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Ojala, M. (2016). Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education: From Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 41-56 This article discusses the need for critical emotional awareness in environmental and sustainability education that aspires to result in transgressive learning and transformation. The focus is on the emotions of anxiety/worry and hope, and their role in climate change education. By disrupting unsustainable norms and habits, hope for another way of being could be evoked, but transgressive learning can also trigger anxiety due to the undecided nature of the future and the gravity of the climate problem. The objective is, on the one hand, to point to the importance of critical awareness of these emotions and the need to disrupt unsustainable emotion-regulation strategies when aiming for transformation, and, on the other, to provide suggestions for including these dimensions in climate change education.
41Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 2016
Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education: From
Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning
Maria Ojala, Örebro University, Sweden
This article discusses the need for critical emotional awareness in environmental
and sustainability education that aspires to result in transgressive learning and
transformation. The focus is on the emotions of anxiety/worry and hope, and their
role in climate change education. By disrupting unsustainable norms and habits,
hope for another way of being could be evoked, but transgressive learning can
also trigger anxiety due to the undecided nature of the future and the gravity of
the climate problem. The objective is, on the one hand, to point to the importance
of critical awareness of these emotions and the need to disrupt unsustainable
emotion regulation strategies when aiming for transformation, and, on the other,
to provide suggestions for including these dimensions in climate change education.
L’article traite de l’importance de la conscience émotionnelle critique dans
l’éducation à l’environnement et au développement durable lorsque l’enseignement
vise à provoquer un changement et un apprentissage transformationnel. L’accent
est mis sur les sentiments d’anxiété/inquiétude et d’espoir et sur leur rôle dans
la sensibilisation aux changements climatiques. Lorsque l’on ébranle les normes
et les habitudes non viables, il peut être salutaire d’évoquer l’espoir de trouver
d’autres façons de faire. Toutefois, l’apprentissage transformationnel peut
également être source d’anxiété, vu l’avenir incertain et la gravité de la situation
climatique. L’objectif est, d’une part, de souligner l’importance d’acquérir une
conscience critique des émotions et de se débarrasser des stratégies de régulation
émotionnelle non viables si l’on veut occasionner une transformation et, d’autre
part, de suggérer des façons d’inclure ces différentes notions à la sensibilisation
aux changements climatiques.
Keywords: critical pedagogy, emotion regulation, hope, subjectification, transfor-
mative learning
Today many researchers focusing on environmental and sustainability educa-
tion argue that since humanity is faced with very severe and complex sustain-
ability challenges on a global scale, such as loss of biodiversity and climate
change, there is a great need for pedagogical innovations (Johnston, 2009; Lotz-
Sisitka, Wals, Kronlid, & McGarry, 2015; Sterling, 2004; Wals, 2007). There is
a need to learn more than how to do things we do today in a better way; we
42 Maria Ojala
need a paradigm shift toward transformative learning aimed at critical aware-
ness and changing unsustainable norms, habits, and structures (see Wals, 2010).
In this regard, Lotz-Sisitka and colleagues criticize the focus on resilience and
adaption that is quite common when discussing sustainability issues, and main-
tain instead that we should aim for more transgressive learning and disruptive
capacity building in order to deal with this pedagogical challenge (Lotz-Sisitka
et al., 2015). In their article, some potential transgressive pedagogies for the
environmental and sustainability education field are presented.
In this article I take my starting point in the above-mentioned accounts of
environmental and sustainability education; however, though I am sympathetic to
them, I will argue that transformative and transgressive learning in this field also
could benefit from including emotional aspects, not only of a phenomenological
kind as Lotz-Sisitka and colleagues (2015) suggest, but also of a critical kind. The
objective is to show that if aiming for transgressive learning and transformation, it
is not enough to disrupt unsustainable cognition/thinking, norms, and practices;
there is also a need to include critical emotional awareness and to disrupt
unsustainable emotion-regulation patterns. I concentrate on the two interrelated
emotions of anxiety/worry and hope and their role in climate change education.
The objective is, on the one hand, through theoretical argumentation and by
referring to different empirical studies, to show the importance of being aware
of these emotions and related emotion regulation strategies when aiming for
transgressive climate change education, and, on the other hand, to give some
suggestions as to how these emotional aspects and a critical awareness of them
can be included in climate change education.
