Doomsday, whatever

By: Julie Bromilow Education Department

As might be expected, the Plymouth delegates were taken on an emotional roller coaster, and were sent spinning through the dizzy heights of strangely familiar Education for Sustainable Development emotions; angst and optimism, flirting giddily on the precipice of relief before plummeting into the valleys of grief.


Woebegones at the tea urn muttered into their paper cups, and cheery workshop leaders battled over that eternal question; – So how do we convey these messages of a planet on the brink of catastrophe described so succinctly by David Orr and Mark Lynas to our students, without plunging them into a fathomless icy lake of despair?

Jerome Satterthwaite bravely stirred the terrifying waters still further with a seminar entitled ‘Doomsday – Again and Again and Again’, in a vain attempt to seek answers which were – at least in his allotted forty minutes – unforthcoming.

It’s a question worthy of attention. As a global community, our incompetence, ignorance and inaction have sent us careening headlong towards a sequence of tipping points which will plunge our planet and its peoples into a hell pit of climate chaos. What’s more, the public at large are generally unaware of the full extent of the peril. Even ESD practitioners are still struggling to catch up with the normal run of the mill effects of climate change: drought, famine, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, global poverty, etc etc, and some are still distractingly and irrelevantly squabbling among themselves about whether or not global citizenship has got anything to do with sustainable development. As for the education sector as a whole – many educators still deny the significance and in some cases the existence of climate change, and of the few who do welcome and embrace ESD with open arms, many are enthusiastically running themselves ragged with a well meaning but misguided itinerary of African drummers, recycling officers, and Fair Trade tuck shops which in terms of action that actually makes a significant difference to the most serious issue our planet has ever faced, at best generates little more than a rosy buzz of good will.

Don’t get me wrong – Fair Trade is obviously a ‘good thing’. Recycling is a ‘good thing’ but if and only if it is kicked firmly into place by a concerted effort to reduce the amount of crap we consume in the first place, something usually forgotten in the race to fill the recycling bins the contents of which will of course in many cases, take almost as much energy to recycle as they did to produce in the first place. Food miles are another issue I spend a long time untangling. Not that food is insignificant – it is a massive issue in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use. But in terms of overall food related impact, transports share is fairly small, despite being presented by educators the length and breadth of Britain as being the only impact related to food. And not only that but these food miles are presented in a most confusing way; as being a ‘bad thing’ at the same time as long distance Fair Trade produce and tropical fresh fruit smoothies are subsequently heralded as a definite ‘good thing’ without any context setting, or exploration of the fact that ship freight is relatively efficient, while it is air freight and the drive to the supermarket which have the greatest food transport impact. And that although there are of course manifold improvements and efficiency to be made in terms of ship freight (as coherently explained by Paul Wright in his seminar ‘The Way of Ships’ ) and import and export trading, in the context of food, transport itself has a relatively small impact compared to land use (particularly for livestock), growth, processing, and packaging. It’s this inability to see the bigger picture that leads to several mistakes with disastrous consequences, such as the rush for biofuels.

And these are just a few examples from a galaxy of well meaning yet unhelpful ESD efforts. So yes, there is indeed cause for despair. Despair for those desperately trying to raise the standards of ESD and engage people with the real issues, and the values, skills and knowledge needed to deal with these issues. Despair for those aware of the issues but ignorant of the solutions. And despair for those who have seen the light and negotiated their way through the quagmire of nature gardens and international celebrations, and are trying to deliver good quality ESD, but are facing the brutal reality of the situation we’re in, square in the face. What to do?

Teaching positive futures

In the education department at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), this situation is part and parcel of our everyday existence. We work with students, pupils, and educators of all key stages and subject disciplines, both at CAT as part of our residential or day visit activities, and as part of our outreach programme, delivering projects, training for teachers, talks, and workshops with students, pupils and adults. Our experience tells us that the answer is to be succinct and honest but brief about the issues, and clear about the priorities for action. Looking at the big picture, is vital.

It is important to be clear about the fact that though we face many challenges, climate change is the issue we must prioritise. Without action on climate change, all our other endeavours become worthless. The issues are all interrelated, and it’s impossible to teach about biodiversity loss, peak oil, global poverty and the rest without also teaching about climate change. How can we discuss racism and attitudes to immigration without investigating the reasons for immigration and the millions of climate change refugees that will soon be making their way to northern Europe? So yes we teach about the gravity and urgency of the issues, though with younger audiences we don’t talk about tipping points. We save that for those with particular responsibility; teachers, tutors, older students, and sceptics. At this stage our audiences are not a pretty sight – they display all the understandable reactions of slump shouldered misery and even hostility. A quick straw poll at this stage shows not a shred of positivity about the future. They are down trodden, prickly, oozing negativity and a reluctance to engage with the workshop from every pore. But it’s vitally important to get through this stage, both to impress upon our students the urgency of the need to act, and to clarify the issues. Most groups we speak to, even very young children who weren’t around in the 1980s will usually have someone among their number who believes that climate change has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. So get to this stage and then move swiftly on.

