ESD: lost in the Capitalocene

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Sadly, it is too late to submit your manuscript idea or abstract for a special issue Educational Philosophy and Theory (EPAT).  Full details here.  My thoughts are at the end of the editors' lengthy blurb:

ESD in the ”Capitalocene”: Caught up in an impasse between Critique and Transformation

Has Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) reached an impasse?  Offering an application of Baudrillard’s thoughts to educational research, Paul Moran and Alex Kendall wrote in 2009 that education researchers are engaged in an act of forgery; a manufacture of presuppositions about what education is.  Moran and Kendall argue that our research approaches, produce nothing but illusions of education, not because our approaches and methodologies are somehow flawed, rather that these illusions are what education is.  Education, they claim, does not exist beyond its simulation.

Perhaps more provocatively, this implies that all critique of educational practice, from the revolutionary critical theory of Marx and the Frankfurt School via Foucauldian power analyses, as well as more recent ”new materialist” and post-qualitative approaches and beyond –are also part of the simulation of education process.  These movements constitute an “improvement agenda” of education, and over and over again, more interventions are produced and critiques are repeated to foster improvements, pursued as if they were possible (Moran & Kendall 2009, p. 329).

We would like to take this Baudrillardian analysis of education as a springboard for thinking around ESD and capitalism.  ESD is paradoxically positioned right at the nexus of looming ecological crises (”the Anthropocene” [Crutzen & Stoermer 2000]; the ”Capitalocene” [Malm & Hornborg 2014]) while at the same time the ESD field has been severely criticised for its presumed normativity (Jickling 1994).  Quite regardless of the validity of this critique, embedded in the core idea of ESD is, arguably, a grandiose ”improvement agenda” – not only of education, but of the planetary condition as such.  There is an asssumption that if we can find the appropriate way of ”doing” ESD, a sustainable world is within reach.

However, if there is nothing that may be called education “that exists independently of the methodologies, comments, curricula designs, testing regimes, forms of discrimination”, as Moran and Kendall (2009, p. 333) put it, what place is there – if any – for ESD under current conditions of predatory capitalism, exploitation of natural “resources”, transgression of planetary boundaries, and the destructive fantasy of infinite growth?  Does ESD generate nothing but reproduction, much like capitalism itself (e.g. Hellberg & Knutsson 2018)?  Is ESD an affect-organizing “comfort-machine” in the classroom (Pedersen 2019), sustaining the present order of things?  Perhaps Bruno Latour (2004) captures the point most aptly: ”Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?” (p. 225)  Latour suggests, that the critic “is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” (p. 246).  Such arenas, Giroux observes, need “an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical, particularly in terms of how private issues are connected to larger social conditions and collective force” (Giroux 2004, p.62).

Stratford (2017) has recently called for education researchers to identify and respond to the challenging philosophical issues evoked by the current ecological crises.  Our initiative is a response to Stratfords’s call; however, our starting point differs from how educational philosophy can “improve education in the Anthropocene” (p. 3) and is rather concerned with the “impossibility” of this claim.

We suggest that the idea of ESD as producing illusions of education rather than a sustainable world, does not necessarily lead to an impasse, but can, in Moran and Kendall’s (2009) words, be a very useful place to begin.  We are looking for theory-, philosophy-, and empirically-driven papers that address the  ”impossible” position of ESD in ”the Capitalocene” at an urgent juncture in history.

Contributions may address, for instance, the following areas of inquiry;

– Has ESD reached an impasse, and if so; how can it be understood?

– Are there ”functions” of ESD beyond the improvement agenda, and beyond the cycle of Critique and Transformation?

– Is ESD a form of simulation and, if so, what purposes might such simulation serve?

– How can ESD effectively interfere with capitalism, its forces and threats to life-supporting Earth systems?

– In what arenas of intervention and action can ESD assemble its participants?

– How can we reimagine education in extinction and post-extinction narratives?


Gosh!  This is clever stuff, at least in that navel-gazing way that academics like: but more clever-clever than actually clever, perhaps.  Too clever by half some will no doubt say, but EPAT went for it anyway.  I do wonder what it will have to say to the schools that my grandchildren are attending – or to the thousands of young people marching in protest about the inadequacy of responses to climate change.  I imagine very little – but that's not what EPAT is for.

I did think of contributing something – an epic poem perhaps; Beowulf meets Bruno for a night out in Brighton, maybe, but 3182 lines seemed a bit of a stretch.  Or (to make things a bit easier on myself) a sonnet whose 12 + 2 line form is perfect for a reflection on ESD (and there are rhymes a plenty).  Or a Limerick which is even shorter, but "There once were five earnest researchers from Göteborg" doesn't offer much promise.  Or maybe a Haiku, I thought (only seventeen syllables in three verses); I could surely manage that – although the risk of offending the sensibilities of the entire Japanese nation would be high.  In the end I decided to contribute something even more minimalist and took this to its logical conclusion.

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