September 15th, 2002

Reposted from Renaissance Universal.

 Our Children’s Future

Frank Hutchinson

What are our children’s fears about the twenty-first century? What are their dreams? What can we learn from what our children have to say about the future? A strong case is put for an explicit futures dimension, both in environmental education programs and the school curriculum generally, if we are to better meet our children’s needs and the needs of successive generations to live in more ecologically sustainable ways. 

Let us listen to some young people’s voices on the future. What do they suggest to us as environmental educators? Are there significant implications for the ways we teach about our local environments, about our global environments and for our future environments?

An Environmentally Unsustainable World

Among the students surveyed the most commonly occurring responses to the open question, ‘list up to three local or global problems that most concern you’, were, in order of frequency, within the following broad categories: environmental or ecological violence-related problems, war and other direct violence-related problems, and economic security or structural violence-related problems. Less than 10 per cent of the sample considered that the problems of environmental degradation will be seriously tackled over the next five or so years. With a shift to a longer term perspective, only a little over 20 per cent believed that much progress will be made in lessening the problems of ecological violence, such as habitat destruction and polluted environments, by the year 2020. Even in cases of ‘I’ optimism about personal futures, there were often inconsistencies. Such a sense of ‘I’ optimism might be combined with ‘we’ pessimism about the world’s future.

Here are some young people’s voices. They speak both eloquently and disturbingly about an environmentally insecure and unsustainable future. Craig, who goes to a government school in a low-income area of outer western Sydney, had this to say:

I saw a dry and dead environment … The beaches and the air were destroyed by pollution and people were dying fast … There were guns and fighting going on all over the world. Most people were poverty stricken and were forced to live on the streets … The world to me wouldn’t be worth living in …

Trudi, a sixteen year old who attends a Catholic school in the same municipality, voiced the following anxieties:

… I hope for a fresh, clean environment but I am very scared that the world will be dirty and violent and sick … I want life to be happy, not having to worry about bombs, wars and dying … not just me but the world dying out … I can’t imagine life 30 years from now …

For Michelle, a year 11 student living in a more affluent area and attending a northern suburbs girls’ school, the images that came to mind were of a fragmented and fragmenting global future, even if her personal future was seen by her in much less foreclosed terms:

… no trees … all grey … smog … pollution … unhappiness … false love … Discontent between families … Very rich people … Famine takes hold of unlucky poor people … Robotics … Polluted water and air … Pure water and oxygen for sale … War … No more world …

Anthony, a sixteen year old who attends a non-metropolitan school in a region of major forest die back and land degradation, anticipates a sham world. He was angered at what he sees as the likely increasing disenchantment from nature in the twenty-first century:

I see the environment in the future as a false representation of the real thing … Forests that have been knocked down are made into forests of fibreglass and cement …

For Chris, a seventeen year old at another non-metropolitan school, there was the desire to ‘bring to the surface’ taken-for-granted ways of thinking about the future in comics and other media artefacts but, also, a sense of heightened insecurity, impoverished social imagination and lack of proactive skills for dealing constructively with perceived problems of an environmentally unsustainable future:

I see the world in total disharmony and unease. So-called efforts to save the environment, to stop war, to erase poverty have been unsuccessful and failures. It’s a world of total conflict … No effort is being made to bring together and discuss our problems in a civilised way.

I fear the world in the twenty-first century will be much like a comic book science fiction story. Especially one like “Judge Dredd” will become reality. If we don’t attempt to bring these thoughts to the surface now, then the Earth will become a vast waste dump …

In their interpretations of various possiblilities for late industrial societies, such as Australia, more than three-quarters of the participants indicated that they thought a ‘hard’ technology, environmentally destructive path was more likely than a ‘soft’ technology environmentally sustainable path.

A Politically Corrupt and Deceitful World

At the same time as many young people in Australia are expressing such concerns or even major fears about the future, there is also a widespread sense of cynicism indicated about the value of voting and of the responsiveness of traditional political parties generally. Nearly a third saw no point in voting whilst a further 20 per cent expressed considerable doubts. As one student put it bluntly, ‘politicians are all lying bastards’. In an equally ascerbic comment by another student, broken promises on child welfare, youth employment and environmental protection were deplored. ‘ Politicians will be sneaky and always find a loophole somewhere.”

