanities. Yes, we do need to prepare children and young people for a different future - indeed for a different present - but certainly not one with big business, celebrities or brands!


Maybe for my essay I should give a personal account of my climate and ecological justice learning journey - how I learned that ‘people and planet matter’ - a journey that started over 20 years ago and happened mostly outside of formal learning spaces.

I think the actual moment it started was in my brother’s kitchen in Belgium. There was mandatory recycling of waste. In South Africa we did not do this then, and still, today, it is not mandatory (at this point I will say that I write with disclaimers - yes, there are recyclers, but it is still not law. Yes, I have read Forget Shorter Showers, so I know the limitations). My next memory of learning that something was not quite right with the Earth was a few years later in Austria. I visited a children’s museum with my niece and nephew and, with them, learned about food miles and carbon footprints. Reflecting now on those exhibits, it was the first time I was made aware of how the global food system works, how unjust it is, and the importance of localisation. I was in my 30s with a university degree.

Then there was the gradual connecting of the dots between my work in adult and community education and the ecological crisis. The research I did focusing on the ecological crisis made me feel despair as I came face-to-face with the reality of what is happening and is still to come. Thankfully the despair was balanced by many articles, books, videos, discussions and demonstrations showing people around the world, usually within struggle, doing, or attempting to do, things ‘differently.’ Differently to the mainstream or dominant way of being and doing.


Once I learned this stuff, I needed no convincing that ‘people and planet matter’ and that we need education - not necessarily formal - to assist us with this. But what would we learn and teach in South Africa? We know (or should know) that the Global South is in trouble, Africa is in trouble, South Africa is in trouble. Why are we not screaming about this issue? Reflecting, unlearning, re-learning, re-imagining, acting with urgency? (Disclaimer again - I’m not referring to the few people who are!). Should this be the focus of my essay? Why are not enough people screaming?

Here’s some ‘research’ which I offer as a way to make sense of why not.

The ‘powers-that-be’:

In the Nelson Mandela Bay metro (Eastern Cape), where I live, we are in a prolonged drought - our main storage dams are at the lowest levels in recorded history. We are fast approaching Day Zero. In a radio interview the other day, the Mayor and the interviewer said nothing about climate change. Yes, I offered my usual response, including an added step - my mouth fell open.

In 2020, the school curriculum was ‘trimmed and re-organised’ in order to assist with getting students, particularly Grade 12s, through the grades, since learning and teaching had basically stopped when South Africa went into lockdown. Human Impact on the Environment (part of Life Sciences) was one such ‘trim.’ So, during the Covid pandemic (see the link?), Dear Diary, the teaching time for this topic was reduced, while Entrepreneurship, Coding and Robotics are introduced into our schools with applause and enthusiasm.

The youth:

I decided to do a snapshot kind of ‘survey’ and asked a number of primary and high school students what they know about climate change, global warming and the ecological crisis. Once again I offer a disclaimer, but overwhelmingly, the sum of what I got was: ‘Climate change has to do with changes in the weather.’

Me: Have you ever learned about climate change at school?

High school student: Yes, last year.

Me: What did you learn?

Student: I don’t remember.

My mouth falls open in disbelief…often.


But wait a minute, there are other reasons why not enough of us are screaming about climate change and the ecological crisis in South Africa.

There’s a small middle class, who might recycle, collect rain water, have solar but that is probably because South Africa has a very unstable power supply (load shedding), and embrace veganism on Mondays - the ‘Global North’ people in the South - who are (I’m pretty sure) booking their spots on Musk’s great escape to Mars. The majority of South Africans are not them - they are materially poor and continue to suffer the injustices of class and ‘race’ apartheid. They may be landless, homeless, hungry or malnourished, jobless or in precarious labour, without proper healthcare or education. Even though the above list is intricately linked to the climate and ecological crisis, in South Africa it is not acknowledged as such, and links are not made (disclaimer!).

So, Dear Diary, what exactly are the lessons to teach and learn here?

Definitely not ‘sufficiency’ lessons.


I could use some Global North examples of how educational institutions can ‘go green’ to explain why they would not work here:

Organise a local food day.

This presupposes that families have food.

Ask the school to install energy metres.

This presupposes electricity and water.

Carpool, ride a bike or walk.

This presupposes access to cars and bikes. Many South African children already walk to school, possibly after completing household chores, sometimes very far distances and not necessarily safe, through bushes, in rain, across rivers, in the early morning cold and darkness or midday heat.

Teach care, concern, co-operation and conviviality.

The majority of South African children already know this because their families embrace the concept of Ubuntu - the philosophy ‘I am because we are’ - about the collective, not the individual - a way of being and doing that is practised in most indigenous societies across the world.


Then, Dear Diary, there’s what I call the ‘backwards/forwards’ thing. Again I offer some examples to explain:

When presenting some research findings about a group of mostly female farmers doing urban farming in a poor part of South Africa, I was asked: ‘Why do you want poor Black people to remain backwards?’ For me, the women demonstrated an example of food sovereignty, of localisation - an attempt to break free from the corporate global food system, perhaps even a small act of revolution. There is an incongruity, an oddness, when it comes to this backwards/forwards thing. There is a strong ‘aspirational’ pull to be like those in the Global North and to be ‘successful individuals’ (as in ‘women too can be CEOs’), but at the same time to hold onto our values and beliefs that come from days gone by. So you may hear the words Ubuntu and capitalism in the same sentence as if you can be a devotee of both. ‘Growth,’ ‘development’ and ‘progress’ are not critiqued (disclaimer) - in fossil-fuelled South Africa we’ll do it by being ‘kind capitalists.’

Dear Diary

I’ve said a lot but haven’t explained what type of education is required. The ‘answers’ lie in the many alternatives and possibilities - the ongoing collective efforts for change. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes remind us:

Wake up all the teachers [all of us] time to teach a new way
Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say.

The world won't get no better if we just let it be
The world won't get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me.