This article is divided into seven sections, including this introduction. In
the second section, transformative and transgressive learning are introduced
and related to the environmental and sustainability education and climate
change education fields. In the third section, I maintain that there is a need
for educators to be aware that anxiety/worry is often evoked when they teach
students about climate change. The potential positive role of these emotions is
discussed at the same time as it is argued that they can be hard to face and that
students can cope in more or less constructive ways with them. This leads to the
fourth section, where it is pointed out that teachers need to be aware that they
influence their students’ emotion regulation strategies at the same time as larger
societal processes, or emotion-governing strategies, also have an influence on
both students’ and teachers’ ways of coping. This coping, in turn, could have
an effect on learning and environmental engagement. In the fifth section, it is
maintained that we therefore need to include critical awareness of emotional
aspects in climate change education, but we have to be careful not to end up in
a kind of therapeutic education or education that borders on indoctrination. In
the sixth section, I argue for the need to focus on a critical hope that is based
in an acknowledgement of the negative, a positive view of preferable futures,
the possibility of societal change, and that is related to concrete pathways
43Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
toward this preferable future. Here, the concept of meaning-focused coping is
introduced. In the final section the main points of the paper are summarized
and some more concrete suggestions are presented regarding how educators
can include these dimensions in environmental and sustainability education/
climate change education
Transformative and Transgressive Learning
Biesta (2013) argues that, besides focusing on knowledge and socialization, one
important goal of education is to concern itself with a subjectification process in
which the focus is on the emancipation of students from predetermined ways
of thinking and being and the responsibility that follows with it. One pedagogi-
cal model that deals with subjectification processes is transformative learning
(Mezirow, 1978). Mezirow, who formulated this theory, claimed that through
critical reflection and a procedure of “perspective transformation,” students can
change their ways of thinking about themselves as well as their basic value
systems and also alter their lifestyles in a way that is productive both for them-
selves and for society. Taylor (1998) elaborated this theory and pointed out that
transformative learning is not only cognitive but also social. In the field of en-
vironmental and sustainability education, Wals (2007, 2010) has picked up this
way of thinking, arguing for the importance of transformative social learning
where a communicative process, which ideally should include a diverse set of
actors, can help the actors involved to (a) critically examine their own values,
habits, and norms (deconstruction), (b) listen to what others have to say (con-
frontation), and (c) co-construct new viewpoints, values, and action repertoires
(reconstruction). Thus, challenging learners with alternative ways of interpreting
their experiences is an important part of transformative social learning, and
the aim is to break with unsustainable habits and practices and create new, and
more sustainable, ways of thinking and being (Wals, 2007, 2010).
Lotz-Sisitka and colleagues (2015) go one step further and claim that it is
important to aim at developing disruptive and transgressive, or even disobedient,
competences if we are going to succeed in dealing with sustainability challenges
such as global climate change. One of the first who used the term “transgressive
learning” was hooks (1994), who argued that critical thinking and theory need
to be anchored in practice to gain transformative power. In accordance with
this way of thinking, in the broader educational literature transgressive learning
is often about learning through practice (see Barnett, 2004; Biesta, 2013,
hooks, 1994; Leonard, 2004; Saarnivaara, Ellis, & Kinnunen, 2012). People can
transgress, or disrupt, deeply held and taken-for-granted norms, norms that are
at the roots of oppression and unsustainability, by acting in surprising, creative,
and boundary-crossing ways. By examining the inconsistency between these
material practices and pre-existing beliefs, people learn that a different way
of being is possible (Concepción & Thorson Eflin, 2009). Here there is a close
44 Maria Ojala
relation to theories about prefigurative politics that claims that critique is not
enough to disrupt unsustainable systems and create more sustainable futures;
one must also act and experimentally actualize one’s political ideals in the here
and now (Amsler, 2015; Kagan & Burton, 2000; North, 2011). As North (2011,
p. 1592) states it in relation to climate change, in prefigurative politics people
are “embodying ‘the change they want to see’, showing through their personal
actions what is possible… and thereby inviting curiosity from others who might
well make the same changes.” Transformation thus takes place through the
power of example, through prefiguring more sustainable futures.
Regardless of whether learning and transformation take place through criti-
cal thinking and dialogue or through transgressive action, one can argue that
this process also includes emotional components (see Ojala, 2013). Educators
and researchers who work with transgressive learning outside the domain of en-
vironmental and sustainability education point out that the persons included in
the learning process often find it quite unsettling and anxiety-provoking (Amsler,
2015; hooks, 1994; Saarnivaara et al., 2012). Concerning transformative social
learning, Wals (2007, 2010) has argued, although he does not explicitly point out
that this is an emotional phenomenon, that dissonance is an important part of
the learning process and that educators need to take this into account. Still, criti-
cal emotional awareness could be seen as a vital complement to these educa-
tional approaches, especially if they are applied to the deeply anxiety-provoking
problem of climate change.
