Meaning in Times of Crisis: New Narratives 3 | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 14 Min Read

August 25, 2022

Sometimes you just need a good ol’ crisis to shake things up, to get things moving. It’s like the story of the frog you put in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat. The frog won’t ever realize it’s being cooked. Throw the frog in boiling water and it will try to jump out. (DISCLAIMER: I don’t throw frogs or any other animal in boiling water.)

There isn’t just one crisis today, there are converging crises that we can call a meta crisis: climate breakdown, socio-economic and racial injustice, income inequality, war, disease, hyper-consumerism, competition, alienation, scarcity, malnutrition, and perhaps others you can think of. I don’t believe there is a solution to the meta crisis, at least not in the way the conversation is often framed. I don’t believe we can have faith in goals toward sustainable development (yes, I mean the SDGs) when one of them is “Zero Hunger” and we allow almost 830 million people (yes, over 10% of the world population) to be malnourished and 2.3 billion people to experience food insecurity. Before we point fingers at COVID and Ukraine, there were already around 680 million malnourished in 2019. 

This is the first time in history when we have the resources, technology, and logistical capabilities to feed everyone on the planet, we just chose not to. The world community rallies to find a vaccine for COVID but since wealthier people don’t often go without food, they may not be so hard-pressed to act. I don’t believe that technology will save us either and I don’t get why some rich people would want to terraform Mars when we have a perfectly good planet here that could use quite a bit fewer atmospheric adjustments. (They probably feel the gates around their mansions aren’t enough protection anymore.) Then there are economic goals based on growth (and yet sustainable at the same time) and the word “nature” doesn’t appear once in “Quality Education.” 

When I write that I don’t believe there is a solution, I don’t mean we can’t overcome the meta crisis, I just think that it will take something other than a problem-solution approach (which is often linear and mechanistic). The only thing we know about the future is that the best-laid plans will probably be blown off course. So we continue to prepare for various scenarios and adjust to emerging futures as we go along. This works sometimes, but I don’t know if it is enough to get us out of this mess because we seldom talk about where we’re going: it’s more like whack-a-mole than it is long-term thinking. We try to “save our future,” (highly anthropocentric, that is, human-centered because we’re looking to save humanity before all else—the planet will be fine without us) but seldom talk about what the future might look like. We ask much less frequently what it will take to create this future (perhaps anthropocentric, depending on the futures we visualize; will we value all life or just us?). 

What if we start to imagine what we want the world to look like? What if we sketch out what the futures we want to bring about might hold? Can we hope for a society where we minimize socio-economic, racial, and intergenerational injustice? Can we aspire to re-connect with Mother Earth? What would happen if we reconsidered our relationships with other living things? How about the way we make and consume things? Can we be courageous enough to want a world of abundance and harmony, not scarcity and competition? 

Backcasting (similar to backward design) is the practice of imagining the future we desire and working out the likely steps to get there. When we play with the idea of what an ecological civilization might look like, we follow a North Star, walking in its direction. This is different from trying to solve a problem in the now until the next problem comes up (a way of approaching the world that gets caught up in reductionist tendencies and not looking at the bigger systemic picture). It is imagining better futures and working to bring them about, which, in doing so, also resolves many of the problems we face as we walk toward that North Star.

I am not disparaging problem-solving, I am just pointing out that it is a means, not an end. We can solve a problem, but then what? Problem-solving often isolates the problem from the systemic whole, which can be reductionist. That works when we want to fix a flat tire or get the wifi back up and running. It doesn’t work so well when we want to reverse climate breakdown. This is the difference between complicated and complex. Fixing a watch is complicated and we can afford to do this in isolation from everything else. Reversing climate breakdown is complex and requires systemic and mindset shifts. The solution isn’t to reduce carbon emissions or recycle plastic. We need a collective paradigm shift, a new worldview. Only then will we adopt a way of life where we are carbon negative, enjoy living with less than with more, and thrive in the relationships we have with all living things. Small steps like recycling are important. It’s just that we have a long journey ahead of us.

In my previous article, I proposed Ecological Reconstructionism as a pedagogical ideology to help create an ecological civilization through schools. It will take more than schools to bring about an ecological civilization—this is a civilizational transformation after all—but they are the part of the system on which I am focusing and this will hopefully complement efforts in other areas. Ecological Reconstructionism is the current day evolution of Social Reconstructionism and Critical Pedagogy, which were born of the class and decolonization struggles of the first and latter halves of the twentieth century respectively. Ecological Reconstructionism is a pedagogy for now. Not the future, for now, in order to create the futures that we want. 