Which brings me to the second step – priorities. A good deal of the misery and reluctance to engage with the issues that people express is due to a feeling of helplessness. Ask a group of students what they can do to help mitigate climate change, and though some will be better informed, they’ll typically give you responses that include recycling, turning off the taps, and switching to low energy lightbulbs. (They’re not alone. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that “people see their responsibility largely in terms of “doing their bit” with small steps like recycling and turning off lights at home”1) Ask them if they think this will make a difference, and they’ll usually say no. And how right they are. Little wonder people feel helpless and depressed in the face of climate change when they’re generally given such pitiful advice. A key step is to highlight where our emissions are coming from. In Britain, the huge majority of our domestic emissions come from heating, transport, and food. Action to reduce our emissions in these sectors can produce real savings of tons of greenhouse gasses a year per capita, as oppose to mere kilograms from refusing plastic bags and recycling your bottles.

The Carbon Trust

Our education focuses on aims to result in action that makes a difference. It is delivered through talks and activities, and through honest discussion. We find it helpful to talk about the future: what kind of future are we headed towards if we do nothing, what kind of future would our students prefer, and what necessary steps do we have to take in order to get there. Talking through these issues and activities usually results in students coming to the conclusion that we will have to make changes in the way we eat, travel, and heat our homes rather than do without these necessities altogether. Having discussed what makes life essential, and then what it is that makes life worth living – there are always a smattering of expected consumer answers to this, ranging from x-boxes to twiglets – but no matter what age, this question results in a list that mostly includes family, love, music, adventure and friends. ie the stuff of life that can’t be measured in tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Backed up by activities and resources demonstrating what is possible with a zero carbon future, that it does not have to be a dark, cold, difficult and deprived place, and you start to see some smiles. Lifestyle changes are necessary, but we can still have the essentials and the stuff that makes life worth living. When you show people how many tons of greenhouse gas emissions they can reduce simply by switching from a high meat and processed food diet to a more fresh and local one with limited meat and dairy, you will get broad grins. Another straw poll to test doom and gloom levels at the end of a session like this will result in generally high levels of positive feelings about the future. This is not to be confused with naivety. They understand the gravity of the issues, and that their own individual actions are a drop in the ocean without international and national political and economic action. But they themselves, are empowered. As my colleague Jo is fond of saying, if you want to get somewhere, first you have to know where you are. Then you need to know where you want to get to. And then you need a map and the skills and tools to get there. Help our students envision a positive future and empower them with the skills, knowledge and values they need to get there. It’s our responsibility as educators.

Zero Carbon Britain

The CAT education officers are part of a much larger team. Founded thirty six years ago in an abandoned slate quarry in the heart of Wales, the handful of unpaid founder members caused a great deal of alarm in the local community. What in the blazes were those hairy English hippies up to? Aware of peak oil and climate change, what they were up to then is very much what they are still up to today – providing practical solutions to global environmental problems. Instead of agonising over political inactivity, they rolled up their sleeves, got stuck in, made a bunch of mistakes and carried on trying. Now there are over one hundred and twenty people on the pay role, a visitor site teeming with biodiversity demonstrating renewable energies, environmental buildings, organic growing, and natural water treatment systems, a plethora of courses, and recently the Graduate School for the Environment (GSE). The GSE currently runs two masters courses, one of which is the largest Msc in Britain, with plans afoot to increase the number of graduate courses, including modules for MAs in ESD. CAT staff have thirty six years worth of gloom avoidance strategies tucked under their belt, and their answer lies not in burying their head in the sand, not in academic wrangling or navel gazing, but in getting on with the solutions.

As a result of the GSE, CAT now have a pool of eager graduate students on hand with whom they can research and write collaborative policy documents. Zerocarbonbritain2 is a renewable energy strategy for Britain published in 2007. The document is CAT’s response to the urgency of climate change, and is the culmination of a years work between CAT graduate students, CAT staff, and the Public Interest Research Centre. Set in the global context, the report describes how Britain can completely phase out fossil fuel use over a twenty year period by a combined process of ‘powering down’ energy use and ‘powering up’ with renewable energy. The report investigates the policy framework needed to drive this rapid shift and the technologies and lifestyle changes we can expect to see over the next two decades if these policies are implemented. The international policy adopts ‘contraction and convergence’ for an equitable distribution of carbon. At national level the policy advocates the distribution of carbon through Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs). The report explores an ‘Island Britain’ scenario in which Britain would produce all its energy and food. In reality of course, overseas trading would continue, but this research shows what is technically achievable as a base-line model. zerocarbonbritain was written by ‘backcasting’ – looking at where we need to be in the future and then investigating what policies and technologies are needed to get there. Funding has now been secured to extend the research, and zerocarbonbritain2, fleshing out the details and researching a model for Europe, is currently underway.