Climate Change Education and Anxiety/Worry
Besides acknowledging that transformation, disruption, and transgression can
lead to feelings of unease and anxiety, educators aiming at transformative cli-
mate change education need to be aware that this problem in itself is related
to emotions of worry and anxiety.1 Empirical studies show that the most com-
mon emotion evoked by this problem is worry (Connell, Fien, Lee, Sykes, &
Yencken, 1999; Klöckner, Beisenkamp, & Hallman, 2010; Strife, 2012; Taber &
Taylor, 2009). Quite often, this is a worry that is mixed with feelings of guilt and/
or hopelessness (Mead et al., 2012; Ojala, 2007). The reason that climate change
is so anxiety-provoking may be because this problem touches upon the sources
that the well-known existentialist Tillich saw as the root of existential anxiety (Til-
lich, 1952/2000). Tillich maintained that nonbeing, the root of existential anxiety,
threatens the whole individual: the ontic part (anxiety about physical death), the
moral part (anxiety about guilt and condemnation), and the spiritual part (anxi-
ety about meaninglessness, loss of ultimate concern). Climate change is a threat
to the future survival of humanity (the ontic part), it is related to moral questions
about whether it is right to live the way we do in the Western world (the moral
part), and raises questions whether there is any point in being an active citizen
at all due to the seriousness and complexity of this problem (the spiritual part).
45Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
What effect, then, does worry/anxiety have on learning—is it a positive or
negative force? Often, worry about societal problems is perceived as something
only negative; worry distracts people from what is important, makes people
resistant to outside information that could shake them out of their habits, and
traps people in self-absorption that promotes self-interest, thereby paralyzing
social change (Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000). Some claim that it is worry/
fear/anxiety that makes people subject themselves to neoliberal ways of coping
with social problems through self-government (Isin, 2010). Because of worry/
anxiety, people are unable to distinguish the structural grounding of social prob-
lems and are therefore more easily swayed to take individualized responsibility
in a way that will not lead to any real change.
In contrast to the more theoretical claims presented above, empirical stud-
ies as well as newer theories of emotions have identified anxiety and worry
as necessary preconditions for social deliberation and critical thinking (Brader,
2006; Marcus et al., 2000; Marcus, MacKuen, & Russell Neuman, 2011; Valen-
tino, Hutchings, Banks, & Davis, 2008). Anxiety keeps people from doing what
they are doing at the moment, activates the cognitive system, and makes peo-
ple more focused on the outside world and more reflective, thereby motivating
people to think critically (see also Ojala, 2013). In accordance with these studies
in political psychology, climate change research has found that climate worry
is related to an inclination to search for more information about the problem
(Yang & Kahlor, 2012; Verplanken & Roy, 2013). Besides its role in motivating
deliberation, one could argue that worry is a rational response to important
values that are threatened by climate change and thereby, if it is verbalized in
learning situations, could help people do something realistic about the prob-
lem (Ojala, 2013; Verplanken & Roy, 2013). Thus, worry/anxiety could be a first
step towards breaking with unsustainable habits and practices or in becoming
politically active in the climate change movement. Indeed, Zembylas (2013)
even claims that “a pedagogy of discomfort” is both unavoidable and necessary
if a major purpose of education is to unsettle and disrupt and that emotional
aspects therefore need to be taken into account (see also Amsler, 2011, 2015).
Still one should not be psychologically naïve: worry/anxiety, unease, and
dissonance are hard to face and bear, and whether or not they will help or over-
turn transformative learning may have to do with how these emotions are coped
with and regulated at an individual level and in social processes (Ojala, 2013).
As Wals (2007, 2010) reasons, dissonance is vital for transformative learning
concerning environmental and sustainability issues, but too much dissonance
could be devastating, so the educator needs to be aware of people’s comfort
zones when it comes to dissonance. This indicates that how educators react to
emotional displays by their students could influence students’ coping and hence
the learning process (see also Ojala, 2015). Thus, one could ask: should learning
about emotions and emotion regulation be a specific part of education that aims
at transformative and transgressive learning?
46 Maria Ojala
The Importance of Emotional Awareness in Environmental and
Sustainability Education
How then could a critical focus on emotions and emotion regulation become
a part of transformative learning toward sustainability? First, it needs to be ac-
knowledged that today it is quite common in different Western countries to
include “emotional competence” as a part of the curriculum in order to en-
hance young people’s well-being (see Amsler, 2011). This “therapeutic” turn in
education has been criticized by, for instance, Ecclestone and Hayes (2008),
who argue that the one-sided focus on “well-being” and “adaptation” to societal
demands in these educational models is a way to undercut social criticism and
instead turn the young into obedient consumers without the capacity to see the
“real” grounding of their unhappiness. Thus it is a tool to govern and steer young
people and to keep them in their place. This thinking is in accordance with ideas
that the sociologist Bauman has put forward that people today find it hard to face
moral emotions in relation to societal problems and to do something construc-
tive with their moral pain because of a neoliberal society that only allows people
to feel positive and pleasurable emotions that can most easily be increased
through consumption (Bauman & Donskis, 2013). In this way people become
insensitive to societal problems, and social change becomes much more difficult
to achieve. In addition, Ahmed (2008) has argued that the “good” feeling of hap-
piness is used as a political tool to exclude certain bodies (that is, persons) due
to their association with “unhappy” feelings, an association that is made due to
their simply being different or their questioning certain norms (see also Yoon,
2005). Empirical studies also show that in regard to climate change people often
cope with this threat by distancing themselves from negative emotions of worry
and despair (Norgaard, 2011; Ojala, 2012; Olausson, 2011).
