On Nov. 12, 2022, The Guardian reported that the University of Barcelona became the first university in the world to establish a mandatory course addressing the climate crisis for all of its undergraduate and graduate students. The move, according to economics professor Federico Demaria, marks a “change in the paradigm of university education.” The course was one of the principal demands of a seven-day student strike at the university calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies. Lucía Muñoz Sueiro, an End Fossil activist and PhD student at the university, noted to The Guardian that the course is not about sustainable development, but instead “combines the social and ecological aspects of the crisis, which are interrelated.”
For us, both teaching courses about climate change in the social sciences departments at universities in Ontario for three years and one year, respectively, the key in Muñoz Sueiro’s statement is the interrelatedness of the social and ecological aspects of the climate crisis.
We interpret this historical decision as a call to action for universities in Ontario. Just a few years ago, almost no courses existed that looked at the relationship between the social and natural sciences causes of climate change. Today, progress is being made, with over a dozen courses now offered at major universities across the province. But none of those are mandatory courses for all undergraduate students, regardless of their discipline.
For several decades, there has been widespread consensus within the natural sciences research community that our planet is warming and that this warming is human-induced. And despite the heavily funded and unrelenting denialism and greenwashing fuelled by the fossil fuel industry, the knowledge about the physical basis of climate change has only become more robust and refined over the years.
In contrast, within the social sciences (excluding partially economics and a few specialized fields), the 1970s rang in a period of distancing between the social and natural sciences, partly due to paradigm changes taking place in a significant number of fields.
In the last decade, as the crisis has made its way into living rooms either with extreme weather or with daily news reminders, there has been an explosion of research into myriad issues connected to climate change from history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and other fields. Still, some of the most important research topics are in their embryonic stages of collective discussion and we are still far away from reaching any semblance of consensus.
This fact poses significant challenges for those of us endeavouring to teach about the “social aspects” of the climate crisis within our respective disciplines due to the complexity (from economic issues to culture), global scale, and historical depth of this crisis.
What people are reading
But it is largely from the social sciences that ideas about how to organize our societies, economies, and communities emerge. And as the planet continues to rapidly warm, we find ourselves facing a university student population armed with a generally decent repertoire and understanding of natural science but feeling depressed and overwhelmed by the lack of solutions and political actions being taken to combat it. For us, this is symptomatic, in part, of a limited understanding that goes beneath the surface of “human-induced” climate change due to this catching up of sorts in the social sciences. Our role is to examine: Are all humans to blame or a particular kind of society? What are the political and economic forces of denial and obstruction? What are the movements building a post-carbon future?
These are precisely some of the questions we are addressing in our courses at Carleton and Trent universities and over the past few years, we have developed syllabi to tackle some of them by reconnecting the links between the natural and social sciences.
In “Climate Change. Social Science Perspectives” at Carleton, students travel through history to broadly understand the changes societies underwent with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and the modern economic system — capitalism. Students look at industrialization, the rise of the fossil fuel energy regime, and urbanization and the impacts they have had on diets, agriculture and land use and consumption of manufactured goods. By focusing on the production, distribution and consumption of goods, students examine the economic drivers of the climate crisis.
In “Post-Carbon Futures and Radical Hope” at Trent, students examine the relationship between fossil capitalism and economic development and analyze the specific ways Canadian corporations, politicians, and lobbyists are shaping the global climate crisis. They then explore post-carbon alternatives like degrowth, the Green New Deal, eco-socialism, environmental populism, and Indigenous-led alternatives. Part of their assessment is a community-engagement project where students develop a climate campaign in the community as a way of fostering hope.
We see our courses and our teaching not only as an academic or scholarly exercise, but as a method where we can embolden students to see themselves as change-makers. Last month, Montreal hosted the UN biodiversity conference COP15 and we helped organize trips for students to learn from the grassroots movements fighting for biodiversity protection and climate action.
We believe the only way we can combat the overwhelming sense of anxiety and helplessness is by supporting students with (some) of the tools they need to take action.
A few years ago, Trent University implemented an important policy to require all undergraduate students, regardless of their majors, to take an introductory course on Indigenous Peoples. Universities need to do the same for the climate crisis. Barcelona sets a strong example for Canadian universities to heed: we need mandatory courses — regardless of the field — that examine the social and ecological causes of the climate crisis. That may just provide the spark to build the movements we need.
Vladimir Díaz-Cuéllar is a PhD candidate and contract instructor in the geography and environmental studies department at Carleton University in Ottawa. His doctoral research analyzes the recent process of expansion and generalization of capitalism in Bolivia and the impact of industrial activities on greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and eutrophication. He teaches “GEOG 2500/ENST 2500: Climate Change. Social Science Perspectives” at Carleton.
Kirsten Francescone has her PhD in anthropology and political economy from Carleton University. She is an assistant professor at Trent University in the international development studies program. Her research looks at the relationship between mining, the ecological crisis and alternatives to development. Among the courses she teaches is, “IDST4150: Post-Carbon Futures and Radical Hope.”
Re: "[T]he course is not
Re: "[T]he course is not about sustainable development, but instead 'combines the social and ecological aspects of the crisis, which are interrelated.'"
I teach a course ON sustainable development* (its principles and processes; how are we supposed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs — a giant "what" — without a "how" framework?) that integrates the enviro/ecological, social, AND ECONOMIC aspects (integration is the quintessential principle of SD) of the climate emergency — the umbrella issue over top of everything else we learn.
* Dennis Meadows (of Limits to Growth fame) says we need to call it "survivable development" now, something I share with my students.
I, too, believe that all
I, too, believe that all university students should take a course (or maybe two) on the climate emergency. I want to point out, though, that there are several university-affiliated names on the list of Canadians that have signed the most recent specious "declaration" denying the climate emergency. So universities need to be careful who they allow to develop these courses. Who knows which of these self-professed deniers (note: some are emeritus) might gun for the course-development contracts.
Université du Québec
University of Alberta
University of Ottawa
University of Waterloo
University of Victoria (one let go, one deceased, one still working there)
University of Toronto
Mount Royal University
CEGEP du Vieux Montréal
University of Calgary
Vancouver Community College
University of Saskatchewan
Simon Fraser University
University of New Brunswick
Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
This is a terrific initiative
This is a terrific initiative.
"...facing a university student population armed with a generally decent repertoire and understanding of natural science but feeling depressed and overwhelmed by the lack of solutions and political actions being taken to combat it."
This seems key: how do we build up a resiliency of spirit, the determination and the confidence to overwhelm the inertia of, as Linda McQuaig penned it 20+ years ago, The Cult of Impotence. **
One broad concern I have, however, is the sole target of climate. The biodiversity crisis arguably looms as large (in fact, there are about a half-dozen black-rider crises of the biosphere rapping their scythes against our door) and risks being exacerbated by ostensible solutions to the climate crisis. I'm not convinced that a focus on climate, alone, is the way forward.
Mind you, speaking of nexi of social and, let's call them, technical concerns, the entirety of the digital economy has largely been ignored as it runs amok throughout global societies.
So, to address symptoms or root causes, that is the question. (In my opinion)
Thanks for penning this article.
** The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy (out of print?).
(reading through the TrentU
(reading through the TrentU course synopsis)
Was Bright Green Lies made into a movie? Must see it. Derrick Jensen is a tough author to read and I've discovered that one needs to look more broadly at some conclusions to get a full understanding.
I'm curious to know how the Trent course discusses/frames Bright Green Lies.
Tech issue: there is a glitch
Tech issue: there is a glitch with the link/document for the Trent course synopsis. Two different mobile browsers (Edge, Opera) lock up trying to download it.