To solve the environmental crisis, we must foster the power to imagine
Towards the end of my senior year at Dartmouth, I saw my peers lining up outside the Career Services building. While waiting for their interviews for jobs at the company, all appeared to be dressed the same – the men wearing navy jackets, the women dark dresses. I thought back to my first day on campus four years ago, when we all wore different colors and dreamed of different futures. It was as if our upbringing, instead of enhancing our individualities and imaginations, had reduced them to uniformity.
It was not a unique scene. All over the world, formal education is providing the economy with workers who will increase productivity. Its purpose is to feed the economic machine rather than to modify its internal functioning. But this machine now threatens our very survival. If the entire world reaches the levels of consumption seen in high-income countries today, we will need multiple planet Earths to provide the resources. The absurd idea of infinite growth within a finite territory is at the heart of our economic system.
To make this machine work, formal education generates ever more effective “human capital”. Increasing productivity measures, such as income per employee or return on investment, rather than the individuality of students, determine our civilization’s approach to the education of our young people. While the Sustainable Development Goals call for making education a force for sustainability, the opposite is often true: the way Western societies have come to think about education is undermining our ability to cope with environmental crisis. . To get through this crisis, we must cultivate our imagination, not undermine it.
Growing up, none of my studies favored my ability to imagine a world different from what I saw around me. As a child in Slovakia in the 90s, I had to memorize textbooks word for word. Decades later, as an education researcher, I see children elsewhere going through the same thing: a choir of Indian students repeating the sentences their teacher wrote on the blackboard, a South African child shouted by the teacher for not not have reproduced exactly the contents of the manual. Rote learning, discouraging individuality, and instilling docility in children are still the foundations of what it means to be educated in much of the world.
Many experts agree that we must move away from such approaches to education. But the suppression of children’s imaginations does not only happen in underfunded communities or outdated education systems. The issue is obscured but even more pernicious in “elite” institutions that tout “critical thinking”. Apart from a few wise mentors, hardly anyone has encouraged me to imagine an alternate future for the world. throughout my undergraduate years at the Ivy League and my graduate years at Oxbridge. These institutions want to see their graduates succeed, and success too often consists of maintaining current structures and not reinventing their foundations.
In recent years, we have seen efforts to standardize curricula across the world. Such reforms bring Western notions of educational success to the rest of the world. Spurred on by the OECD standardized tests, which classify education systems, countries focus on improving quantifiable outcomes such as literacy and numeracy. Winning the competition for the most efficient education system today means having the most efficient workforce and growing the national economy faster tomorrow.
Our standardized, metric and “efficient” education systems essentially shape children in the image of artificial intelligence (AI). The perfect “worker”, AI continually improves its own productivity, but does not challenge the larger structures within which it operates. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that we invest so much in building supercomputers while marginalizing the imaginative potential of millions of human brains.
Our focus on technological solutions to the challenges of our civilization guides our approach to education. More students at UK universities are studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) than ever before, including a 400% increase in enrollment in AI courses over the past 10 years. Compared to STEM, the social sciences and humanities are often underfunded and viewed as inferior by policy makers and the public. But this approach is counterproductive because non-STEM topics are essential in fostering our ability to reimagine the world.
We even place our hope in solving the environmental crisis on AI. We use machine learning to optimize energy networks, track land use through satellite imagery, and predict extreme weather conditions. But AI, like our other technologies, can only treat the symptoms of the environmental crisis, not the causes. These can be found in our arrogance and lack of sensitivity to our impact on the planet. We cannot outsource to computers the solutions to the flaws in our politics and culture that underlie the environmental crisis.
Throughout history, the makers of great change have relied on their imaginations to remedy fundamental flaws in society. In my native Czechoslovakia, dissidents against communism have kept their dreams of democracy alive for decades by imagining different futures. In apartheid South Africa, supporters of Nelson Mandela had to be radical in their imaginations to create a vision of a more just society. Imagining democracy while living under a totalitarian regime is not that different from imagining decrease when you live in a world of infinite growth.
The kind of intelligence that Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel possessed was not artificial. The ability to reimagine the future and disrupt the status quo remains a distinctly human quality. Unlike AI, children are naturally imaginative and challenge the premises of society. In my research, I have observed that young children are often the most radical in the imagination of different futures; as they age, their imaginations tend to become more generic, mimicking traditional narratives of technological advancement.
As long as our imagination is restricted, ideas like degrowth or intergenerational justice remain marginal and seem utopian to many. To cultivate the imagination is to learn from the troublemakers of history who have made the so-called impossible acceptable. It means moving away from our standardized curricula, quantifiable measures and authoritarian pedagogies. Instead of dismissing “childish” ideas about the future of the world, it means seeing inspiration in children’s imaginations.
In an education system that celebrates the imagination, the arts and creativity are as important as math and science. Teachers develop and act according to their own teaching philosophies. Children define success for themselves. Idealism coexists with pragmatism. Expressing opinions and taking political action are goals of education, not distractions. Some of these ideas have already inspired educational projects around the world, such as forestry schools in Europe, jeevanshalas (schools of life) in India or Schumacher College in the UK, but these are exceptions.
The environmental crisis is not a crisis of technology or science, it is a crisis of the imagination. If we let the children be our guides, maybe we could imagine our path to survival.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.