Act: Inspiration

Transforming the University to Confront the Climate Crisis, Part 3

August 6, 2020

Ed. note: You can read Parts 1 and 2 of John’s series on

Toward a Pluriverse of  Climate Justice Universities

The series

Drawing on my own experiences at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a college professor of radical social change for thirty-one years who has been focused on the climate crisis for the past ten, in this three-part series I explore the crisis of higher education with respect to the most pressing existential challenge of the twenty-first century and propose various approaches, actions, activities, and projects for both classroom teachers and networks of educators.

Part One (re-)introduced the UC-CSU NXTerra Knowledge Action Network and the UCSB-developed nearly carbon neutral conference model, which should be of special interest in the Corona Crisis activist and academic worlds as it is a how-to model of a free, no-budget, highly participative, and permanent kind of conference that explodes the weaknesses of the standard model.

Part Two discussed ways of engaging  high school and college students in designing and implementing systemic alternatives outside the classroom in their own communities, such as in our case, Eco Vista — the 23,000-member student and non-student community of Isla Vista just adjacent to UC Santa Barbara, among others.

This final part of the series presents a vision of new type of university, exemplified in the world-spanning Ecoversities Alliance, and dreamed of in Transition U and Eco Vista U, two prototypes that I am involved in co-creating with students, staff, faculty, and community members in Santa Barbara, California, and in the Transition US movement.

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“The crisis we are in indicates that we are brushing up against the limits of human reason. It is time we re-activate our diverse perceptions, senses, intuitions and entanglement with the non-human world.”  – from the Ecoversities website.

I would like to end this series with a look at a few of the exciting visions of a new type of university, some of which I have encountered in my pedagogical strolls across the web, and many of them are gathered in the Ecoversities Alliance – as well as others which exist only in my mind’s eye, such as Transition U and Eco Vista U.

One of the most generative of pedagogical projects is Ecoversities, which was founded in 2015 with a gathering of 55 people from 23 countries at the Tamara Eco-village in southern Portugal.  This was followed by a second gathering at EARTH University in Costa Rica two years later and a third in 2018 at Swaraj University in Udaipur, India.  It’s worth observing that I have only recently discovered them, a delay which signals the importance of knowing about each other’s efforts so we can learn from and work with each other, especially given the ecological and public health limits posed by the crisis and the technological advances that make it possible to work together despite them.

Noting that the name itself draws on “the meanings of ‘home’ as locality and as an ‘economy,’”  Ecoversities opens its website with these observations:

ecoversities: learners and communities reclaiming diverse knowledges, relationships and imaginations to design new approaches to higher education.




What might the university look like if it were at the service of our diverse ecologies, cultures, economies, spiritualities and Life within our planetary home?

Here you will find an ecosystem of communities and organizations that are re-imagining the idea of the university and the purpose of higher education.…

The Ecoversities Alliance is a community of learning practitioners from around the world committed to re-imagining higher education to cultivate human and ecological flourishing in response to the critical challenges of our times.

One might think of the whole as a sort of world social forum of alternative education and pedagogy that has met in this series of what the Zapatistas call encuentros, diverse gatherings which meet to collectively analyse common problems and co-create alternatives based on a network model after the initial gathering has forged relationships.  With more than a hundred schools and projects of all kinds taking part, the Ecoversities Alliance does not take itself as a formal organization but rather “a process of trust and mutuality, a growing web of relationships that have been nurtured through our gatherings and beyond. We are committed to learning from/ within/ beyond diversity.”  Readers may be familiar with some of the learning spaces involved, such as Findhorn College in Scotland, Deer Park Institute Center for Indian Wisdom Traditions in India,  Kufunda Village in Zimbabwe, the School of Engaged Art Chto Delat in Russia, Swaraj University in Rajasthan, Universtatea Alternative in Bucharest, Schumacher College in England, Gaia University in Colorado, Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, and its California counterpart, the Convivial Research and Insurgent Learning set of tools.

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Hoping to nurture “an ecology of knowledges, radical pedagogies and learning commons which expands human consciousness and cultural and ecological regeneration,” the Alliance sets out the following values and orientations:


An invitation to the unknown, allowing diverse ways of being, knowing, doing, relating to emerge.

Inquiry in Solidarity

An invitation to be authentic and critically engaged with co-learners, whilst invoking self-reflection, kindness, and compassion to support others in their own inquiries and discoveries.

Experiential Learning

Learning with our senses, stories, spirits, hearts, hands, heads and homes in order to find ways we are interconnected, and entangled in each other’s struggles and dreams.


An invitation to reconnect with and learn from the land, the place and the non-human. To engage in and promote deep localization.


An invitation to address, explore and unlearn the dimensions of oppression, power, and privilege that are part of our own lives, relations, tools, structures, histories and beliefs.

Inter(trans)cultural Dialogue

An invitation to learn in-between cultures, epistemologies, cosmologies, and to learning ways we might not recognize or have experienced before. To learn from/ within/ beyond diversity.