Another way the neoliberal society steers and governs emotions is to priva-
tize hope, to put forward the notion that larger structures are impossible to
change, and that the only way people can contribute to society is to act at an
individual level, which could easily breed a sense of impotence as people realize
that private-sphere behaviour is not enough, yet are unable to find any alterna-
tive (Amsler, 2015; Thompson & Zizek, 2013). Concerning climate change stud-
ies have found that young people who acknowledge the problem and are willing
to take action are inclined to cope in an individualized way, that is, they focus on
isolated individual actions in everyday life (Ojala, 2012). Paradoxically, this can
lead to both a feeling of empowerment that “there are things I can do” (Taber
& Taylor, 2009) and a feeling that this is not enough, leading to frustration and
hopelessness (Connell et al., 1999; Mead et al., 2012).
The regulation of emotions also takes place in social interaction in the
classroom, or in other learning situations in more informal settings, and here
teachers and educators play an important role (Kristjansson, 2000). According
to Kristjansson, teachers are role models for their students when it comes to
47Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
emotions. Teachers could in their turn be influenced both by larger cultural and
discursive rules about what emotions are appropriate to express in a classroom
setting and in relation to issues such as climate change, but also by more per-
sonal meta-emotion philosophies. When it comes to educating younger children
about more mundane interpersonal issues, empirical studies show that teach-
ers more or less consciously create emotional norms or emotional rules in the
classroom (Cekaite, 2013). For instance, they indicate the right way to regulate
emotions, what emotions are appropriate to express, and whose emotions are
worth taking seriously and whose are not. Zembylas, Charalambous, and Ch-
aralambous (2014) have studied pedagogical strategies with which emotions
are schooled when educating students about larger societal issues, and they
describe emotional rules as “the official or unofficial; explicit or implicit rules
that regulate and guide emotional expression in specific situations…These rules
classify certain emotions as ‘legitimate’ or ‘appropriate’ and others as ‘illegiti-
mate’ or ‘inappropriate’” (p. 71). In relation to environmental and sustainability
education, a study on senior high school students demonstrates that students
who perceived their teachers as not taking seriously their negative emotions
concerning societal problems, and who felt that their teachers perhaps would
even make fun of them if they expressed their emotions in the classroom, were
more inclined to de-emphasize the seriousness of climate change than students
who felt that their teachers respected and validated their emotions (Ojala, 2015).
Thus, there seems to be a relation between the emotional rules that teachers
enforce and individual coping strategies that young people use in relation to the
climate problem. Since individual coping strategies have different impacts on
activity or not concerning this issue, emotional awareness becomes even more
important in environmental and sustainability education.
Beyond Therapeutic Education
What has been described above implies that there is a need to focus on
emotional aspects if aiming at transformative learning in environmental and
sustainability education. However, one must be careful not to fall into the trap
of therapeutic education, or education that borders on indoctrination (see
Öhman & Östman, 2008). Amsler (2011) points out some differences between
a therapeutic pedagogy and a critical affective pedagogy: the former sees
negative emotions as individual shortcomings, focuses on cultivating the “right”
emotions in students, and lacks an awareness of power relations, while the latter
sees negative emotions as normal or even healthy responses to problems in
society, aims not at evoking the “right” emotions but to a critical understanding
of why one experiences certain emotions and desires and not others, as well as
pointing out alternatives, and has a critical awareness of how “power” steers
and governs people’s deepest desires and emotions, that is, sees emotions as
discursive practices.
48 Maria Ojala
In addition, practically oriented transgressive learning theories and prefigu-
rative politics, just like therapeutic education, can be criticized for not taking
into account the relation between truth and knowledge, on the one hand, and
power, on the other (Biesta, 2013; North, 2011). These theories seem to adhere
to certain thoughts in critical theory that have long been criticized, for instance,
believing that there is a “good and true human” deep inside that just needs
to be emancipated through critical awareness, transgressive actions, or by re-
connecting to the local or nature (see Amsler, 2011). Biesta (2013), with the help
of Foucault, argues that educationalists working with subjectification processes
need to acknowledge that there is no truth or knowledge that is separated from
power. Transformation is possible, but we can never free ourselves from power;
we merely work within different power/knowledge constellations. Hence, trans-
gression means the practical confrontation of different power/knowledge con-
stellations in order to show that things do not have to be the way they currently
are (Biesta, 2013). Biesta (2013) argues that it is about the pluralization of truth,
not demystification or speaking truth to power. This does not mean, however,
that in an ethical sense all “truths” are equally good. Thus, there is a need to be
mindful and critical of the new power relations that are created through trans-
gressive education. In addition, I argue that this implies that transformative and
transgressive learning in the environmental and sustainability education field
always has to be related to ethical discussions and to humble self-criticism.
