Chapter 4: Starting Small to Make Big Changes for a New Education Narrative | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 13 Min Read

June 9, 2022

There is no distinction at all between the everyday world (samsara) and freedom (nirvana). There is no distinction between freedom and the everyday world.

—Nagarjuna

Futurephobia is not a word that we come across very frequently considering its potential impact. You’ll find only a few hits on your favorite search engine, and a search on News on the Web Corpus (which contains billions of words of data from web-based media from 2010 to the present) shows one occurrence in the last twelve years (17 May 2021 in The Guardian). As of this writing (May 2022), Climate anxiety has come up 697 times in the media (though sometimes more than once in the same article). This doesn’t in itself mean that climate anxiety is on the rise: the media have a tendency to latch onto certain terms and give them momentum. The media and the public feed off each other: momentum becomes a function of the mass of press coverage times the velocity of public conversations. Futurephobia has, however, eluded press coverage and public conversation even though its implications are at least as impactful as climate anxiety.

According to one study, a majority of youth are worried or extremely worried about climate change and believe that governments are not doing enough (some have used the word “betrayed”). Climate anxiety, doomism, and futurephobia are growing mental health concerns that schools and medical professionals cannot ignore.

There is no reason futurephobia won’t soon be a word we hear every day. Maggie Favretti writes that it “comes from low self- and shared efficacy and agency, or not being able to make things happen in order to meet our needs.” This goes much further than climate anxiety. A few minutes of doom-scrolling are enough to imagine the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping this way. The sentiment that it’s all too much, too difficult, too scary can be overwhelming.

Systemic school change feels like that to many of us, because it’s not just schools we’re trying to change, it’s the dominant narrative that includes how we organize socio-economically and politically around the world. It’s also a re-writing of this dominant narrative and a change in human consciousness. Not a small task. As overwhelming as systemic school change might seem, it pales in comparison to the global narrative and human consciousness.

Something is off. Maybe it’s in the information with which we are constantly bombarded: notifications, news feeds, 24/7 cycles… all of which are hardwired into a system that makes money every time it captures our attention. It’s not like humanity hasn’t faced crises before: the plagues, countless wars, and almost every religion tells a story about the end of the world. Something feels different this time; the conditions are such that we feel a collective existential malaise*. Some will fear the possibility of responding to the challenge and others will pretend that the threat doesn’t exist, thereby negating the impetus for rewriting the narrative.

Perhaps we can fight climate anxiety by taking climate action, so long as we feel our actions can have an impact. With such seemingly overwhelming forces against us—including popular morning shows—where do we even start? This sense of helplessness, this feeling that it’s all too big and hard, is enough to stop us before we begin.

Nonetheless, schools haven’t stood still. Many have brought the climate crisis into the curriculum (less so the extinction crisis). Yet, we need to be careful that incrementally better doesn’t get in the way of best. While it is wonderful that these conversations are taking place, if we continue to fragment the problem along traditional organizational lines, breaking it up into curricular units, categorized initiatives, or ring-fenced goals, we will not reverse disaster. The climate crisis is one contributor to the systemic meta-crisis. There are others: extinction, scarcity, famine, poverty, disease, alienation, and war… each is connected to others as a misallocation of resources because each is nested within the larger whole, the meta-crisis. Thinking in traditional fragments will not resolve anything.

We too are nested in the system.

That is why in order to change the system, we have to change ourselves from an inner glance to an outward gaze. Sometimes the inner work goes beyond us as individuals. Sometimes the inner work is the work we do as a community because we are the community. We emerge from I to We.  

Sustainability and regeneration are not checkboxes. We need to do the inner work alongside the outer work so that they converge. Sustainability and regeneration are ongoing ways of life, for life, forever.

Let’s face it, even with the best intentions, students at the local school won’t solve the climate crisis. They won’t save the rainforests and they won’t be able to provide drinking water to the 2.2 billion people who lack it. They can’t do it alone no matter how hard they try. This is how the feeling of “low self- and shared efficacy and agency” takes shape (that doesn’t mean that every little contribution doesn’t help!).