I have been asked, “what would that look like in schools?” In order to respect the unique essence of every school and resist the urge to scale and replicate, I would suggest a different question: “What would it require for Ecological Reconstructionism to emerge in a learning ecosystem?” This question allows us to take those first uncertain steps toward our North Star, to create an ecological civilization. In this way, we can adjust the course as needed (maybe even following another star), but we aren’t caught up in this perpetual game of solving one problem, then tackling another one without a conversation about what the world we want to create would look like through this problem-solving. 

Unlike so much discussion in progressive education that wants to bring on systemic change, Ecological Reconstructionism does not plan to be a revolution: it is a quiet, subtle yet powerful becoming that occurs one school at a time, one classroom at a time, one moment at a time. It is about creating ripples that, when amplified by other ripples, become waves, then tsunamis. This isn’t about scaling because it’s not a model. Ecological Reconstructionism respects local contexts. It is more about creating and strengthening entanglements between local contexts*.[1]I will ask the science community to forgive me for violating quantum mechanics in order to make a facile comparison.  

This is about the inner work. This is about shifting our mindsets as individuals and communities, which will vary in size. Ecological civilization will not come about simply by “taking action,” it will require changes in values. Ecological civilization will be built on ethical engagements to make what matters matter. Given what we are confronted with today, what matters might change depending on context and location, but it will surely be based upon what helps all life thrive together in the long run (not just in the next quarter). This will require time and it won’t be pretty in the medium run. I don’t know if we have time, but I know that the alternative is even uglier along any timescale.

Many activists (which include thinkers, educators, environmentalists, and all sorts of engaged people) are imagining a better world and taking the steps to create it. There just needs to be more consistency and coherence. It’s not enough to say we need to bring down carbon emissions if we want more than just the survival of the human species (I know that is the basis of anything else, but let’s envelop this into a higher ambition). It’s not enough to say that we want more student-centered approaches if we are not challenging the hyper-consumerism born of ego-centrism. It’s not enough to push so-called 21st-century competencies if they are just fuel for the capitalist machine. It’s not enough to say we should all recycle when we still hold that growth in GDP is the measure by which we judge the health and progress of society—not dissimilar to the linear sequences we believe are the signs of learning as we move through the curriculum standards. Systemic change is informed by both the flow of history and a break with it. These are just boundaries we create for our own purposes.

We must also be careful not to reject the concept of an ecological civilization because it is still fuzzy. This is where we need to be comfortable with the tension of the unfolding. How can we paint a perfect picture? Wouldn’t we then be accused of utopianism? How does this fit the patterns of historical shifts? We walk together toward that North Star, leaving behind that which needs to be left behind and understanding the resultant sense of loss, attentive to our whole experience with every step.

Ecological Reconstructionism is unashamedly values-laden because no human (organization) is free of values. Ecological Reconstructionism values nothing less than bringing about an ecological civilization that is life-affirming, not degenerative; that seeks thriving relationships with and amongst all life (not just humans), and that learns from and is enmeshed in the natural world. And if someone comes up with another list of what this civilization might look like, wonderful. These are just words and words must not get in the way of possibilities. When we do the inner work as individuals and as a collective, we feel and sense an ecological civilization rather than rationalize it.

This might be the idea that people pick up in times of crisis. This crisis doesn’t have to be global, it can be a personal crisis. It can be a search for meaning. Why are so many teachers leaving the profession? Burnout, frustration, feeling of low pay, alienation, not being heard… whatever they are, most occur when we lose our sense of meaning, which is a crisis in itself. As Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl wrote, “there is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions than the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life. There is so much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why can bear almost any how.’”

Ecological Reconstructionism emerges when we imagine a better world and when we create conditions within the learning ecosystem to bring about this better world. It goes beyond student-centric pedagogies and it’s certainly not letting learners do what they want, at their will. This is about working together, as a community, on initiatives that contribute to the thriving of the bio-collective, to the emergence of an ecological civilization. This is a pedagogy of love because we transcend ourselves when our identity widens from I to We when we see ourselves in others. 

This is a pedagogy of response and action through the process of identity-making, because, as post-structuralist and feminist philosopher Judith Butler explains, identity is “a kind of becoming.” It is a pedagogy of love because contributing to the thriving of the bio-collective is caring, empathetic, and unconditional, as is love, which Frankl describes as “the salvation of [humans].” Love is also what biologist Humberto Maturana posits is the basis of our humanness, what will allow us to transcend our humanity (and our separate identities), and embrace our interconnections with all living things. Ecological Reconstructionism is both ambitious and fundamental. 

