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Climate emergency declaration for the ELT industry

At last weekend’s Innovate conference I declared a climate emergency on behalf of the ELT industry. The causes of the unfolding global environmental disaster and the threat it presents to our survival and to the living planet will be familiar to you all. You’re probably already changing the way you doing things in your personal lives: walking, cycling and taking public transport more, reusing plastics, eating less meat. But we need to address climate breakdown and biodiversity loss in the ELT industry, too, because it has a significant environmental impact. In this post I’d like to do four things:

  • identify areas of the industry which present a threat to the natural world and to a carbon-negative future, and invite members of the ELT community to suggest others.
  • make a distinction between small-scale individual and large-scale institutional action.
  • suggest ways that we can begin to address these threats, and again, ask you to fill in the gaps.
  • invite teachers, trainers, school managers, writers, publishers, examiners, and all involved in English language teaching to participate in the discussion using the hashtag #ELTfootprint so that we can organise, strategize and implement.

How does the ELT industry harm the planet?

The two points below are ways I see ELT contributing to the problem. They are here to help to start define our fight only; I’m sure they won’t be exhaustive, and I’m not even claiming they are necessarily the most significant factors, either; they are just two illustrations of our part in the climate crisis.

The first concerns the way that English is ‘sold’ around the world as a passport to success. Schools and exams thrive by promoting the idea that a mastery of English will empower individuals in a competitive employment market, help them become global citizens and give them a boost to achieve economic success. This aspirationalism is visible in some published courses, too, where entrepreneurs are held up as role models for students, lottery winners are celebrated and envied, and a jetsetter’s lifestyle is within all of our grasp. Individual wealth is the goal, and consumerism is an end in itself.

The huge disparities we are seeing between rich and poor are exacerbated by the runaway success of this attitude in recent decades, codified in law and business practices. This contributes to climate breakdown in two ways: by effectively outsourcing damage to the natural world to poorer countries (by shipping waste overseas, for example) and therefore hiding it from the view of those responsible, which is to say those of us in the developed world; and by encouraging us to keep consuming despite the hurt we are causing.

Another way I can see how the ELT industry damages the planet is in the physical organisation of structures such as publishing, examinations and conferences. Course books are manufactured in places often on the opposite side of the globe from their point of sale; they are marketed as glossy, high-end products and packaged in no-use plastic wrapping. They are distributed around the world, after which publishers encourage institutions to use them just once and buy new the following year. Examiners are flown around the world to assess and standardise. Students are encouraged to travel to English-speaking countries to improve their chances of success. International speakers are flown around the world to sell products such as books, exams and software with little or no regard to the cost to nature.

What can we do?

Here are specific examples of grassroots activism. They have come from classroom or backroom communities in ELT such as teachers, students and writers, and they rely on social media to get the word round. They are relatively straightforward issues with solutions that feel within our grasp. They are springing up as I write these words, and I can’t keep up with it all!

  • Several writers are looking at ways for writers across the industry to apply pressure and work with publishers and other sponsors to reduce plastic waste in book distribution and conference organisation.
  • Teachers in schools are finding ways to eradicate once and for all the nightmare of photocopy waste in staff rooms.
  • ELT Teacher 2 Writer are suggesting the industry adopts a style guide change so that we no longer use euphemistic expressions such as ‘global warming’ or ‘natural resources’ but refer to ‘global heating’ (not so pleasant sounding for people in cold climes!) and ‘the living planet’.
  • Already well-established long before this moment, the Language of the Sea Project describes itself on Facebook as an educational environmental-awareness project organised by four language school associations in the north of Spain. Together they mobilised more than 1400 students to clean beaches in four regions of the north coast of Spain on 4th May of this year.

I will have omitted important groups, events and movements here, for which I apologize. Please share what you are doing in your context. Remember, #ELTfootprint !

It’s vital we celebrate and contribute to the incredible effort these people are making. However, if we are to tackle greenhouse gas pollution and climate breakdown at its root, we need to acknowledge the enormous carbon footprint of air travel, which produces at least four times as many greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per passenger per kilometre as road travel, even of a single-occupant car. Large international conferences mean literally millions of air miles as delegates, speakers and companies pour into venues from around the globe. Living and teaching abroad implies much greater geographical mobility for the industry’s workforce in general. Publishing logistics involves huge distances in transit. The globalised society that we support by helping people around the world talk to one another is largely responsible for this mess.

Privately most of us realise that tackling this properly will take such a massive transformation in the way we live and work that it is hard to envisage or act on. Nevertheless, I can imagine ways we can help at this macro level, as long as we focus on our own sphere of work: the ELT industry. Together we can, for example, rethink conferences. We can fundamentally redefine what they are and how they work. Technology such as videoconferencing will go some way to reducing the footprint of big events, but ultimately a new mindset promoting and celebrating the local rather than the international will be required. We can apply pressure on employers to recruit from the local job market. And the good news is that this will solve other issues within our field such as native speakerism; as international speakers travel less and local practitioners start to take their place in teacher development, talks will become more relevant to the local context, the prestige of local trainers will rise, many of them non-native speakers of English, and other innovations will take place to best suit the local teaching context.

There’s not much I feel I can do about the oil industry, energy companies and Silicon Valley giants’ practices, but I realise now that I do have a role to play in my own corner of the world. I hope you do, too.

Please use #ELTfootprint whenever and wherever you talk about it!

Photo credit: Jamie Lorriman / Alamy Stock Photo

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