Complementing what has been pointed out above, I maintain that it also
needs to be recognized that emotions are not only discursive but also bodily
and psychological phenomena. The bodily part of emotions has been accepted
in recent years by more researchers in the “critical emotion field” (see Ahmed,
2008; Lotz-Sisitka et al., 2015; Zembylas, 2013), but the psychological part is still
dismissed. Instead it is often explicitly mentioned that emotions are not personal
or psychological (see Ahmed, 2008; Yoon, 2005). I claim, on the contrary, that
the very reason why emotions are so tempting to use as “governing tools” is
precisely that they are a mixture of these three dimensions. Emotions reveal
the dialectic relation between the conceptual/discursive and the material/bodily
as experienced by concrete individuals. The psychological part has a great deal
to do with identity or the self as an existential and social phenomenon, that is,
something that brings order and meaning to a person’s life, gives a person self-
esteem, shields against the knowledge of one’s own mortality, and so on (see
Myers, Abell, Kolstad, & Sani, 2010). When education in some way threatens or
disrupts these fundamental social-psychological and existential aspects, it will
evoke strong emotions and also attempts to defend against this knowledge. For
instance, according to Kahan (2013), people in such situations are often inclined
to use a form of motivated reasoning; i.e., they take in information that sup-
ports their values and social identity while denying or ignoring information that
threatens their social identity and the self-esteem attained by belonging to a
certain group. In this regard, Amsler (2015) points out that therapeutic education
49Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
actually has some benefits, as it is more psychologically realistic concerning hu-
mans’ need to cope and defend against identity threatening and thereby anxiety-
provoking information. This implies that there is a psychological and existential
need for positive emotions, and perhaps especially hope, in transgressive learn-
ing. The question is then whether this hope can be something more than a
comfort; that is, whether it can also help people confront their worry about, for
instance, climate change, and do something about it.
The Need for Hope in Transgressive Learning
Much of what has been described in this paper thus far implies that transforma-
tive and transgressive learning use different pedagogical approaches to show
that a different world is possible. Claims that nothing is certain, that the mate-
rial world is in constant change, and that the future is undecided, are not only a
seed of anxiety/worry but also the seed for a sense of hope (see Amsler, 2015;
Thompson, 2013). Thus, hope and disruption are not each other’s opposite:
hope, according to some critical theorists, requires a disruption of the stubborn
neoliberal worldview that we live in the best of societies, a society that further-
more has no alternative and thereby cannot be changed (Daly, 2013).
The psychological and existential part of hope is often said to be about cop-
ing with problems (Lazarus, 1991). Without a “sense of lack” there is no need
for hope. Thompson (2013) and Daly (2013) refer to Bloch’s view of hope as
starting in a “material hunger,” in a realization that something is missing, which
leads to a desire and subsequently to hope. Thus, it is a realization of the “nega-
tive” that gives rise to hope: hope is not happiness and pure optimism; hope is
what gives us strength in the face of difficulty, “it is a light against the darkness”
(Thompson, 2013, p. 10). Zimmerman (2013, p. 246) points out that Bloch saw
that the persistent presence of existential anxiety makes it necessary to develop
a strategy in order to “accept, endure, resist, and withstand it,” that is, “the point
is to learn hope.” In the same manner, Freire (1992, p. 8) perceives hope as an
ontological must: “We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.”
In psychology hope is often seen as a cognitive-emotional concept in which
positive views of the future, or visions of preferable futures, are seen as being
within reach (Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, 2001). Hope is both about future-ori-
ented thoughts about positive expectations and related positive feelings about
the future. Hope is closely related to worry, as both emotions are connected with
uncertainty: “to hope for something is also to fear that this something will not
come true” (Fredlund, 2005, p. 342).
But for hope to become something more than a therapeutic practice or a
consolation, Burton (1983) argues that one must both create images of what is
possible and look realistically at the limits of our current society (see also Freire,
1992). According to Amsler (2015), knowing that there are alternatives out there
50 Maria Ojala
is a prerequisite but not sufficient for critical hope; we also need to develop
paths and infrastructure for learning for a changed society. In the same way,
the best known theory in psychology about hope emphasizes both the need for
concrete and realistic pathways to preferred futures and working with agency in
order for hope to motivate constructive action (Snyder et al., 2001). Educated
hope, according to Bloch, is what can be reached through reflection, but fore-
most through acting in the material world so that one’s hope could eventually
become reality (see Zimmerman, 2013).
