An important first step in fostering productive dialogue around how ed-tech begins to face up to climate change is making sure that we are all talking along similar lines. Before we get to any finer details we need to establish some shared terms of reference and common understandings. In particular, we should expand on this book’s framing around issues of ‘eco justice’ rather than more evocative notions of environmental crisis, climate catastrophe or climate emergency.
Recently, many people in policy, government and the scientific community have felt compelled to emphasise the urgency of the situation through adopting the notion of climate emergency. Having been declared the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ for 2019, over 13,000 scientists from 153 different countries subsequently signed a strident open letter in 2021 declaring “We Are Living in a Climate Emergency, and We’re Going to Say So” (Fischetti 2021).
On the face of it, the idea of ‘climate emergency’ stresses the grave predicament that the planet faces in terms of climate change, resource depletion and ecological destabilisation. It also emphasises the need to radically re-think all aspects of our everyday lives – from energy production and international travel, through to less obvious issues such as technology use in education. Describing these issues in terms of ‘emergency’ certainly gives a sense of having to quickly pull together in order to face up to what are clearly extraordinary times.
Yet framing what needs to be done in terms of a ‘climate emergency’ is perhaps not as helpful as might seem. As Hema Vaishnavi Ale (2021) reasons, emergencies are finite and time-bound, after which our lives can hopefully revert back to ‘normal’. As such, the idea of ‘climate emergency’ implies a form of extraordinary mitigating responses that might stand a chance of addressing and eventually overcoming the problem. This neatly sidesteps more awkward expectations that we are not facing a finite ‘emergency’ that can be nipped in the bud. Instead, it seems more realistic to take the stance that this is a fast-changing condition that we need to permanently readjust our lives around.
The idea of ‘climate emergency’ also sidelines questions about the differences in how people are likely to experience these environmental issues in everyday life, and how any responses might disproportionately impact different groups around the world – the family of a subsistence farmer in Mali as opposed to the family of a Manhattan banker).
Above all, the idea of ‘climate emergency’ perpetuates the idea that we now need to see everything as ultimately predicated around the climate crisis – what Mike Hulme describes as ‘climate determinism’. For example, the idea of ‘climate emergency’ logically pushes discussions of what should be done toward responses of ‘climate action’ – focusing on actions such as setting emissions targets and encouraging uptake of renewable energy. In particular, this sidelines discussions around social disadvantage, economic inequality, human rights, the deleterious impact of late capitalism, and other similar societal ‘emergencies’ that run parallel to the ongoing planetary collapse. Put simply, tackling these issues is not solely a matter of using less energy and reducing our carbon footprint, but also aa societal, humanitarian concern requiring societal and humanitarian actions.
Seeing ed-tech as a matter of eco-justice rather than climate ‘emergency’
Instead, then, it makes more sense to reframe our concerns over the climate crisis in more politically-rounded terms of ‘ecojustice’. As Ale (2021) puts it:
“the challenge is how to amplify the voices of marginalised communities facing the most acute impacts of climate change yet who have done the least to create it. How do we influence the global climate policy agenda to ensure justice for communities living on the front line of climate change?
The idea of eco-justice does not underplay the fact that we are facing a grave climate-related catastrophe involving the break-down of the planet’s climatic conditions. Yet the idea of eco-justice does recognise that our responses to this crisis are matters of social justice as much as they are matters of environmental reparation. If we take the threat of climate change seriously then the most direct response would be to simply declare a moratorium on any further tech use. Yet the impact of this action would clearly impact disproportionately on the families of subsistence farmers as compared to the families of bankers.
Instead, ideas of eco-justice frame the need for change in broader, more socially-orientated terms. This presumes any concern with the ongoing devastation of the environment to be linked explicitly with concerns over social justice and human rights. One obvious example in terms of digital technology is how the burdens of dealing with hazardous e-waste currently fall primarily to the poorest regions and most disadvantaged peoples in the world. Similarly, those most likely to be substantially disadvantaged by enforced reductions in the consumption and use of digital technologies are those with minimal levels of current access to technology (the difference between taking away a lot of a little, as compared to a little of a lot).
Instead, an eco-justice perspective highlights the need to ensure that the various costs and benefits of how we choose to reimagine something like education technology along more ‘sustainable’ lines are apportioned fairly, and do not excessively disadvantage the already disadvantaged. In this spirit, then, the idea of eco-justice encourages us to need to talk about there being multiple emergencies – social, economic and ecological. The idea of eco-justice reaffirms principles such as self-determination, access and control of resources. The idea of eco-justice encourages us to argue for a more socially and ecologically just futures “that are rooted, in justice, empathy, humanity, political freedom and equality” (Ale 2021).
In its own small way, then, these are sentiments and principles that the EdTech community would do well to take on board as it begins to face up to the challenge of deciding what technology use in education might look like in times that are increasingly shaped by climate change. From this perspective, rethinking sustainable forms of education technology requires us to focus on questions of ethics alongside questions of ecology. This suggests rethinking ed-tech in terms of distributive justice – fostering sustainable and socially-appropriate forms of education technology in less-developed areas of the world, as well as for disadvantaged groups who stand to benefit most from the use of education technology (and, conversely, lose most from the enforced absence of education technology).
This also suggests establishing norms of what constitutes ‘fair’ forms of ed-tech consumption, as well as foregrounding principles of collective decision-making and communal ways of managing how technologies are developed and deployed in education. All told, refashioning forms of ed-tech that are appropriate for an age of climate crisis does not simply equate with making less use of technology in education. Instead, it requires us having to think about how to make less use of technology for more just education outcomes.
Ale, H. (2021). Why climate emergency and climate justice can’t go hand in hand. The Sociological Review. July 23rd, https://doi.org/10.51428/tsr.ohpe8915
Fischetti, M. (2021). We are living in a climate emergency, and we’re going to say so. Scientific American, April 12th http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/we-are-living-in-a-climate-emergency-and-were-going-to-say-so/
Hulme, M. (2011). Reducing the future to climate: a story of climate determinism and reductionism. Osiris, 26(1), 245-266.