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  • Kelly Limes-Taylor

An Education for the End of the World, Part 2

Updated: Jun 4

In the first half of this article, I tried to make clear that, whatever our educational preferences, the most recent news regarding the ongoing climate damage shows us that our intentions must now be wholly directed toward the emergency that is climate change — whether that means an education toward eradicating its causes and healing from them, or an education toward surviving its effects once we’ve failed. Perhaps both.

Also, because the current institution of and practices within schooling are unlikely to survive climate catastrophe, those of us interested in self-directed education may want to start assuming that self-directed education will be a (if not the) primary educational practice for the survivors. There is no state-approved curriculum for what we will encounter, no mandate imposed at the behest of any so-called educational expert (including me). Many of the institutions and practices that we resist through our self-directed practices cannot and will not exist in the same way if Our Mother sees fit to begin relieving herself of human life. As far as we know, such an act would be unprecedented, and any survivors would have to learn how to navigate it in real time and probably at the grassroots level. I believe, then, that we should understand self-directed education as likely the primary education practice of at least the most immediate future.

In this article’s second half, I’d like to present possible points of departure for considering self-direction as the primary educational practice in this period of human climate damage. Whether we consider ourselves environmentally-minded proponents of self-directed education, or we hardly think of the environment at all, we are living on a planet that must, to protect herself, become increasingly inhospitable to humans. Regardless of the nuances of our environmental interest, then, it behooves all of us interested in self-direction to work to ensure that we have a planet on which we can even continue being self-directed. Our educational work, then, should be environmental work and – if we are truly interested in preventing human-friendly climate collapse – vice versa. And, in order to truly consider the current environmental crisis and our educational practice ties into it, we must be clear about how we’ve come to find ourselves in this situation and how we may consider getting out of it.

When considering climate damage, the first important point is to recognize:

1. White supremacy did this.

White supremacy caused climate change.

If that statement ruffles us a bit, there’s the problem.

Because here’s the fact: After 500 years of European dominance, the planet literally cannot support it anymore. That has never happened in human history. Ever.

The consumption that an industrializing and dominant West has required and inspired – consumption of the land, waters, and air, and of anybody therein – could possibly eliminate human life on the planet, as well as much other life. There is no possible argument to this.

While other types of dominance (I’m thinking sexism and classism in particular here) undoubtedly have environmental implications, I posit that the global effects of assumed Western European(-descended) superiority has been incomparably devastating. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that White supremacy is about to kill us all. So,

2. Because of this, our environmental and self-directed educational practice – as well as anything else we do – must be anti-racist to its core.

Human existence cannot afford for anyone to be neutral about racism. Once we understand the life-eradicating effect of White supremacy, we are able to recognize White supremacy as not just a “race” thing, but as something that negatively affects health at the planetary level. This isn’t about hurt feelings or calling out or divisiveness. This isn’t about who feels right and who feels wronged. This is about saving our only home from the conclusion of one terrible, terrible idea.

If we truly believe that we prioritize climate change in the various areas of our lives, including in the ways we understand self-directed education, it means that we understand our environmental work and anti-racist work as synonymous. It means that we understand our current environmental crisis as a result of five centuries of Western dominance, and that resolving one should take for granted the resolution of the other.

It means that we recognize environmental/anti-racist work as work. It is the real education. It is not tokenism or essentializing non-White people. It’s not consuming non-White cultural practices and knowledges while changing relatively little about our lives. It’s not feeling proud of ourselves or getting acknowledgement. It’s humble, often quiet. It’s recognizing that marginalized people have been doing this work for centuries, and the lack of knowledge about their work is no accident.

It’s rethinking everything. It’s feeling scared. It’s bravery.

It’s imagining a world free of White dominance, and working towards it. It’s White de-centering. It’s being clear and honest about the devastating global effects of five centuries of European modernity. It’s questioning our definitions of primitivism and learnedness, civilization and law, rights and savagery.

It’s recognizing and prioritizing the lifeways and knowledges of BIPOC communities, as a start. It’s understanding that, while we must move with determination, we must approach these lifeways and knowledges with the respect and humility they deserve. For, as I mentioned elsewhere, BIPOC knowledges are our way out of this mess. Indeed, attending to these marginalized voices is a requirement, as they provide the only roadmaps we have to living outside the dominant, planet-destroying system.

We simply don’t have the time for this to be about White feelings anymore.

Actually, non-White folks have never had the time.

3. So, let’s ‘acclimatize’ our lives.

As we understand our environmental, educational, and anti-racist work as intertwined, our thinking can undergo a sea change. Our ideas of valuable knowledge, of systems worth supporting, of discourses worth using – all change. We will recognize the ridiculousness of a European child’s suddenly becoming world famous as a climate activist, when the planet is covered with Indigenous and Black elders who have not only been doing this for their entire lives, but actually have thousands of years of knowledge behind it.  We will also recognize the racism inherent in environmentalists’ condoning of this. Conversely, we will recognize non-White knowledge systems, not as sites of excavation, but as the primary sites of education and initiation into living in harmony with this planet.

We will know that simple extraction from these sites is not an option, nor should it ever be. We will be both compelled by and deferential to the time it will take to (re-)learn these ways of living, while also acknowledging that we don’t have much time left. We will change our most basic understandings of the world around us.