Often the emotional part of the hope concept is seen as a motivational force
in itself (Snyder et al., 2001). But in relation to global environmental problems,
Ojala (2007, 2008) has argued and shown through empirical studies with young
people that it is rather the dialectical relation between hope and worry that mo-
tivates pro-environmental actions. Here, the concept of meaning-focused coping
is of interest (Folkman, 2008; Park & Folkman, 1997). In the broader coping
literature, this is about coping with difficult situations not by eliminating nega-
tive emotions, but by evoking positive emotions, such as constructive hope, that
can give people the strength to confront and do something about the problem at
hand. This way of thinking is inspired by Frankl (1988), who in his work showed
that a sense of meaning can help people bear and confront hardships in life. In
relation to climate change, Ojala (2012) identified different meaning-focused
strategies. Of special interest is positive reappraisal, or cognitive restructuring,
which is about perceiving the problem but being able to switch one’s perspective
and also see more positive aspects, thereby activating hope. This can be seen
as a continuous process where a feeling of worry evoked by the problem re-
quires hope, and where hope, in turn, through the uncertainty connected to this
concept, evokes more worry that requires hope, and so on. This process seems
to drive engagement (Ojala, 2007, 2008). Still, this is a demanding way of hop-
ing. Another common complementary meaning-focused strategy that evokes
hope in relation to climate change is trust (Ojala, 2007, 2012): trust in one’s
own capability (agency), trust in other societal actors doing their part (which is
necessary if we are going to be able to manage climate change), and a kind of
existential trust in humanity. Here, it is interesting to notice that, in relation to
transformative social learning in the environmental and sustainability education
field, Wals (2007, 2010) argues for the importance of both gestalt-switching (a
kind of cognitive restructuring) and social coherence (a kind of trust) for this
pedagogical approach to work optimally.
Practical Implications and Conclusion
How then can educators work more concretely with the thoughts presented
above? In this section I will give some suggestions, although the intention is not
to be authoritative since the ideas presented in the paper need to be embedded
51Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
in concrete educational settings with an awareness of the uniqueness of that
specific situation. The suggestions are aimed foremost at senior high school
teachers but can, to a certain extent, also be used by educators working with
both younger and older age groups.
First, educators should not shy away from the enormous problems that hu-
manity is facing in relation to climate change and the related negative emotions.
In this regard, it is important to give space and time to formulate one’s worries
in words so that important concerns and values that lie behind this worry can be
brought to the surface and critically discussed (Ojala, 2013). We need to discuss
negative and pessimistic visions in a more profound way, as these contain both
hope and hopelessness (see Nordensvard, 2014). Hence, to face the negative is
a starting point for constructive hope.
Second, to evoke hope it is important to show that things can change, that
we are aiming for a future that is undecided (see Thompson, 2013). This can be
done by disrupting taken-for-granted thinking, norms, and habits, for instance
through critical discussions in heterogeneous groups, or by using art, literature,
and drama. But this can also be done by inviting into the classroom different
societal actors that transgress unsustainable norms in diverse ways. They could
be people who are active in environmental and climate change organizations,
but also for instance, politicians, civil servants, or business people who care
about these issues, and work to combat climate change despite the inherent
complexity of this problem. They thereby can disrupt the rather common view
among young people that adults do not really care and the cynicism related to
this outlook. To encourage students to do something outside the classroom that
breaks with an unsustainable habit or norm, alone or together, and then discuss
in the classroom the reactions and feeling evoked, could be another way to
practice transgressive learning.
Third, educators should be aware that students can come to grips with the
emotions evoked by both the focus on the negative and the disruption that occurs
through transgressive learning in more or less constructive ways. Furthermore,
these ways of coping are influenced by larger social processes. These emotional
aspects need to be dealt with educationally in a way that helps students, and
teachers, dare to go through transformation and confront “the beautiful risk of
education” (see Biesta, 2013). There is a need to critically discuss for instance
what emotions are allowed in climate change education. Whose emotions are
taken seriously and whose are not? Why do certain groups of students mainly
feel ashamed while others grow angry? If we to a large extent distance ourselves
from negative emotions, are there any other ways of coping with these emo-
tions? In this regard, different meaning-focused strategies could be discussed.
Fourth, to evoke hope it is important to also discuss future dimensions in the
classroom (Hicks, 2014). Thus, climate change educators should allow time and
space to consider probable, preferable, and possible futures. For instance, when
imagining the personal, the local, and the global futures X years from now, what
52 Maria Ojala
are the probable scenarios in relation to climate change? It is also important to
work with visions of preferable futures. In discussing how these futures ought to
look, it is vital to acknowledge that people will not necessarily agree about what
a preferable future should be (see Hicks, 2014). Thus, one needs to discuss ethi-
cal and normative issues about what constitutes a fair and just society.
Finally, to promote constructive hope there is also a need to compare the
“probable” with the “preferable” and come up with materially grounded and
realistic “possible” futures. In this regard it is important to discuss concrete
pathways (both societal and individual) to this possible future and to promote
agency, so that young people can take part actively in these pathways (Snyder
et al., 2001). “Unrealistic hope” could backfire and lead to disengagement and
cynicism. Therefore, it is important to combine utopian and critical perspectives
and “create images of what could be possible while exploring and documenting
the actual limits imposed by the current system” (Burton, 1983, p. 67).
