In March I started a new role as Zennström Professor in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden. It’s been an interesting few months really thinking through with colleagues there, in the city and the region, how schools and universities can start taking seriously what it means to live with climate change.
A central question I’ve been working with in this role is, of course, what on earth does it mean to offer ‘climate change leadership’ today? In relation to a phenomenon so contested, complex, multifaceted and where risks of disaster capitalism and denial both abound, this is far from a simple question to answer. My response has been to see leadership as offering invitations to a discussion where our aim is to create new responses and ideas. This is not a time for dictatorial leadership, but for harnessing the different experiences and knowledge of all in society to begin to experiment with new ways of living.
Some of the areas for conversation seem to be:
Intergenerational relationships – how can and should teachers and students relate to each other in conditions in which climate change is being set up as a source of intergenerational conflict? My worry here is that opposition between generations or framing climate change as a ‘problem’ for young people to fix is really unhelpful (as my other work on all-age friendly approaches to cities points out). I’m trying to work out with colleagues how we might rethink this dynamic.
The relationship between internationalisation and sustainability – academics fly a huge amount, and also tell others to cut down their emissions. Is this hypocrisy? Should there be a massive change in academic behaviour or will this reduce the capacity of academics to act as part of a global community? Is this just individualising a problem that is structural and institutional, requiring massive changes rather than individual actions? Or is this an essential moment for self-reflection and a recognition of how much we are dependent on fossil fuels in all areas of our lives? There is a huge amount of debate and activity on this at present.
The question of emotion, anxiety and panic. I have seen a lot of students who are already massively burnt out and anxious about ‘climate change’ and who are confident that we are facing apocalypse. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of emotion amongst others who see climate change as a conspiracy theory (of either neoliberal or radical socialist flavours, pick your favourite). How we work with the emotions that talking about a changing climate necessarily brings up, seems a hugely important area to explore. This means finding ways to deal with everything from grief and anger to wishful thinking and the role of joy.
One of the areas that is particularly interesting to me here is the development of a new relationship with the planet through the Earth Rights movement. This is starting to open up ways of rethinking the rights of mother earth (as the universal declaration puts it) . It is an interesting, trickster-ish intervention that looks promising.
Relatedly, I’ve been drawn to the calls to restore culture that are emerging from groups such as Dark Mountain, David Abram or the mythologist Martin Shaw. These are important and profound shifts in our sense of who we are and our place in the universe. There is important work to do here. I wrote a piece last year on the role of storytelling in troubled times, it would benefit from a rewrite in the light of what I learnt this summer at Shaw’s School of Myth and Storytelling.
Getting from diagnosis to experimentation. I’ve been surprised at how little there is that really shows and explores how we might live in different ways to enable ourselves to fit within planetary boundaries (although see here) and how much this is reliant on stories of denial or loss (although see here). We need to create opportunities for conversations about how we can collectively begin to experiment with new ways of living. And in education, this means supporting students not only to learn about questions of sustainability, but to engage in meaningful active participation in communities to experiment and act carefully and in partnership with others.
Finally, that old bugbear keeps coming up – whose conversation is this anyway? The huge inequalities built into carbon emissions became very clear when I was shown this report that argues that over 50% of emissions are produced by the richest 10% of the global population (see also here) . How we begin to think about whose rights, futures, livelihoods are at stake in these debates seems increasingly important a conversation to be having. As in much of my other work, with Connected Communities and Common Cause, I’m concerned that we will see, again, that those who are most affected, or who have expertise to offer, are excluded from conversations that take place behind closed doors.
So – over the next year, in Uppsala, we’ll be starting to experiment in all of these areas, starting to learn and talk with people, opening up the conversation.
If you have thoughts and comments on any of the above – or suggestions for areas we need to be talking about but aren’t – please do email me at Uppsala or Bristol and I hope we can carry on the conversation.