Where’s the Green among the Red in theories of learning and teaching?

16 Mar 2022

Dr Simon Boxley (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood Studies, and Head of the Centre for Climate Change Action and Education) contributed a chapter in the Encyclopaedia of Marxism and Education (Brill, 2022) which seeks to define the field of Green Marxism. In this blog, Simon explores this topic in more detail and calls for the intersection of green and Marxist theories to be incorporated more thoroughly into academic studies of pedagogy.

Our study of learning and teaching, and our programmes of initial teacher education and education studies, have seen plenty of hours dedicated to Marxist and Marxist-inspired ideas over the years, and still today most students will have met some of these before they graduate. We can be far less certain that undergraduates will have encountered very many Green and ecological theorists of education in their studies; and of the synthesis of these two great fields, we can be pretty confident they will have met none (unless they happen to take one of my optional modules!).

Whence the Green?

It is worth saying at the outset that the term ‘Green’, as a political label, is one that Marxists may legitimately stake a claim on creating. Specifically, back in Sydney, Australia in the early 1970’s, the notable communist trade union leader Jack Mundey used the term ‘green bans’ to describe the policy of his New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation to prioritise community spaces and natural heritage, and prevent unsustainable development at their expense. He saw his communism and his environmentalism as inseparable. Visited by those who would go on to form the German Green Party, the word ‘Green’ as a powerful political term was borrowed and applied back in Europe, and the rest is history – the UK Ecology Party, for example, changing its name to the Green Party in 1985.

But, that’s an aside. Although Marxist and ecological theories have always intertwined – right back to Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, and Marx’s writings on soil, agriculture and ground rent – the educational application of this synthesis has only come into its own, with the awareness of the impacts of environmental crises, since the 1990’s.

Fencing the Field

When I was asked to provide an entry on Green Marxism for the groundbreaking Encyclopaedia of Marxism and Education (Brill, 2022), I found that this soil had indeed only recently been tilled. Moreover, the shoots of the theory had yet to be labelled. And so, as I viewed the propagators of these ideas, I set about sorting and organising. The result was an entry which seeks to define the field.

Many but not all of the innovations in Green Marxist theory of education have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been associated with the traditional Critical Pedagogy and Critical Theory, with whom many an education student will be familiar. However, it would be a mistake to assume that these ideas, hailing from Brazil and Germany respectively, represent the sole origins of ecosocialist educational ideas.

Indian Ecological Marxism, for example, gives the lie to the Eurocentric myth that green left politics is the preserve of the white, highly educated middle class. In the Indian Subcontinent as in South America, Ecological Marxism has been the necessary response of the oppressed to the destruction of their common inheritance. This was exemplified by the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini, who played a part in that most famous of Indian environmental movements, the Chipko andolan, the original ’tree-huggers’.

Where’s the Eco Theory?

What of theory of education? I consider it disappointing, if not surprising, that many of the important innovations in ecosocialist and Green Marxist theory over recent years have been applied infrequently and insubstantially to our ways of thinking about learning and teaching. Are we not, after all, in the midst of an ecological crisis unprecedented during humanity’s tenure on the Earth? And does the education of our youth not take place against the unavoidable backdrop of this crisis? If learners are inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg, Mari Copeny and Vanessa Nakate, then should our educational theory not address their pressing concerns?

When will we start incorporating ideas of the intersection of green and Marxist theory more thoroughly into our academic studies of education and schooling?

When we do, we could do worse than beginning with some of the writers I refer to in my Green Marxism entry in the Encyclopaedia. There is a wide array of theory here, and part of my job was to develop a taxonomy of schools of thought. With heavy provisos, clear overlaps and a lot of provisionality, I suggested (1) critical/revolutionary critical ecopedagogy, (2) ecosocialist pedagogy, (3) total liberation pedagogies and (4) deeper green variants.

However, little recognised these schools of thought may be by the general reader, what they have in common in an exploration of themes that should be of interest to all. Take, for example, ‘reproductive labour’.

Labour capacity within ‘neoliberal’ capitalist economies has come to be defined by a foundational level of not only literacy and numeracy, but also technical acuity. To own a capacity to labour which can be sold for a wage in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, is to own a portfolio of skills, often represented by the proxy of a certificate of educational attainment, say a degree.

What are the essential conditions for the production of this labour capacity? Now, as in the past, they include the unpaid work of parents and carers, very often women, and the low-paid work of educators. The reproduction of this labour capacity requires, at base, a set of ‘natural’ processes – sex, birthing, weaning, feeding, rearing and so on that form part of wider sociobiological systems: nature’s reproductive labour. Capital exists as part of and within all of these systems insofar as, within contemporary economies, they function as a means towards the effective accumulation and circulation of capital – put simply, they are turned into ways to buy, sell, commodify, make money.

A central role for a Green Marxist theory of education is to explain these processes. But explanation is not enough. It must also demonstrate how pedagogical interventions at any stage of the reproductive processes can disrupt and undermine the interests of capital, whilst at the same time promoting the interests of ecosystems up to and including the biosphere.

Take milk. Our four-year-olds receive it ‘for free’, yet a group of children I was recently working with were concerned not only with the usual problem – its plastic packaging – but also its production. Why are we providing schools with milk which is tipped down the drain? Who makes money from this? How is milk production contributing to global warming? Whilst primary school children may have less interested in ‘production for need, not profit’ than ‘cow farts’, the pedagogical intervention remains the same – how to help empower young people to challenge unnecessary and environmentally damaging production.

Educational ideas and practice at the intersection of Green and socialist theory have much to offer to contemporary teachers and learners. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to expand their circulation with a first-of-its-kind encyclopaedia entry.

Find out more: Boxley, S. (2022) Green Marxism. In Maisuria (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Marxism and Education. Leiden: Brill, pp 322-340.

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