To conclude, in this article I have argued that when applying transformative
and transgressive forms of education in the environmental and sustainability
education field, and more specifically in climate change education, there is also
a need to include critical emotional awareness. By rupturing the order of things,
by disrupting and transgressing, you also evoke negative emotions of worry, for
instance. These feelings could be constructive forces in the learning process;
however, educators should not dismiss the fact that they are also very hard to
confront and deal with and therefore can be coped with in more or less con-
structive ways. By realizing this, a whole new network of power relations opens
up for scrutiny. It is not enough to critically examine unsustainable thinking,
norms, and practices; one also needs to be aware of unsustainable ways of
dealing with emotions and of how “power” governs even what seem to be our
most private feelings and emotions. But in order to be able to face the worry
and the dissonance evoked by these pedagogical models, I have also claimed
that there is a need to include hope, a hope that is both (a) a positive feeling, a
light in the darkness, or rather a light that illuminates the darkness and gives
people the strength to face the problems that are at the heart of our globalized
society, and (b) a concrete activity grounded in visions of preferable futures and
well-deliberated pathways to reach these futures.
1 Worry is about cognitive ruminations concerning uncertain future negative
events, accompanied by an anxiety-like negative affect (MacLeod, Williams,
& Bekerian, 1991). Worry is a negative emotion related more to uncertainty
than fear is and is also related more to cognitive aspects than anxiety is. These
concepts are, however, often used interchangeably in studies about emotional
reactions to societal issues.
53Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education
This work has been supported by The Swedish Research Council Formas under
Grant 2010-1152 to the author.
Notes on Contributor
Maria Ojala, Associate Professor in psychology, works as a senior lecturer at
Örebro University, Sweden. Her main research interests are: environmental edu-
cation, environmental psychology, political socialization, and emotion theories.
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... Such engagement is likely to evoke discomforting emotions. One crucial role of education may be to cultivate "active hope" [30] or "critical hope" [40], not by spreading naive optimism, but "by showing that another way of being is possible, by encouraging trustful relationships and by giving young people the opportunity to concretely work together for change". ...
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... (74), "I would like students to see that I am open-minded and interested in learning about what other academic disciplines can teach us about computing." (59), "open to requests and different ideas" (24) and "openness to evidence" (40). ...
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The doctoral thesis is available online: Research on the relevance of emotions in political mobilisation has increased in recent decades. One reason for this may be the increasingly polarised and diversified nature of the political culture in liberal democracies. This thesis contributes to this discussion from the viewpoint of Martha Nussbaum’s philosophical work on political emotions – a perspective that has not yet been comprehensively examined in the field of education. The study aims to explore both the tensions and the possibilities involved in education for political emotions with respect to constructing and pursuing collective political aims. It elucidates how Nussbaum’s work could increase our understanding of the role of political emotions in political mobilisation and provide guidance for education in terms of addressing various social and political challenges. This thesis is a theoretical inquiry and employs the methods of philosophical research, including theoretical and conceptual analysis as well as philosophical argumentation. The thesis consists of three interrelated studies that approach the relevance of Nussbaum’s work to education from different angles. Furthermore, through the studies, Nussbaum’s work is discussed in three frameworks of political education: global citizenship education, democratic citizenship education, and human rights education. The first study explores how Nussbaum’s work can increase our understanding of the possible harmful effects associated with negative political emotions (such as fear and anger). Drawing from a recent case of educational policy-making in one of the largest cities in Finland, and from Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions, the first study elucidates the problematic consequences that negative political emotions can have for the political culture, educational policy-making, and for global citizenship education. This study also emphasises the importance of following established democratic procedures, policies, and guidelines in educational decision-making. Furthermore, the study argues for the reinforcement of positive political emotions (such as hope and compassion) as a long-term educational objective. The second study examines how Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions – more specifically, her understanding of democratic politics and the role of emotions in political mobilisation – may contribute to the contemporary philosophical debates on citizenship education. While the study focuses on contesting agonistic models of citizenship education, it also addresses the limitations of deliberative and liberal theories, and illuminates the relationship of Nussbaum’s theory to these contesting approaches. Drawing from Nussbaum, the second study highlights the important role of political emotions in education for democratic citizenship, yet challenges the centrality of political conflict in citizenship education. It further argues that citizenship education can and should play a part in shaping the way students come to understand the nature of the political: as a collective striving towards shared goals, supported by constructive political emotions, rather than a conflictual relation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The third study focuses especially on envisioning the practical implementations of Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions. The study suggests that the relevance of Nussbaum’s work to education is associated with its potential for offering guidance on how to develop the motivation ultimately needed to work for social justice. In the third study, Nussbaum’s theory, particularly the concept of political compassion, is discussed in the context of human rights education. The study suggests different ways in which the pedagogic capability of narrative imagination, a concept drawn from Nussbaum’s educational account, could be practiced in classrooms when teaching and learning about human rights issues, such as racial discrimination. Therefore, the third study takes the first steps in imagining a ‘Nussbaumian pedagogy’. As a whole, the thesis proposes that through Nussbaum’s work it is possible to argue that emotions matter for political mobilisation. The study also suggests that a model of citizenship education informed by Nussbaum’s theory of political emotions could contribute to citizenship education theorising by avoiding some of the problems associated with the deliberative, liberal, and agonistic models of citizenship education. Furthermore, the thesis suggests that Nussbaum’s work can provide education with guiding ideals and principles that can have particular relevance in the current theoretical, educational, and an increasingly polarised social and political landscape. Nussbaum’s theory might help in articulating some constructive and solution-oriented suggestions for education that are much needed in our interconnected world that faces global challenges. However, this study finds that Nussbaum’s ideas need to be brought into discussion with the ones articulated by scholars from more critical schools of thought. Furthermore, this thesis argues that while political emotions are focal for political action as well as for education, the nature of different political emotions and their role in society should be critically reflected upon in order to understand both their ambivalences and their possibilities. Only when political emotions are exposed to serious scrutiny, can they be beneficial in education for the good of societies.
