Today we face not only the global health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the cascading effects of inequalities, racial and colonial violence, climate crises and biodiversity loss, economic austerity, precarity and instability, mental health crises, political polarization, large-scale human migration, and more. While some still see the current pandemic as just a temporary interruption of a recoverable familiar normality, others, like Inuit artist Taqralik Partridge, caution that COVID-19 could be just the “warning shots” of a major storm humanity will need to weather together. Whether the global pandemic will reshape “normality” is no longer in question, more important practical questions are: To what extent?  How is this going to exacerbate inequalities? What will be the ecological impact of these changes? And if this pandemic indeed gestures towards more waves of disruption and instability to come, how do we prepare people to engage in sober, creative and responsible ways with the major traumatic disruptions in their cognitive, affective, relational, economic and ecological environments – or “the end of the world as we know it”?

The discipline of education, in its different modalities (formal, non-formal, informal, higher, alternative, etc.), has historically been tasked with steering learning towards objectives that could secure human survival as well as the reproduction of cultural norms and ideals. However, this double mandate becomes paradoxical when the reproduction of dominant cultural ideals poses a threat to human survival. This paradox is illustrated by Luis Prádanos, who asked, in a recent blog about the future of higher education: “[I]s it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival?” Prádanos argues that it is unwise to approach education in a way that presumes the continuity of our existing system, because the continuation of that system will ultimately cause us to exceed the biophysical limits of the planet. Instead, he suggests, “education would better serve students in particular and all humans in general if our teaching and research methods stop perpetuating the cultural paradigm that brought us to the brink of extinction and start encouraging students to imagine and create alternatives to it.”

With a more recent history, the trans-disciplinary area of social innovation has taken up the task of addressing this paradox by tackling “wicked” social problems systemically, in ways that can also rapidly shift cultural norms at the root of social problems. However, research demonstrates that unless innovation is informed by a deep understanding of the historical complexity of both eco-social systems and the politics of social innovation itself, it risks reproducing harmful theories of change and practices that gave rise to the very crises they seek to manage. Indeed, due to unreflective paradigms of both social innovation and education, many well-meaning (and well-funded) initiatives reproduce (1) simplistic understandings of global problems and potential solutions, (2) paternalistic relationships between dominant and marginalised populations, and (3) ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, sustainability, responsibility and change.

This project brings together a group of 30 collaborators in the areas of education and social innovation to explore the challenges of preparing different groups in society for the “end of the world as we know it”. This group of researchers, professionals, policy advisors, NGO practitioners, and students all cooperate separately, and in different ways with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Future arts/research collective based at UBC (decolonialfutures.net). This team will examine the cognitive, affective, relational, economic and ecological dimensions of social learning and transformation “otherwise”. While the thematic areas will be negotiated with the group, likely topics include confronting denials, learning from human wrongs, building complexity capabilities and capacity to hold space for difficult and painful topics, and supporting critical forms of alternative engagements with (frameworks for imagining) alternatives.

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