To fight futurephobia, we have to feel successful, we have to feel like our actions matter. This means channeling the creative energy within the tension between the infinite virtual and the increasingly small physical worlds. If we try to do too much, we won’t feel that success. That creative energy will not be enough to achieve the change we want and hopelessness will set in. The process is all about small and planned changes with a long view of the ultimate goal.

I ended the previous chapter intending to address the question: How does the notion of “smaller physical worlds (bio-locality)” extend to broader educational and social endeavors such as climate action, sustainability/regeneration, and human happiness?

We shouldn’t tackle these broader educational and social endeavors as the big entities they are, not directly at least. The key to creating the context for change at a global level is to understand how smaller living systems are embedded into larger ones. There are strategies for contributing in a small way to a much larger and seemingly overwhelming challenge if one understands the organic connections between the two.

It’s all about fractals, those self-similar entities that are identical across different scales, like snowflakes, crystals, or romanesco broccoli. We fight futurephobia when we feel we can make a difference. Rather than becoming disheartened when we try to change the larger system all at once, we can work on what we can affect, what is in front of us, around us, in us, and see this effort reverberate throughout the larger system. If enough of us take action on the smaller scale, change will emerge on the larger scale, like a fractal, like a Sierpiński triangle (below). This is how we change the system—not directly the larger system, but one of the many smaller systems that together make up the larger system: enough actions create a ripple and then a wave, maybe a tsunami. 

Sierpiński triangle

Sierpiński triangle

In the smaller physical world, places of becoming (we can keep the word “schools,” but they will be barely recognizable from their nineteenth-century model) will be centered around and value relationships that lead to thriving. These relationships will be nourished with trust, kindness, listening, care, mutuality, and reciprocity, among other qualities. As an example, the more seasoned learner in the physical space will guide the younger learners through their virtual experiences, helping them identify, curate, and manage information and virtual relationships while making sure that they are safe and grow healthfully. Each will have a role in building community, connecting with the community, and providing that caring hand that we all need to feel like we belong.

Through these concurrent small-scale actions, we can reverse climate disaster, extinction, and suffering and take steps toward not just human happiness, but the thriving of all life, the entirety of the bio-collective—all living things that have an interest in the healthfulness of the planet. All the small-scale actions lead to larger-scale changes. 

The relationships we have with each person and each living thing are no different from the relationships we have with all living things and the earth because we all belong to the larger living system that is the universe. The relationships we have with our immediate surroundings and the living things within them require the same nourishing elements as the relationship we have with larger living systems: our region, our species, all species, the earth, and the universe. We move from smaller to larger and back to smaller systems.

A school will be where we nurture relationships, alongside other schools whether a few or a thousand miles away, alongside other communities, other regions, everywhere. The love and care upon which relationships thrive locally, regionally, nationally, and will extend globally, together, like fractals**.

This is from quantum physics and ancient wisdom: Relationships are not “things.” We are not things. We are unlimited possibilities that only exist through our relationships. Relationships are dynamic. They are energy and that energy can flow through the web of life because nothing exists outside of that web.

Our relationships go farther than between individuals. Since nothing exists outside of the web of life, we can go from I to We when we include all members of the bio-collective. From there, the We dissolve and we become At One with All, another fractal model.

We have a long way to go to reach this worldview; in fact, we may never get there and it may always remain aspirational. Yet shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the highest aspirations? Shouldn’t we seek to move toward the horizon? Not directed by individual reason as Hegel saw it, but emerging through the thriving relationships between all members of the bio-collective (the wisdom of crowds, so to speak).

We can make those day-to-day interactions count, we can nurture more meaningful and healthy relationships, and we can use them to change our world, like fractals. If we model, if we care for the quality of our interactions, if many of us act in ways that lead to thriving of the ecosystem, owning our newly-discovered values (that perhaps were there all along), then we can reverberate throughout the bigger system, augmenting certain relationships in the feedback loops, creating stress from the inside. If this happens enough, the quake will be felt across the web. Fractals. 