Higher education has been criticised for its instrumental character, which constrains possibilities for meaningful change towards sustainability. Drawing on the concept of radical futurity, we develop a conception of education that we call "emergentist education". We integrate literature from futures studies, education for sustainable development, philosophy of education, and bring into dialogue experiences from three futures-facing educational contexts at a Swedish university. We identify three key areas to conceive of emergentist education and its value in practice: disciplinary and institutional norms, convening around anticipatory emotions, and deepening the paradox of sustainability as emergent through radical futurity. We apply a diffractive analysis through these key areas to demonstrate how a reorientation of education as emergentist might allow students and teachers to contest visions of futures. This work helps in approaching the liberation of education to allow young people to come together whole-heartedly around what matters to them.
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Learning about global problems, such as climate change, is not only a cognitive endeavor, but also involves emotions evoked by the seriousness and complexity of these problems. Few studies, however, have explored how young people cope with emotions related to cli-mate change. Since coping strategies could be as important as the emotions themselves in influencing whether young people will acquire knowledge concerning climate change, as well as ethical sensibility and action competence, it is argued that it is important for teach-ers to gain insight into how young people cope with this threat. Thus, the aim of this study was to explore how Swedish young people - in late childhood/early adolescence (n=90), mid to late adolescence (n=146), and early adulthood (n=112) - cope with worry and pro-mote hope in relation to climate change. A questionnaire containing both open-ended and Likert-type questions was used. Using thematic analysis, several coping strategies were identified, for instance, de-emphasizing the seriousness of climate change, distancing, hyperactivation, positive reappraisal, trust in different societal actors, problem-focused cop-ing, and existential hope. Furthermore, the results show that the children used less problem-focused coping and more distancing to cope with worry than the two older groups. Con-cerning sources of hope, the children used less positive reappraisal and instead placed trust in researchers and technological development to a higher degree than the two older groups. Practical implications for education for sustainable development are discussed.
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We are entering a period of great transition - stormy times of uncertainty, threat and possibility, which will especially affect the lives of young people - yet guides to the future for educators and their students are woefully few. David Hicks's new book is timely, significant, and necessarily bold - a critically important navigational guide to the learning journey we must all make to a low-carbon and very different future. It is at once a wake-up call and an inspirational 'why, what and how' guide to all educators striving to help young people navigate an uncertain future ~ Professor Stephen Sterling, Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth, UK.
Through examples of embodied and learning-centered pedagogy, we discuss transformative learning of transgressive topics. We begin with a taxonomy of types of learning our students undergo as they resolve inconsistencies among their pre-existing beliefs and the material they confront in our course on feminist ethics and epistemology. We then discuss ways to help students maximize their learning while confronting internal inconsistencies. While we focus on feminist topics, our approach is broad enough to be relevant to anyone teaching a transgressive or controversial topic.
An analysis of why people with knowledge about climate change often fail to translate that knowledge into action. © 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.
The Education of Radical Democracy explores why radical democracy is so necessary, difficult, and possible and why it is important to understand it as an educative activity . The book draws on critical social theory and critical pedagogy to explain what enables and sustains work for radical democratization, and considers how we can begin such work in neoliberal societies today. Exploring examples of projects from the nineteenth century to the present day, the book sheds light on a wealth of critical tools, research studies, theoretical concepts and practical methods. It offers a critical reading of the 'crisis of hope' in neoliberal capitalist societies, focusing on the problem of the 'contraction of possibilities' for democratic agency, resistance to domination, and practices of freedom. It argues that radically democratic thinking, practice, and forms of social organization are vital for countering and overcoming systemic hegemonies and that these can be learned and cultivated. This book will be of interest to academics, practitioners, researchers, and students in education and critical theory, and to those interested in the sociology, philosophy and politics of hope. It also invites new dialogues between theorists of neoliberal power and political possibility, those engaged in projects for radical democratization, and teachers in formal and informal educational settings.