Such attitudes were found to be more likely among young people in metropolitan Sydney than among young people in non-metropolitan areas of Australia, although in both cases the trend lines of anger and disillusionment with conventional political life were strong. The data suggest, also, that assumptions about the pointlessness of voting are generally more common among adolescents from lower socio-economic areas than upper. It underlines, as in the Aulich report (1991), major needs in terms of participatory approaches to citizenship education.

Images of Preferable Future Worlds

Notwithstanding such evidence about young people’s feared futures, the situation is more complex and potentially open to negotiation than might at first sight be suggested. The inadequacy of the strict determinist fallacy is highlighted by recent Australian data on age cohort as a predictor of value priorities, whether materialist, postmaterialist or mixed, and levels of support for environmental groups, ‘new politics’ and non-violent participation (Papadiakis 1993). Arguably, too, our children’s voices, if actively listened to as a form of diagnostic signalling, may result in quality responses. Rather than either deafness to the young people’s pleas or fatalism about probable outcomes, there may be constructive efforts at applied foresight both within and outside schools (Hicks and Bord, 1994, Boulding, 1995).

The experience from the small-group dialogues, in which young people were given not only opportunities to frankly express their concerns and fears but also were invited to creatively visualise preferable worlds and to begin the processes of action-planning, lends support to this latter proposition. Although an area ripe for longitudinal studies and a good diversity of specific action-research projects in schools, the available evidence from the present study substantiates the value of cultivating broad rather than narrow literacies, especially if young people are to feel less helpless about an undifferentiated world of ‘problems, problems and more problems’. What is encouraging is that it tends to confirm quite strongly the innovative work by Elise Boulding (1988) and others on the need for optimal forms of literacy that go beyond the 3 Rs and the educational technofix assumptions of reductionist kinds of computer literacy.

In resisting colonising images of the future and educating beyond fatalism, skills in lateral thinking, social imagination and action competence are vitally important for would-be journeyers into the twenty-first century. What this may mean for schools, teachers, students and curricula is a matter for crucial choice. In attempting to transcend the metaphors of deterministic space and time of the Newtonian clockwork universe, it is important that young people’s feared futures are dealt with honestly and caringly. Yet, in resisting the fallacy of hard determinism, it is also important not to unwittingly reintroduce taken-for-granted ways of thinking by uncritically embracing technofix ‘solutions’ to social and environmental ills. The fallacy of technological ‘magical helpers’ needs to be debunked.

Envisaging Environmentally Sustainable Futures

When given the opportunity to envisage better worlds, many of the students voiced a need for not only greater fairness in the world of the late twentieth century but improved understanding of our responsibilities for future generations of life on planet Earth. Belinda, who goes to a government school in a middle class area, had this to say:

I see a world in which people accept each other, help each other … The world will be replanted … There will be no cruelty to animals and there will be an abundance of them … There will be no poverty. Everyone will have food and shelter … There will be time to enjoy life …

Angela, a fifteen year old who attends a school in a low income area in outer south western Sydney, expressed similar hopes for a more environmentally sustainable future but with particular emphasis on more social justice and less violence:

My hopes and dreams for the future are that different coloured races are united in one society … People, whether white or black, will be caring and sharing with each other … Problems will be resolved in talks, not through wars … The Earth will be restored and there will be no pollution There will be no third or second world countries … Everyone will be equal …

For Brad, a year 10 Asian Studies student at a non-metropolitan school, there was the following image of a better world:

… I journeyed to the year 2020 … The image I saw was of beautiful, sunny surrounding … It was a world in which students enjoyed school and had fun in class while still learning about things relevant for survival … It was a world in which real steps had been taken to end child poverty … There was less pollution … Species were not threatened and the forests were flourishing … There were no wars on the news … There was news of improvements in pollution control and cures for diseases … There was no discrimination … The colour of a person’s skin didn’t matter. All were treated fairly …

Huong, a seventeen year old, attends an outer metropolitan school in an area of very high youth unemployment. Her family came as refugees from a strife-torn situation in South-East Asia. This is Huong’s description of the probable future of the world in the twenty-first century.

