The necessity of transition education

What are the chances that societies defined today by consumerism, profit-driven production, and plutocratic governance will transition to societies that instead enshrine ecological limits, needs-based production, and democracy, in the face of what is likely to be unprecedented opposition from corporate elites, without an effective mass education effort?

The lifestyles that citizens of wealthy countries see as normal were made possible through extensive fossil fuel use, overconsumption, and other trends that have produced serious threats to our survival. The further we must travel from our political and cultural frames of reference to address these issues, the more crucial education becomes to the success of the journey. If minor changes to society or defending existing institutions were sufficient responses, there might be little need to change the worldview of everyday people. But the nature of our task is transformation—we must create a new society. We’ll need to win and hold governing power over the long term on a platform that calls for a future very different from the present. Every obstacle along the way, and many remnants of the old culture, will fuel the arguments of those who oppose the transition. It’s impossible to imagine building a new society without broad recognition of our current society’s fatal defects or the foresight and cultural groundwork that a transition-focused education system could provide.

The contours of a transition curriculum

The formal and informal education everyday people receive currently reinforces the present order, often promoting trivial or misleading public discourse and instilling consumerism, selfish individualism, and political passivity. We need a system of education that instead cultivates deep and holistic knowledge, autonomy, and a cooperative spirit so that people have the tools they need to create a different future. I think a curriculum for a sustainable society would teach about the ecological systems and energy sources that form the physical foundations of our existence, the economic institutions that shape our interactions with those physical realities, the power structures that benefit from and fight changes to these institutions, and the body of cultural ideas and habits that either perpetuate the status quo or—if refashioned through education—push towards something new.

This curriculum would seek to establish a different base of public knowledge and also pursue broader goals. It would spur discussions aimed at examining our cultural values and promoting those aligned with a sustainable economy, cultivate flexible worldviews and emotion regulation skills to cope with the challenges and uncertainty of the transition, sharpen our critical thinking abilities to defend against the propaganda warfare that elites will surely wage, and involve participants in active projects to consciously change our habits. These programs would be sources of recruitment for social movements as well as community-based economic relocalization and resilience campaigns. This curriculum would build the foundation for an ecological and democratic culture and strengthen the forces of the transition, helping to make a new society possible.

Strategies for scaling transition education

Who are the main actors in this mass education effort? In my view, social movements are the primary vehicle. This undertaking requires energy and sheer numbers, and that’s what activists can provide.

Perhaps the most crucial question is how to implement a transition curriculum at the necessary scale, so that it regularly reaches millions of people. I think the main barrier today is insufficient attention from progressive forces. In this moment, spreading the rationale may be the most important scaling strategy. If we can convince existing movements of the need for an intellectual and cultural reboot, then we could have real power behind this effort. I’ve been making that case consistently in my writing, most recently in pieces about mass education and the climate crisis.

Some may dismiss calls for new education systems as unnecessary, a distracting substitute for “real” action, too slow in comparison with our pressing issues, or of little use because people simply don’t learn. Those who recognize the vital role of education should address all such perceptions. Let’s make the case that a new society cannot come from the same culture that defined its predecessor, that worldviews must be targets of transformation because they drive all of the actions we take, that some concepts could take root more quickly than we expect and that the transition is a long-term project anyway, and that minds can indeed be changed. Education efforts are imperative even if collapse seems unavoidable, because they will have cultivated connections between people, championed democratic values that communities will need, and taught practical skills for a more energy- and resource-constrained future.

We must draw activists’ attention to our utterly inadequate information environment. We cannot expect a modern-day Enlightenment to arise from occasional articles about ecological breakdown in even the most prominent news outlets, or more frequent radical analyses appearing in independent outlets read only by a fraction of the population. Nor will a different culture develop just because more people enroll in sustainability graduate programs. Everyday citizens must have a means of learning about the limits to growth, how a society’s energy sources shape its structure, the principles of ecological economics, political economy, and so much more. These are not specialist domains belonging to academics but pillars of a new society’s common sense. Because they appear so infrequently in public discourse, there are few people to advocate for a curriculum focused on these topics, let alone one that synthesizes the indispensable insights of multiple disciplines. Without this knowledge, how are citizens supposed to understand the roots of our predicaments and why dramatic changes are necessary? Vital lessons won’t be instilled without a concerted effort. Activists must come to see that holistic and actionable education is critical for social transformation.

With social movements convinced of the necessity of transition education, they could pursue inside-outside campaigns to start reaching people with this curriculum. One strategy should be attempting to influence formal education systems, from pre-school through graduate school. The reason is straightforward—these institutions already reach nearly every student, so our focus on scale is served by working to reform them. An outside strategy, however, is also essential. I believe activists should work to develop movement-run education systems both online and, importantly, in person in as many communities as possible. This would help to ensure that the millions of people no longer in school aren’t overlooked. Establishing independent education networks may also have advantages in both speed (since it could take significant time to reform existing systems) and curriculum integrity (because there will surely be opposition to teaching many transition concepts).

The existential threats facing humanity are not the result of minor social trends that are easily fixed. They are rooted in institutions, worldviews, and lifestyles that must be transformed if these issues are to be resolved. The gap between our current society and the sustainable and democratic one we must create calls for a bridge that can only be built through transition education. By taking this idea seriously, we can develop education systems that help the general public understand our existential issues and their solutions, plug many more people into essential roles in the transition, and develop the skills we’ll need to overcome the challenges along the way.


Teaser photo credit: Photo by USGS on Unsplash