The document has received widespread political attention from Wales to Westminster, and in Europe, though of course the success is as yet difficult to measure. The Liberal Democrats have used 95% of it for their own Zero Carbon Britain energy strategy, and Colin Challen is a big supporter, but of course translating technically achievable solutions into political reality is a giant step we are all still waiting for.


As an education tool, zerocarbonbritain is an overwhelming hit. It’s a policy document so it’s a pretty weighty read, but we’ve been converting the nuts and bolts of the paper into a range of activities for use with various ages, abilities and subject disciplines. In terms of engaging people with positive action, awakening political interest, and avoiding the doom and gloom, we’re onto a winner. The document was written in positive spirit and follows the format we use as educators:
• Be honest about the seriousness of the problem.
• Look at the big picture and work out the priorities.
• Work out where we need to be.
• And what we have to do to get there.

This theory is backed up by research that shows people are more inclined to feel positive about the future when they are engaged honestly with the issues. The Primary Review for example, found that “pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt that they had the power to act. Thus the children who were most confident that climate change might not overwhelm them were those whose schools had decided to replace unfocussed fear by factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability”3

But I don’t need researchers to tell me that. We were witness to it at Plymouth, when Juliet Davenport told us about the work of Good Energy. And I hear it every day from the students, teachers and children I work with. And I know it from my CAT work colleagues – who research and demonstrate policy and practical solutions in their work and personal lives. We’re sure as hell not perfect, we have our black moments and we’re still making plenty of mistakes, but for a bunch of people who spend their working lives with the heart breaking truth of the state of this raped and pillaged planet on the brink of catastrophe, the terrifying reality that it might indeed all be too little too late, I can honestly say that I’ve never met a happier bunch of people.

Minutes taken from a peer led C-Change conference for 6th Formers, London, 2008


1 ‘Turning Point or Tipping Point’, Ipsos MORI, 2008.

2 ‘Zerocarbonbritain’, The Centre for Alternative Technology, 2007.

3‘The Primary Review: Emerging Perspectives on Childhood’, Robin Alexander,
University of Cambridge.
Keynote lecture presented at the conference on ‘Childhood, Wellbeing and Primary Education’ organised by the General Teaching Council for England in conjunction with the Children’s Society Good Childhood Inquiry and the Primary Review. Central Hall, Westminster, Monday 17 March 2008

Authors Note
At present, most of our work is done with groups that we have contact with for merely an hour, or a day at best. This essay is largely based on the experiences expressed by those students within that short time. At present we have not had the capacity within the Education Department either to evaluate attitude or behavior change after the event, or to work with work with people on a long term basis. The growth of the GSE and various longer term projects will hopefully provide opportunities for us to do so.

  • tegwen

    Julie what an inspiring article. It’s really interesting to read about your work at CAT and the interrelationship between the activities of different departments’ work, and the role of the present day CAT in a historical and global context.

  • Tobi

    Excellent article, Julie. The part about priorities very much reflects my experience working in the CAT information service. I think (part of) the problem is that there’s no “common currency” for comparing the impact of different actions. With the financial cost, it’s very easy to compare across very different categories (cost of a lightbulb vs a meal vs a plane ticket) and we’re so aware of prices that we’ve developed quite a good intuitive judgment of what things cost even if we don’t know the exact price.
    With the climate cost, a common currency may exist (carbon footprint) but it’s well hidden.
    And in the absence of a transparent common currency, people fall back on their own intuition regarding the impact of choices. Which is why things that are visible rank higher than things invisible (light bulbs vs insulation), things that we can relate to are over-estimated compared to those which are not part of everyday experience (lorry carrying food vs land use change for food production), and things that take time and effort are perceived “heavier” than those which are not (cycling and/or recycling all year long vs just a few hours on a plane).
    Money shows that we’re capable of developing a good intuition for the cost of things, even if it’s probably contrary to our “natural” intuitions (something small and flimsy like an iPod costs as much as many, many bags of apples…) if information about costs is readily available in a common currency.
    Bring on the carbon price tags!

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