Before engaging in financial- and/or consumer-based actions to address climate damage, then, we must address how we think. More specifically, we must address the origins of our knowledge. For example, in this era, where every part of our lives is connected to other places around the globe, where is our knowledge base situated? If it is primarily situated in dominant Western European perspectives and ideologies – White supremacist ones – our environmental/ educational/anti-racist work can never go as far as it could, for the work will always be mired down by a way of thought that, brought to its logical conclusion, opposes planetary health. Those destructive perspectives and ideologies will push back against whatever good you want to do.

Do we understand ourselves to be working toward a better world for others? Do we understand ourselves to be globally- and educationally-minded people? Do we understand ourselves to be anti-racist, and people who care about our planet? If so, most of the perspectives we attend to, most of the authors we read, most of the thinkers we follow will be non-White. After all, the necessary education for resisting and (if at all possible) reversing the effects of damage destruction will likely come from the (descendants of) Indigenous and other non-dominant communities who spent thousands of years sustainably engaging with the planet. So why are we not all turning our attention to these communities?

Please note that I am not speaking of turning our gaze, but turning our attention. An education toward climate survival does not mean co-opting culture, nor does it mean uncritically and unquestioningly assuming a non-dominant or BIPOC-connected knowledge base as one’s own. What it does mean, however, is sitting at the proverbial feet of historically-ignored communities. It means shutting up, for a long, long while. It means that we have a lot to learn in a little bit of time in order to keep the world livable for humans, and we need to learn it from people whose knowledges have been systematically undermined and destroyed throughout five centuries. We need to learn from the people who’ve consistently survived the annihilative qualities of White supremacy, who’ve worked to protect the planet from the damage. And we need to learn quickly as we can, because our lives depend on it.

Such an education is an utterly humbling, colossal, and sobering undertaking.

We must approach it that way, every day.

4. And we must live our next civilization now.

We can get overwhelmed by the prospect of completely changing the life we currently have into a more sustainable version of itself – and, further, by the prospect of doing the same to an entire society.

And feeling overwhelmed makes sense. Because such an endeavor is not possible. Our current ways of life are propped up by such an unsustainable system, trying to effect a non-exploitative, non-destructive facsimile is likely just wishful thinking. Technology as we know it may not exist in the near future, because we may not be able to sustainably and ethically afford the materials that smart watches, smart phones, and computers require. We will not eat the same way soon, because we simply cannot. We will not have the same means of transporting or clothing ourselves. Our entertainment will change, and so will our conflicts. Our faiths will shift, as will our systems of economy.

For better or worse, rather than getting overwhelmed by changing our current system, it’s probably more effective to recognize that our current system simply cannot last much longer. Dominant ways of thinking and being have led us all to a place of catastrophic precariousness, showing us that everything needs to be different if we are to survive. We can assume that, as the ways of White supremacist dominance lead to global ruin, any meaningful work we do to make the world more livable for ourselves and others must also intentionally resist White supremacy.

An anti-White-supremacy stance will seem strange to some. People will wonder why you bring up race and indigeneity in discussions about the environment. Or education. Or community. Or anything. And everything.

Some will get irritated. Others will be turned off. Still others may say negative things about you. You may lose some friends or associates.

And, this is still important, necessary work that needs to be done. We need to move beyond the cliché of “Everything is connected” to truly internalizing that shit. Some of us need to humble ourselves, while others of us need to recognize our greatness. We need to stay accountable: not only honestly recognizing when to step up or step back, but honoring, encouraging, and caring for each other while we do so. Whether up close or from afar, we need to support each other as we move through our battles with White supremacist knowledge, shoring each other up and giving space as needed. We will not all be friends, nor must we be. But we can respect the work that we do in each of our corners: trying to heal ourselves and our planet, trying not to perpetuate the damage. Sometimes failing, but always trying again.

It’s time, then, for us to decide what we want next for ourselves and for our world. Whatever our specific educational preferences, let us work toward a world beyond artificial comforts born from exploitation and environmental collapse, toward a world where the concept of supremacy doesn’t exist – not because supremacy is “wrong,” but because it simply isn’t environmentally logical or feasible. We have copious amounts of evidence regarding the planet’s inability to sustain the concept of supremacy. Turning away from White supremacy opens so many doors to us, including the doors of environmental sustainability. Whatever we want next for ourselves and our world, then, requires us to consider ways of thought that do not center dominant Western White norms, but instead understand them as one set within the pantheon of normalcies existing over time. Regardless of our individual racial identity, White supremacist norms have not served us well. Even if you’re White, these norms have not really served you.

So, whatever we want next for ourselves and our world – whatever world we want to ensure for our children – let us avoid the persistent ignorance and consumption that our dominant system requires, for it is that ignorance and consumption that has brought us to these unfortunately unparalleled times. And, rather than saying we reject ignorance and consumption in one institution, such as schooling, let us reject them in all aspects of our lives and in the world we want to ensure for our children.

Let’s wildly – and with determination – choose caring connection to each other and our planet over anyone or anything that dare sever that connection. Let’s work for and with our children, so that they may grow up enjoying the sacred connection that many of us were never afforded. Let us pledge ourselves to lives that make up for that lost time. Then, let’s boldly live them.

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