A Compass for Survival

Universities, ecological collapse and depth education

‘A genuinely different future depends much less on the images we create in our heads than on our ability to repair and to weave different relations in the present’ (Chief  Ninawa Hun Kui). In this penetrating essay, artist and lecturer Mat Osmond looks at what the disruption and dissent of activism brings to a fossil-fuelled ecocidal civilisation. What is the true role of education when generations are being betrayed by the  sleepwalking consumer culture that fosters them?
is a writer and artist based in Falmouth, Cornwall where he teaches at the University. He is co-director of the Dartington-based eco-arts collective art.earth with whom he convened a 2021 online summit on ecological grief and death cultures, Borrowed Time: On Death, Dying and Change. Mat has been a Dark Mountain contributor since 2009.

I don’t have any innate attraction to what most people understand by activism, but the thing that’s changed, for me, is that some kind of line has been crossed: that activism is no longer one of the things that a person might do, who cares about these issues. It’s become the only intelligible response to a situation in which an act of collective madness is running unchecked, and all of the usual methods by which democratic and orderly societies make good decisions, have failed.

– Dr Carmody Grey, 2022 


Ecological citizenship

Back in May I helped to organise a talk in Falmouth for the campaign group Just Stop Oil. We were joined by child psychiatrist Dr Lynne Jones, who works in establishing mental health projects for young refugees. Lynne’s talk The Climate Crisis is a Refugee Crisis: What can we do? opened with its one slide referencing global heating but got no further than that. A man in the front row began shouting about disinformation as he unplugged the projector and climbed up on stage, announcing that he was shutting us down. After thanking the man for choosing to act nonviolently, Lynne finally delivered her talk in the beer garden behind the venue while a small crew remained inside to attend to our guest on his now empty stage. 

I already knew this man as a heckler, who follows Just Stop Oil’s local mobilisation with a keen interest. What had tipped him into active disruption, it seems, was that his 15-year-old son had been looking forward to the world snooker final in Sheffield and was understandably upset by what happened shortly after it began. Processing the evening’s events later, we agreed that within the predictable script he spouted from the stage this man did have one good point. ‘You people are all about disruption?’ he shouted, ‘OK then, I’m going to disrupt you – and we’ll see where disruption gets us.’

So what was 25-year-old student Eddie Whittingham actually disrupting when he climbed onto that snooker table at The Crucible theatre with a bag of orange powder – and what was the disruption meant to achieve? Behind the heat and noise they generate, such actions’ real work is surely to drag attention back to the uneasy silence now haunting our cultural institutions – and haunting universities in particular – concerning their complicity in an intergenerational betrayal beyond reckoning. That the dismemberment of a liveable future is playing out as a slow violence makes it harder to grasp. That doesn’t make it any less real.

From September 2023 a working group of students and staff here at Falmouth University are embarking on an educational experiment we’ve titled Ecological Citizenship. The idea was catalysed by the End Fossil student occupation of our main lecture theatre last autumn, and by the student-led Peoples Assemblies which have ensued from it. The situation which this venture speaks to is commonly referred to as ‘a climate and ecological crisis’, a phrase which conveniently omits to mention the essential cultural basis of this catastrophe.

As Durham University’s Professor Carmody Grey puts it, the more troubling dilemma confronting us in 2023 is why, ever since the cliff-edge before them became clearly visible around 50 years ago, industrial consumer societies everywhere have broken into a sprint directly towards it? This isn’t a question much helped by a more nuanced understanding of the IPCC’s politically diluted summary reports. What it does require is a better grasp of how our highly pliable ‘human nature’ has become so lethally maddened by the forces at play within industrialised modernity.



Thirty years ago, as that acceleration was gaining momentum, the great ecological educator David Orr published a book of essays called Earth in Mind. A core dilemma explored throughout Orr’s pedagogic essays was his dawning realisation that our flourishing Higher Education economy, far from fostering adequate responses to the ecological crisis, was in fact acting as a key driver of it. ‘On a planet with a collapsing biosphere’, Orr’s writing keeps asking us, ‘what’s education for?’.