One of the significant outcomes of their collaboration is the Pedagogy, Otherwise Reader, edited by Alessandra Pomarico (2018), containing essays, testimonies, poems, and images by many members of the Ecoversities Alliance.  Pomarico herself, writes intriguingly (at least for college teachers!) of a “third pedagogy” to be found (or imagined) somewhere between the business-as-usual university setting and the “deschooled, unlearning, creative” setting, inviting us to enter that space with no roadmap or boundaries where the real magic of “a radical tenderness can appear, that commitment and support develop, friendships blossom, alliances form, people fall in love, heal, build, and weave their paths together. It is in those intimate contexts that a revolutionary, radical love made of a thirst for justice, militant gentleness, and subversive soulfulness can form” (Pomarico 2018, 157-8).

In another essay, Manuel “Manolo” Callahan describes the work at the Universidad de la Tierra Califas, situated around the San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland Bay Area in California:

UT Califas is not confined to any buildings, nor does a cumbersome bureaucracy constrict it. Its “architecture” does not require a physical space much less shelter a bureaucratic apparatus….  As a prefigurative, convivial, and networked pedagogy UT Califas embodies a praxis of inquiry that claims the future in the present, hosting spaces that refuse to wait for a day when we can dismantle the dominant educational system (Callahan 2018, 95).

He concludes, and rightly so:

“We must, as the Zapatistas recommend, learn how to learn. The global north must learn to learn from the global south and we must learn to learn from each other or we will consume our planet to extinction” (Callahan 2018, 105).

A question that arises for all systemic alternatives of all kinds is how to thrive in a malfunctioning global economy and in nation-states whose primary raison d’être is to support that economy to the detriment of their own inhabitants and life itself.  One inventive and highly intriguing model is that of the “distributed open cooperative organization,” or DisCO, laid out in the document, If I Only Had a Heart:  A DisCO Manifesto (Troncoso and Utratel 2019).  Melding technologies like blockchain but going beyond them in a radical direction by repurposing them for cooperatives run on principles that draw from feminist economics (such as fair compensation for the care work performed by members/partners in the coop), the commons movement and Peer to Peer practices, and “open-value accounting” of the ecological consequences of production, the Guerrilla Media Commons and Guerrilla Translation Collective in Andalusia, Spain, are organized in this fashion.

What if this sophisticated model for alliances and networks of organizations that do climate justice work for free in movements, paid labor gigs for some of its members, and shares for doing the care work that makes everything run was applied to alternative education to address the perennial issue of how do its participants survive/thrive/live while doing the work?  This model – and others like it that are emergent – certainly bears study and further discussion.

I will close with mention of two fledgling initiatives I am deeply involved with and that are only emergent for now.  Transition U is a work in progress that I am involved in co-creating with students, teachers, and community members in the Transition US movement.  Convened in the pages of, the e-journal of the Post-Carbon Institute and from among the membership of the Transition US movement in the fall of 2019, a group of educators from pre-kindergarten to adult education have met to discuss how we might work with students outside of the classroom and engage community members in the process of building systemic alternatives.  We ultimately re-constituted two working groups, one for ages from zero (!) to middle school (eighth grade in the U.S. where students are typically 12-14 years old) and one for high-school and college-age students.  Thus the project was renamed “Transition Schools” and the two groups within it have adopted the names “Educare” and “Transition U” respectively.

With the backing of Transition US and the resources (mostly human) that that affords, these groups are charting their way into the challenges of addressing the sextuple crisis.  If fully realized, the potential of such a network of educators might be game-changing, as it would bring young, creative people into the Transition Movement and its many like-minded initiatives flying under their own banner anywhere.  At the same time, it could seed innovative Transition living laboratories in college and university (and younger) communities, generate new knowledge/methods/practices/experiences of Transition;  contribute to knowledge for Transition work by spreading awareness of such work in our schools;  and scale up our efforts to new locations, demographic groups, and communities (Foran 2019a).

Time will tell what may come of this, and anyone interested can contact me to find out more.

Even more a notion than a group or a space at the moment is what I and a few others want to do with Eco Vista U as a teaching/learning/resource space of our Eco Vista community project adjacent – and now we come full circle – to the University of California, Santa Barbara in the town of Isla Vista.  So far, we have founded the Eco Vista Climate Justice Press and published our first e-book, a work of climate fiction called See You in Our Dreams (Maía 2020), and that title may be the most fitting conclusion to this essay!


Hassan, Zaid.  “The University of Full Catastrophe Learning” (May 4, 2020),

Pomarico, Alessandra, editor, and others in the Ecoversities Alliance.  2018. Pedagogy, Otherwise:  The Reader.  Musagetes:  artseverywhere.

Troncoso, Stacco and Ann Marie Utratel, lead writer and editor. 2019.  If I Only Had a Heart:  A DisCO Manifesto – Value Sovereignty, Care Work, Commons and Distributed Cooperative Organizations.  Jointly published by, the Transnational Institute, and Guerrilla Media Collective.



Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra,

Kufunda Village, Zimbabwe

Gaia University,

Schumacher College in England,

Deer Park Institute Center for Indian Wisdom Traditions,

The School of Engaged Art is an educational platform initiated by Chto Delat,

Swaraj University,

Universtatea Alternative in Bucharest,

Findhorn College,

The Convivial Research and Insurgent Learning,

Other websites

Guerrilla Media Commons:

Guerilla Translation:

The Eco Vista Climate Justice Press:

Tree Buddha

Teaser photo credit: Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash


Tags: alternative education, building resilient education systems, higher education, Transition movement