Asking what Ecological Reconstruction would look like transgresses the notion that every context is different at any given moment**.[2]We even alter our relationship with and within (and perhaps beyond) context depending on our perspectives, or even, and probably more accurately, how we choose to look at the context (measure, in its … Continue reading It is place-based, actor-based (that is, who and what is involved?), and more than human†.[3]This takes us down the path of new materialism and how everything has agency, which is something Charlotte Hankin, Co-Founder of Coconut Thinking, can write about with more authority than I can. It is not a model that can be replicated. It is not a curriculum that can be implemented. It is what emerges when we decide to follow the North Star of imagining a better world.

In spite of this, I feel I should provide some possibilities to show that Ecological Reconstructionism already happens in many schools. Here are just a few examples, and please add more through your imagination. 1) A local animal charity raises awareness that there are many paraplegic dogs, and learners construct dog wheelchairs. 2) Learners work with the local organic farm to plant, harvest, and distribute food to the canteen, replacing mass-produced pesticide-laced food. 3) Learners create a system to look out and help one another to make sure no one falls between the cracks. 

This is similar to “a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects,” as Project-Based Learning is described. Ecological Reconstructionism is a pedagogy that challenges learners to act within their local contexts according to a set of values that are life-affirming, and seek to contribute to the thriving of the bio-collective that is driven by love for all life. This means communally meaningful projects. Learners only engage in projects for a better world and eschew the false dichotomy between “the real world” and whatever else people think happens in schools. That’s not to say that learners can’t pursue their individual interests and curiosity, simply that these must be coherent with values of life affirmation. I love PBL. This is PBL with a North Star. It’s already happening, but like PBL, in patches. 

We don’t need to worry about scaling. Communities of Ecological Reconstructionism will converge. This idea that we have to change the system from the heart, that we have to scale, that change has to happen in one big bloc is a twentieth-century construct. Educational activists have been trying to change the education system for 120 years to no avail. Revolutionaries have tried to overthrow capitalism since before 1864, and where did they get to? The core will eventually have to change, but we can’t wait for that. We should do as much as we can locally and then converge. It will take time. It can’t be rushed unless the meta crisis forces our hand.

This leaves several questions unanswered and problems unresolved. How might we re-conceptualize assessment, documentation, relationships, curriculum, success, or achievement, among other things? How do these align with life-affirmation and the bringing about of an ecological civilization? These challenges must be addressed at the local level (e.g. schools, classrooms, individuals), according to each unique context. There is no quick fix, there is no replicable model, and there is no drive to scale. There may be many paths toward the North Star, itself full of possibilities.

Some readers will say “yes, we’re already doing that.” Wonderful! As we come together, work together, and live together to bring about an ecological civilization, I challenge everyone not to sit on their laurels and to ask themselves how they can go deeper, how they can go broader, connecting with others to augment existing and create new efforts. Wherever we find ourselves we must find the strength and the courage to continue and not fall into the trap of self-contentment and stagnation. If you’re already doing that, then what aren’t you doing yet?

We can pick up these ideas that are lying around, we can share them with others and find personal and common meaning in bringing about a better world. These are times of crises, personal and global, but they are not perceived equally as such by everyone. Every moment is an opportunity to be at one with all. To close with another excerpt from Viktor Frankl, “live as if you were living for the second time, and had acted as wrongly the first time, as you are about to act now.” 

Part 2

Part 1


1 I will ask the science community to forgive me for violating quantum mechanics in order to make a facile comparison.
2 We even alter our relationship with and within (and perhaps beyond) context depending on our perspectives, or even, and probably more accurately, how we choose to look at the context (measure, in its more than quantitative signification).
3 This takes us down the path of new materialism and how everything has agency, which is something Charlotte Hankin, Co-Founder of Coconut Thinking, can write about with more authority than I can.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, which creates learning and action experiences where all learners have a common purpose; positive impact on the welfare of the bio-collective — any living thing, sentient or plant, that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. Benjamin also works as the Whole School Leader of Learning and Teaching at an International School in Thailand. He was the Academic Coordinator at Misk Schools, which, as the school of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the most prestigious and high profile school in the kingdom. In 2018-2019, he was also the Head of Upper Primary and Middle School at Misk. Prior to this, he was Vice Principal of the Middle School and High School at the Harbour School in Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, an MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Affairs. Benjamin was born and grew up in Paris, France. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 and spent 11 years there in different cities, before living in the U.K., Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and now Thailand. He started his career in consulting for Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, working with people whose ambitions were no less than to change the world. This experience had a profound effect on Benjamin’s outlook on education, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

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