Planetary Foreclosure: Climate Change Education and Lifelong Debt

Planetary Foreclosure: Climate Change Education and Lifelong Debt

Nigel Clark

‘You’ll die of old age. I’ll die of climate change’ declared a student on her placard at a recent protest in South Africa. Or as a fellow activist put it ‘Why the actual f*** are we studying for a future we won’t have!’

The current cohort of university students have lived their entire lives in the shadow of climate catastrophe. In the words of one of my undergrad students, ‘my generation has always known the world was going to end’.

We are asking – demanding – of this generation that they reinvent the world in a single lifetime. This involves changing the way we do almost everything, while adapting to climatic conditions that no human being has ever experienced. As if this were not enough, learning about ‘the downfall of the Earth’, to cite another of my students, comes at a formidable price. For the privilege of finding out just how f***** the planet they are inheriting is, many of our students will go into debt for life. Or as it currently stands in the UK, for the next three decades.

How did it become standard practice, I want to ask, that we systematically burden our children and grandchildren with lifetime debt in exchange for the knowledge that their planet is spiralling irreversibly into climate chaos? It’s a question, I suggest, that draws us into a long and cruel colonial history.

I was recently invited to join a team putting together a new masters module on environmental crisis and social change hosted by my university’s art and design department. The course aims to advance students’ understanding of the natural and social dimensions of the current planetary predicament and to encourage them to develop responses that are both practical and imaginative.

As a social scientist who has been studying and teaching environmental issues for over four decades, this is a welcome opportunity. The art students I knew in the 1980s and 1990s were often hostile to the problem of ‘the environment’, seeing it as a threat to the free-ranging cosmopolitan values at the core of their creative vision. Over the intervening decades, however, driven especially by the rise of the climate crisis, environmental issues have begun to migrate from the edges to the core of tertiary education.

The shift is far from complete. But what was once a lonely subfield not quite at home in the natural or social sciences is now insinuating itself into disciplines as otherwise distinct as literary studies, architecture, fine arts, law, philosophy, even economics. By the end of this decade, as the global climate predicament worsens, it is increasingly likely that most tertiary education will be framed in terms of a traditional discipline plus climate or planetary change.

Be careful what you wish for. To give an honest account of climate change – which is what many of today’s students themselves call for – is to confront truths far worse than inconvenient. It is to acknowledge that even if we halt carbon emissions tomorrow, sea levels would still eventually rise another 2.3 metres as the oceans slowly respond to the 1°C warming that has already occurred. Even in the unlikely chance that every nation meets its Paris 2015 obligations, we are still heading towards 2.7 to 3°C of climate change.

It means telling students that climatologists, nearly a decade ago, upgraded their assessment of 2°C of global warming from ‘dangerous’ to extremely dangerous. And exposing them to assessments of extreme danger that speak of the likelihood of lurching irreversibly into a Hothouse Earth state that is unlikely to be able to support anywhere near the current global human population.

These are mainstream forecasts, the stuff of sober scientific journal articles. How do you deal with the affective, and cumulative, impact of such storylines on young people in and beyond the classroom? A recent UN report identifies 2050 as a crunch time, with world population reaching an estimated 10 billion, and climate change likely to be biting deeply into the global food supply. That’s just after the time that student loan debt in the UK is predicted to peak at around 11.5% of the nation’s GDP.

To put it another way, as the convergent global crises of the mid 21st century unfold, my current students will be well into middle age, but many will still be struggling to pay off their student loans.

To begin to answer the question of how we arrived at this point, I suggest, we need a long and wide run up. Lately, many people in the UK have been surprised to find that until 2015 they had been paying off the debt incurred in 1835 to fund the compensation of British slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’ after abolition of the slave trade. We might also be surprised to know that after ‘abolition’, many former slaves still had to work for years unpaid, on the same plantations, in what was referred to as apprenticeship – so that they might learn to use their freedom responsibly.

So too is it worth recalling the fate of the world’s first independent Black republic, perhaps the only modern social experiment whose sheer audacity matches what is expected of the current global younger generation. Against near impossible odds, the slaves of Haiti successfully revolted, fought off recolonising French forces and achieved independence in 1804. In response, the French government demanded compensation from the Haitian people for their own liberation, imposing a debt so vast that Haiti was still paying it off in the 1940s.

The precursor of subsequent independence movements, Haiti was a shock to all the colonial powers. And in a range of different ways, the imposition of deep, enduring indebtedness became the model for incorporating all the later post-colonies into the dominant global order.

This kind of debt is about more than revenue or even retribution. It is a way of converting the unthinkable into the thinkable. Debt puts a price or value on that which threatens the entire system of value. Relations of indebtedness take the uncertainty of a radical opening and turn it into the known and the calculable. Debt, we might say, is the other of hospitality. When it reaches the point where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the repayment of a debt, this is not simply an inheritance with conditions or obligations attached. It is an outright act of hostility to what is yet to come: a foreclosure on futurity itself.

I’m not comparing my own relatively privileged, mostly white, students with enslaved peoples. Nothing compares to slavery. What I am suggesting is that, over several centuries, the West has learned some lasting tricks about how to set a frighteningly new world spinning again on a familiar axis.

As an early generation of decolonising thinkers pointed out, the cruelty that became thinkable and doable in the colony had a rebounding. Over time, exceptional measures imposed on ‘unruly’ others became ordinary. Then they came ‘home’.

Today, many of us in the privileged world seem to fear the experiment we are imposing on our children, if not in the same way that our forebears shuddered before the experiment that was the first Black republic. Author Michael Chabon has spoken of ‘the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears…. the fear of knowing … that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited’.

A few years ago a former student failed to get the job he wanted with an environmental organisation. He was one of over three hundred applicants for an unpaid internship. To intern means ‘to confine within set limits’. And if this is the way the task of remaking the world begins for the most privileged, consider what it’s like for those from the planet’s most economically and environmentally ravaged regions, whose debt – if they have studied in global North – may well be double that of their local counterparts.

What philosopher Hannah Arendt controversially described as the banality of evil now seems to be in my job specification. I still want to teach art students about climate change and I still want to help climatology students to be more creative. Though when I’m asked to put more emphasis on vocational skills, what comes to mind is increasingly foraging, hotwiring and deftness with a machete, none of which are my strongpoints.

Someone much more practical than me, materials scientist Cyril Stanley Smith, once put it like this: ‘All big things grow from little things, but new little things will be destroyed by their environment unless they are cherished for reasons more like love than purpose’ (p. 331). That’s as good a definition of hospitality as I’ve come across. Love is a wager, an opening, not a contract or an indenture. And grappling with lifetime indebtedness – the ugliest of purposes – is no environment for nurturing the tiny, trembling things that are the current generation’s only chance at creating anything approximating a livable world.

Smith, Cyril Stanley (1981) A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art, and History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Nigel Clark is a professor of human geography at Lancaster University, UK. His book Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet was published in 2011, and he has a new one Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences, coauthored with Bronislaw Szerszynski, out later this year.

Image credit: Masixole Feni/GroundUp