“How Did This Class Prepare You for Extinction?”

April 21, 2020

Every semester, I receive a message from my university’s student evaluation system informing me of the opportunity to include an additional question for my students to answer once they complete the course evaluation at the end of the semester. As a pedagogical provocation, I am always tempted to add the following question: “how did this class prepare you for extinction?”

As an environmental humanities scholar, most of my courses deal with the ongoing simultaneous global acceleration of biological extinction and social inequality as interrelated issues reinforced by the dominant growth-oriented economic culture. The faster the global economy grows, the faster the living systems of the planet collapse. As I explained in my book, Postgrowth Imaginaries, the problem is not a lack of economic growth but rather the globalization of an economic culture addicted to constant growth, which destroys the ecological planetary systems that support life on Earth while failing to fulfill its social promises.

A number of recent studies indicate that a mass species extinction is well underway on our planet. Wildlife populations have decreased by 60% in the last few decades and 70% of agricultural diversity has disappeared. In this age of mass extinction, maybe it is time to radically alter commonplace pedagogical practices that were developed in a completely different environmental and social context. In the current historical conjunction, universities should not continue teaching how to serve the existing economy, but how to transition out of an ongoing economic inertia that is killing life on Earth and how to design our future prosperity and resilience from the massive ruin and waste left behind by a few hundred years of a growth-oriented economic cultural paradigm.

Today, the deathly ideology of the growth paradigm seems to be deeply ingrained in our universities. The neoliberal rationality that dominates higher education claims that the role of faculty consists of preparing students to contribute to and compete in the global economy. An economy, to be sure, that is rapidly killing life on Earth and it is likely going to collapse in the near future. Discounting the dire economic effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, just put together the last reports related to the global energy situation, public and private debt levels, water and top soil depletion, species extinction, waste accumulation, and climate disruption and you will see how unlikely is for the global economy to continue growing for much longer. What current university administrators are implicitly stating by repeating the growth mantra and framing innovation in a neoliberal way (equating creativity with the design of revenue generation strategies) is that higher education should prepare students to continue the destructive inertia of our dominant economic culture.

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Most higher education programs train students for a future that is unlikely to materialize without collapsing the living systems of our planet. Historically, universities have been instrumental in promoting business as usual and spurring economic growth. Today, we are much more efficient at depleting the Earth than we were a century ago. So the problem is not the tool (technology), but the logic. The solution to our ecological and inequality crises is not to do better or more efficiently the destructive things we are already doing, but to do things in radically different ways.

The question remains: is it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival? Is it smart to make a destructive system smarter, more sophisticated, and more efficient? Most classroom practices, curriculum content, and departmental programs across academic disciplines are designed as if the answer to these questions would be “yes, of course!”

Maybe we should be teaching (or better, learning with our students) the practical and theoretical tools needed to make a transition to other economic cultural paradigms in which all humans—not just a few—can thrive in a biologically impoverished planet: transition design, systems thinking, waste repurposing, biomimesis, permaculture, meditation, or any other techniques with the potential to empower communities, regenerate soils and souls, and help us move toward regenerative cultural paradigms.

My pedagogical method is designed to destabilize one of the most pervasive consensuses of our time: the idea that constant economic growth and technological acceleration is biophysically possible and socially desirable in a finite biosphere. In the classroom, we challenge the common belief that improvements in technology and efficiency are value-free and not political issues, given that these improvements actually accelerate the two aforementioned tendencies: biological annihilation and social inequality. As such, we explore how our current unsustainability is deeply rooted in our dominant cultural logics.

In most of my courses, students strive to collectively interrogate what is a good life, who should define it, and what kind of tools, narratives, institutions, and infrastructures may foster it. In other words, we investigate what sets of values and languages of valuation could help us reduce inequality and regenerate ecosystems and what kind of cultural paradigms and social imaginaries could materialize into socially desirable and ecologically viable communities.

A few years ago, I theorized my teaching method as “the Pedagogy of Degrowth.” Currently, I am interested in enhancing it by considering some aspects stemming from the latest neuroscientific developments on brain lateralization as well as issues of linguistic framing. Some studies strongly suggest that fear and anger are emotions more associated with the left-brain hemisphere, and both emotions could trigger a socially dangerous “us versus them” mode. For this reason, my pedagogical dilemma becomes how to discuss the multi-crisis scenarios we are facing without overfeeding these emotions.

I am currently trying to envision a learning paradigm that stimulates the ways of attending of the brain’s right hemisphere. Neoliberal educational habits tend to do the other way around (training people to massively favor the left hemisphere ways of attending). I suspect that a systemic learning paradigm able to overcome the dominant ideologies of disconnection that are making our planet uninhabitable would encourage classroom activities designed to stimulate the right hemisphere ways of attending. This implies training our students to always start and finish any discussion by connecting it with its socioecological context.

The first day of class, I always introduce students to the two intertwined inertias of our time, namely, the ongoing acceleration of the rates of biological extinction and social inequality. Then, I ask students to discuss in groups if they think that these two issues are interrelated and why this is relevant to our class (whatever the topic of the class may be). The last day of class, students assess the course by reflecting on the following question: How well has this class prepared me to deal with social corrosion in a biologically impoverished planet and to contribute to community resilience and soil regeneration?

I believe that higher education would better serve students in particular and all humans in general if our teaching and research methods stop perpetuating the cultural paradigm that brought us to the brink of extinction and start encouraging students to imagine and create alternatives to it. Otherwise, we are just preparing our students for extinction, not for life. The dominant social imaginary fears death intensively and, paradoxically perhaps for this reason, displays an economic metabolism that exterminates life quickly. It is time to overcome the deathly dominant imaginary. Let us stop fearing death so we can start teaching life.


Teaser photo credit: The dodo of Mauritius, shown here in a 1626 illustration by Roelant Savery, is an often-cited example of modern extinction[21]

Luis I. Prádanos

Luis I. Prádanos (Iñaki) is the author of Postgrowth Imaginaries. He is also Professor at Miami University.

Tags: degrowth, higher education, postgrowth economics, sixth great extinction