Our flourishing Higher Education economy, far from fostering adequate responses to the ecological crisis, was in fact acting as a key driver of it.

In a January 2023 Harvard presentation Depth Education: confronting coloniality, navigating complexity and rewiring the unconscious the Brazilian academic Vanessa Andreotti both reprises Orr’s dilemma and offers a contemporary reply to it. As a mixed-heritage activist-scholar whose educational research centralises collaborations with and between indigenous communities, the foundational context of Andreotti’s work is that industrial modernity relies on an extractive and racialised systemic violence – a violence which it has become ever more adept at normalising, and whose inevitable endgame we now refer to as ‘a climate crisis’. As amply demonstrated by its curious response to that crisis, modernity as such is understood to be radically unsustainable – ‘beyond reform’ and in the process of dying.

Andreotti’s collaborative work, set out in her 2021 book Hospicing Modernity, positions itself in creative tension with the ‘mastery education’ endemic to our Higher Education economy. Mastery education offers students – which is to say, customers – educational products with ‘predictable learning outcomes’ designed ‘to enhance a person’s efficiency and skill within modernity’. It promises to instil competencies that will leave the student customer ‘hopeful, motivated, validated and satisfied’ as they graduate with a now suitably empowered individual self. 

Andreotti contrasts this familiar transactional approach with another, that she terms ‘depth education’. ‘While mastery education instigates the performance of learner’s self-expression’, she tells us, ‘depth education assumes we are unreliable narrators of our own experience’. Depth education invites us to ‘sit with difficulties’, to ‘activate accountability and responsibility before will’, and to ‘disinvest in harmful desires’. While it may not promise to ‘respect learner’s preferences’, what depth education can offer is a means by which to ‘disarm affective landmines’, to hold space for ‘the good, the bad, the broken and the messed up’ in each other lives, and to ‘become open to being taught in unexpected ways’. Of the various ideas used to frame this parallel current in our learning, the one on my mind here is that what depth education entails us in is a communal process of ‘un-numbing’.

In the Q&A that followed her Harvard presentation, one of the audience spoke of their work with under-14s suffering from ecological anxiety and despair. What advice might Andreotti have, they asked, for those trying to help young people to navigate a situation which seems so utterly devoid of hope? In her reply Andreotti used a memorable image to describe the work that she and her collaborators are engaged in. ‘What our work seeks to offer these young people’, she answered, ‘is that we learn together what it means to hold the hand of pain – to hold it without throwing up, without throwing a tantrum, without attaching to the pain, without identifying with the pain, and without getting up and walking out.’


Returning home

The decolonial reflections set out in Hospicing Modernity are punctuated by stories from Andreotti’s life – the encounters and the people that now inform her work. In one of these, Returning Home, she recounts a near-fatal car accident she suffered when she was 21, and the prolonged depression which followed it – a depression that eventually led her, unsure whether to continue living, to turn to her indigenous grandmother’s extended Guarani community for help.

What depression kept returning her to wasn’t the accident itself, but the callousness of some of those it brought her into contact with. The anger which underlay her depression wasn’t with these individuals themselves, though, but rather at the miserable state at which we’d arrived as a society, which required people to so numb themselves just to cope with living. It was in her encounter with this dehumanising indifference that the accident taught Andreotti something which has remained crucial to her life ever since: she saw that she was not ultimately reliant on the approval or acceptance of other human beings, and that it was her primary responsibility to ‘put the oxygen mask on herself first’ if she was to be of any use to others. 

The anger which underlay her (Andreotti’s) depression wasn’t with these individuals but rather at the miserable state at which we’d arrived as a society, which required people to so numb themselves just to cope with living.

