Open the paper, turn on the news, and it’s there – climate change. After years of denial, it’s where it always should have been – at the top of the agenda. While most people now appreciate there are big problems looming, there is little consensus on what on earth we are going to do about them. Will we choose state carbon rationing and nuclear power or self managed sustainable living? The way that these debates play out will be crucial to the future of the planet. One thing is clear: to avoid catastrophic climate change, dramatically more people must get involved in the struggles to transform the societies in which we live.
Campaigns that use fear of impending climate disaster can further disempower and leave people waiting for promised government action. But education does not have to be about passively receiving information. It can encourage people to be active in their learning, and active in their lives. This is where popular education can come in, as a way to create collective knowledge and understanding of issues that can be used to change the world around us and challenge oppression.
From workers’ adult education to the civil rights movement and popular uprisings throughout Latin America, popular education has been crucial to many social movements. In the 1960s, Paulo Freire developed educational methods that aimed to challenge the oppression of illiterate peasants in Brazil. As the causes of their problems were considered, the students analysed and discussed what action could be taken to improve their situation. Crucially, popular education is not just learning about problems, but about taking action together.
How does this work in practice? First, popular education starts from an understandable reality, such as people’s own experiences or feelings about climate change. Second, it encourages participation, using brainstorms and interactive games. It tries to break down the hierarchy between teacher and learner – forget about having a pre-prepared talk or a set outcome but imagine adapting the session to the participants.
Activities are chosen from a toolkit of debates, guided walks, films, historical timelines, role plays, poster making and so on that can bring out opinions and share information. Moving towards action, whether a local composting scheme or an antiroads campaign, can be encouraged through uncovering histories of struggle, sharing inspiration from the thousands of grassroots projects that exist, building lists of resources, tactics, allies and ideas. Facilitators should be upfront about their opinions but not enforce their point of view.
All these things can take time and be challenging at times but are ultimately hugely rewarding, especially when there is a sense of building co-operation that will continue beyond the event.
Often hidden from view, there are thousands of projects that are working here and now to challenge climate change. People are doing it themselves in health collectives, community gardens, permaculture projects, bike collectives, micro-generation and training, as well as direct action and campaigns against climate criminals.
These projects rarely come from people being told these things need to happen, they emerge instead from people acting on the needs in their area and from cross-pollination of ideas from other places. One of the most rewarding things as a popular educator is to bring together groups of people and find common interests and spark conversations and projects. As someone touring with Rising Tide Climate Action in New York reflected, ‘Recently a group were doing a mind mapping exercise on disaster relief. Different folks that had never met before had skills in many of the identified areas. An email list sheet was passed around and taken away by one of the participants to organise their next meeting. A new project started!’
These ideas are not distant dreams, they are happening every day, everywhere. They are the cracks we need to peer through and see the new world.
These grassroots responses are the key to turning frustration, denial, apathy, anger and fear into positive, meaningful action. Powerful interests will eventually respond to climate change, but with as little disturbance as possible to the status quo. We have to educate ourselves, build capacity for people to take things on in our communities. The way we relate to and educate each other is just as much at the root causes of the climate crisis as cars and supermarkets. Education where we can re-learn co-operation and solidarity is a vital tool in responding to the climatic crises we face.
Trapese is a popular education collective that since 2004 has worked with student and community groups to inform, inspire and enable people to take action. We are touring the UK during summer 2007 undertaking workshops and teach-ins with our new book, Do It Yourself: a handbook for changing our world, published by Pluto Press in May.