… Death, killing, saw a man dead, tank blown up … I saw a war in the twenty-first century … I don’t think the world will be better … More crimes are going to happen … More people will die …

After participating in a creative visualisation activity, as part of a futures workshop at her school, Huong shared the following image of a better world:

I see a future world in which everyone is treated equally … We live together in peace. There is lots of love between people, no matter what their colour, sex, culture, religion …

I see the environment as safe to live in … Everywhere you go there are nice gardens, parks, trees, flowers … Everybody has their own garden … No one is hungry or homeless …

Such a narrative on preferable futures is similarly echoed in the dreams of Sonia, a fifteen year old at a non-metropolitan high school. Her dreams are in sharp contrast with her fears about a world of more hate, selfishness and greed:

… I saw the world as a non-polluted planet. The seas and skies were clear The forests were healthy and bright with numerous birds carolling … I walked near a small spring and waterfall. The waterfall was crystal clear …

I saw people helping each other when in need. When someone fell crossing a busy street, a caring person immediately went to the other person’s aid. The world had become caring and beautiful …

In one sense, such imagery is redolent of the residual tradition in western civilisation of a primeval paradisiacal garden but it is arguable more than a restatement of Arcadian myth. Its tentative reconceptualisations of ethics and spirituality suggest more than a backwards or nostalgic look at times past. In terms of times present and times future, there are some signs in such youth voices of an acknowledgment of a felt need for a re-enchantment with nature and for less materialistic, less ecologically unsustainable and more compassionate and peaceful values and lifestyles.

Crucial Questions for Schools and Environmental Educators

Active listening to young people’s voices on the future suggests that much more is needed than the traditional 3Rs and the appeal of the apparent security of a ‘back-to-basics’ curriculum. When asked whether there is any point in dreaming about an improved world in the twenty-first century, around 50 per cent of the students surveyed were of the opinion that better opportunities in schools in imaging preferable futures are crucial for questions of choice and engagement. Large majorities of both boys and girls indicated their support for the importance of learning proactive skills in schools about direct, structural and ecological forms of violence. In a complex, uncertain and changing world, this implies that there are crucial questions for schools in terms of quality responses. A strong case may be made for negotiating broader social literacies that address young people’s hopes and fears in far more adequate and empowering ways. What is underlined too is the educational challenge for applied foresight in schools in infusing creative futures work across the curriculum:

… Before one can expect students to explore the notion of a more sustainable future …, they need to be helped to think generally about alternative futures … This is more likely to lead to hope and a sense of empowerment … Not until teachers and teacher educators fully take on board the need for a futures dimension in the curriculum will students be equipped to envision a more sustainable society then today (Hicks and Holden, 1995, p.192).

Relatedly, there are arguably important challenges for what we do as environmental educators to encourage an explicit futures dimension in the school curriculum. There is also the need to develop forms of environmental literacy that move assumptions beyond both the fatalism of environmental catastrophist thinking and the glib reassurances of macho- technocratic dreaming of an easy exit from environmental crises on planet Earth.


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Frank Hutchinson is a lecturer in the Faculty of Health, Humanities and Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Previously, he has worked as a curriculum consultant at both the primary and secondary school levels in areas of social literacy and alternatives to violence. He has written widely on issues concerned with educating for peaceful, socially just and environmentally sustainable futures. His most recent publications are as contributing author to New Thinking for a New Millennium ed. R. Slaughter (Routledge, 1996) and as author of Educating Beyond Violent Futures (Routledge, 1996). He is a member of both the International Peace Research Association and the World Futures Studies Federation. Correspondence: Faculty of Health, Humanities and Social Ecology, University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury, Bourke St, Richmond, NSW 2753, Australia.

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