Educating in times of systemic collapse

Boat Man Silhouette Clouds Cumulus  - Guddanti / Pixabay
Guddanti / Pixabay

The economic and health crises which we are now experiencing form part of a more global systemic crisis, a consequence of the degeneration of our socio-economic order. Behind this degeneration lies (among other factors) climate change, ecosystemic destabilisation and reduced availability of materials and energy. What we have experienced in the last few months (huge fires in Australia, California and Siberia, plagues of locusts in Africa and Asia, extreme heat waves in the Arctic, the Covid-19 pandemic, massive economic crisis) are not an accumulation of incredible coincidences, but clear indicators that this year is marking a point of inflection of the collapse of global capitalism and of industrial civilisation.

An ecosystemic and socio-economic collapse is not a sudden event, like knocking down a building. It is a process which lasts decades. There will be times of rapid change, as we have seen this year, and times of slower change. Even times (temporary) of reversion to previous conditions. In all probability, there will not be a “new normality” but rather a repeated exceptionality which will place society inside parameters which are farther and farther removed from those we experienced at the beginning of the 20th Century (and not wholly in the sense of ultra-technological development).

This is not a kind of “environmental determinism”. One thing is that, in the near future, there will be social orders which are impossible to maintain due to environmental conditions. For example, without abundant supplies of petroleum large cities are not viable to maintain. But it is quite another thing how those possible social orders might be, as they are totally open-ended. On top of that, they are more open-ended than they ever have been during the last two centuries at least. When an order crumbles, others, and lots of them, will rise from the ruins and debris.


During this process there will be a lot of social upheaval, and the suffering of wide swathes of the population is almost guaranteed. For this reason, focusing on justice and democracy is critical. Ecosocial education is more necessary now than ever.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, something we thought was impossible has proved to be a reality. The lessons we have been taught, sadly with a very high social cost, have been very enriching and abundant. We have learned that, in order to live, we need much less than our globalised economy produces. We have discovered that we can put quality of life above the generation of wealth. We have experienced how, in reality, we can actually stop the economy. We have seen that what makes us happy is to be in contact with our loved ones. However, these lessons are fragile and therefore need to be strengthened. This is a task and a responsibility which largely lies in the hands of education centres. Again I say that eco-social education is essential in these times.

However, education should not only reinforce these lessons, but must also prepare the young students to make the most of the opportunities which the coming crisis will offer, or at the very least, to be resilient to those changes and be able to adapt to the emerging new world. Here too, we can see the key role of eco-social education. But what does such an education consist of? We can recognise four large learning blocks which ought to be learned at school and which imply elements which break strongly away from what is being taught at the present time.

1. The world in which our young students are going to live will be marked by great changes which, moreover, may take various and very different courses. In the face of this situation, they will need to learn to:

  • Accept the civilizational change which is under way. If they do not manage to take this on board, their ability to adapt and to act in order to have an effect over those changes will be greatly reduced, even though the ability to act be minimal.
  • Learn to cope with uncertainty.
    • Resolve a diversity of problems.
    • Develop their creativity.
    • Develop tolerance in the face of frustration, but without falling into nihilism.
    • Build a dense fabric of relationships. This is the only way to guarantee that we satisfy this need. In the context of the collapsing current order, the State and the marketplace will not work in the same way. Moreover, it is probable that both of these will become out of reach for large sectors of society.
    • Create fair and resilient economies. For example, resilient in a context of less available energy and fewer materials, with a more unfavourable climate for human life or with a much more open-ended social-political order.
    • Value life care. This is the central element for survival.
    • Grow food. It is likely that we will not be able to maintain our food supply system, based on fossil fuels (machinery, distribution and raw materials depend on them) over time. So, learning to grow food will be a determining personal resilience tool.
    • Self-defence. Any kind of change to the social and economic order brings serious collective disturbances along with it. Moreover, if there is a decrease in availability of materials and energy, as will occur, conflicts over the control of those resources are likely. Faced with this, learning how to defend ourselves collectively and in a non-violent fashion, will be determinant.

2. Humans are eco-dependent. Our social orders and possible economies are maintained by energy and the materials we may have available, and also by existing ecosystemic balance. Therefore, it is extremely relevant that we evaluate the implications of the deep global and environmental crisis which we are experiencing, a crisis which, even in the best scenarios, will continue to deepen. Some fundamental lessons would be:

  • Accept our eco-dependence in a profound sense.
    • Accept the planetary limits.
    • Take a systemic approach.
  • Venerate the whole of life, at least as much as life itself. Without a relationship of deep respect, admiration and even spiritual integration with life itself, a harmonious relationship with it will be very difficult.
    • Acknowledge that the technology and economy of Gaia are far superior to our human ones. Gaia’s capacity to recycle, obtain energy or to evolve towards increasing levels of complexity are far superior to our human capacity.
  • Integrate ourselves with the ecosystems in a harmonious manner.
  • Learn about the key elements of the environmental crisis.
    • Analyse the processes which have brought us to this global environmental crisis in order not to repeat them.

3. Not only are we eco-dependent, we are also interdependent. We need other human beings in order to live a dignified life. However, our social organisation leaves the tasks of caring for life extremely badly shared out. They are riddled with structural inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power. For this reason we need to:

  • Accept our interdependence.
  • Value equality and democracy.
    • Develop our empathy. It is an undeniable and fundamental pillar of any fair and democratic society.
    • Be aware of how crises increase inequalities if there are no great struggles to prevent it.
  • Analyse the processes which have brought about societies based on inequality.

4. All of the above must support the capacity to be an agent of eco-social change. That education serves, above all, the betterment of the collective. The future scenarios which are on their way are highly uncertain. In a situation like this, the social groups which have the capacity to develop a sound prospective analysis of the tims we are living in, which can organise themselves successfully and meet their own needs, will have many opportunities to influence the new social orders. The possibilities of a democratic, just and sustainable world are now greater than in the 20th Century, but so are the risks of the complete opposite. In order that young students be prepared so as to become eco-social agents they must learn to:

  • Acquire non-violent tools of social transformation.
    • Value the fact that the capacity for action (basically, our freedom) is much greater in collective ways than through the individual.
    • Act in polarised contexts, because it is probable that the social tensions, as we can see happening as systemic collapse advances, will lead us down this path. Moreover, it is probable that part of the population will embrace and act from highly reactionary positions.
    • Identify the opportunities for emancipatory social change which emerge.
  • See themselves as agents of change.

To make all this a reality, a modification of the formal curricula is essential. But it is not necessary to wait to achieve these legislative changes, since there are already multiple experiences around the world that articulate an education that is aimed at these goals.

Luis González Reyes is the author of In the Spiral of Energy with R. Fernández Durán and a member of  ecologistas en acción.

 This article was originally published in Spanish at Translation by Fabricants de futur’

Courtesy in



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