We don’t have to despair that we cannot change the whole system. For the past 120 years, individuals and groups have tried to change the education system but have found success only in pockets. That’s okay too. The education system doesn’t stand on its own and is itself nested in the cultural, socio-economic, political, and many other systems. We have to appreciate that and in this find hope, hope realized through action, as Joanne McEachen points out.

So what do we do? We start with what appears to be small in size but is actually big with respect to impact, Enormous. We find people of similar ilk, a tribe, and we ask ourselves who we are and what we value, and we live accordingly. That is how we change and that is how the change will reverberate throughout the systems. Trying to change the bigger system in one swoop comes from mechanistic, technocratic thinking… as if a few policies will change things, as if that will magically ensure that everyone now shifts their values. Write up a policy and abracadabra! People and cultures shift. That doesn’t happen at a school level and that won’t happen at a government level. We can’t even get the system to stay pro-choice when 80% of Americans support a woman’s right to abortion in most cases. This talk of changing the system… those who want to change it don’t even agree on the details. Why has every single revolutionary movement had bloody periods of infighting? If the “agents of change” can’t agree, how will they convince others? Patience and small groups will organically change people’s mindsets so systemic change can become a reality.

We can start small, local—sometimes very local, with ourselves and our immediate surroundings. This leads to liberation: the beauty here is that this doesn’t belong at the level of theory, this doesn’t remain somewhere boxed up in an ivory tower with no connection to the day-to-day experience in a classroom. This can happen every moment at the grassroots level. This can happen immediately.

We can contribute in an infinite number of ways. We can take the time to slow down and listen deeply to another, we can make the effort to smile when we say hello to our neighbor, and we can offer someone a helping hand across the street. We can organize a walk-a-thon to help neighborhood stray animals, we can lend someone a hand to build a website to advertise local organic produce, and we can spend time answering questions from a class of students to guide them in setting up a composting system. 

Every moment is an opportunity to be at one with all. This is a way of approaching relationships and life. 

This is the freedom that we experience when we realize that we are becomings. We can act with intention and break with the patterns of the past (karma). We can nurture relationships of love and care with our neighbors and when we do so every day, every moment, we embrace the notion of thriving fractals and we nurture relationships of love and care with the earth.

By cultivating local relationships, with ourselves, with other living things in our area, with the bio-locality, this is how the smaller physical worlds in which schools will exist can contribute to healing the relationships that have led to climate crisis, extinction, and suffering. This is how we mitigate futurephobia. We start small, every day, and this will lead to bigger things. We think and act in ways that contribute to the thriving of the bio-collective.

It takes inner work. It takes going beyond banning plastic straws and plastic cups. It takes a different kind of relationship with each other and the earth. It is about the values and the actions that are life-affirming, that help the bio-collective thrive. Sure, we ban plastic straws, but we also buy local, buy less, slow down, treat each other and ourselves with kindness, consider what the earth gives us as a gift and not a right, appreciate that we are all unique and that there is no one path and that standardization is for machines, not living things.

This will happen over the long term, but it can also start right now. We can break the patterns of the past and nourish our relationships with each other with caring and love. We can at this very moment act with kindness toward all living things and this will reverberate, through the effects of fractals, into the world.

There is a sort of untenability to our existence when it comes to holding these highest of values, to paraphrase Nietzsche, but how else can we live, how else can we act, and how should we hold our intentions?

Schools have the opportunity to be the places where relationships begin the process of healing the planet, international conflicts, socio-economic and racial tensions, and our connections to the natural world. The shifts that technology will bring will accelerate this, but we can act now. When we act and when we have hope, we fight futurephobia. Seeing the benefits of our local actions feeds our hope, which in turn gives us the energy to act. We need not tackle everything. We need not be afraid.

Every moment is an opportunity to be at one with all.

In the following chapter, we will look at how values, intentions, action, and reflection have a circular relationship with one another. There are regenerative possibilities in these relationships if we are present and aware. This is the inner work that each of us, each school, each organization, can do at each moment, toward an emerging—not a set—vision of what we want to become. 

* I wonder if there is more of a collective feeling today, different from the individualistic nihilism or anomie that Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, and Sartre wrote about.

** This is the Buddhist concept of contact (local and immediate) and co-dependent origination (global and historical).

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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