During her subsequent conversations with the Guarani community, Andreotti found herself repeatedly asked to tell the story of her accident. She recalls how the ‘unusual questions’ they put to her drew out new aspects of the experience with each telling – details and textures which she hadn’t previously noticed or considered. After one such retelling, one of the elders set out on another long story concerning a historic rite of passage within their community. As the young reached adulthood they were buried naked in the ground and a funeral was held over their exposed heads. They were then left in the ground for four days. On the second and third day the community returned only to spit and hurl insults at them, all of which they were to receive in silence. On the fourth day their soiled bodies were taken from the earth and washed by the community, before a celebration and dream-sharing marked the end of their rite of passage.

Initially troubled by what seemed to her the traumatising violence of this ceremony, Andreotti was told that its role was to prepare young indigenous people for the inescapable and lifelong violence they would endure at the hands of the dominant colonial culture, that was also now poisoning the bodies and minds of colonised communities. What the ceremony intended, she learned, was that the young people involved come to know themselves held by their own metabolic entanglement in the living land, and as such, reliant neither on others’ approval nor on human narratives of self-worth for their right to exist. 

Coming to understand this ceremony’s relevance to her own experience, Andreotti tells us, offered her a compass for surviving the systemic violence endemic to modernity, one that’s saved her life many times. It was this connection that seeded the Hospicing Modernity project, as she began to seek ways to make this radical groundedness accessible to young people living in metropolitan societies, largely separated from a direct experience of their own entanglement in the living land.

Fly posted Exit door: End Fossil Falmouth University occupation, November 2022


Up to our necks

One thing our Ecological Citizenship venture shares with Andreotti’s work is an understanding that the self-amplifying nest of crises we face is not a problem, but rather a predicament. The locked-in acceleration of climate and ecological collapse, and of the runaway growth economy driving both, find us buried up to our necks, as it were, and unable to simply dig ourselves out through more of the innovative cleverness that got us here. Unlike a problem, what a predicament calls for is not a solution but a response. As to what manner of response-ability a university might bring to this collective predicament, there’s a detail of Andreotti’s story that might offer a good place to start. That detail is the way in which the Guarani community’s attentive questioning kept drawing out new aspects of what had happened to her, and of what the experience had taught her about living. 

Might not a university’s primary responsibility before this so-called climate crisis be to foster an observant, reflexive attention to what’s actually at play here, including within these burgeoning activist campaigns?

Might not a university’s primary responsibility before this so-called climate crisis be to foster an observant, reflexive attention to what’s actually at play here, including within these burgeoning activist campaigns?

In a recent message from Chelmsford prison as he begins a three-year sentence for his part in a banner drop on the Dartford Crossing, Eddie’s Whittingham’s Just Stop Oil colleague Morgan Trowland spoke of the judge’s palpable fury as he passed sentence on him. Morgan’s perspective was that the judge’s rage was in fact an encouraging sign. What depressed him far more was the patrician, eye-rolling dismissal with which these interventions are more commonly met. If we have any felt sense of what’s happening in our lifetimes, Morgan said, an upwelling of confusion, rage and grief is both natural and inevitable. A key aspect of what these disruptive interventions are attempting to achieve, then, as Morgan presents them, is a necessary societal process of un-numbing. 

In her Harvard lecture on depth education Andreotti spoke of her collaborations with the Brazilian activist and scholar Chief Ninawa Huni Kui, and of his critique of modernity’s fondness for ‘having a vision’. ‘A genuinely different future’, Chief Kui told her, ‘depends much less on the images we create in our heads than on our ability to repair and to weave different relations in the present’. Disrupting a high-profile sporting event may not present an obvious example of relational re-weaving and repair, but perhaps Eddie’s action can be seen as exactly that. The primary context of its disruption isn’t the terrifying implications of unchecked global heating, nor even solidarity with the millions whose lives are already being destroyed by it.

The action’s more immediate context is our insidious neoliberal ‘culture of uncare’, as psychologist Sally Weintrobe puts it: the systemic distraction and dissociation whose numbing effect enables its consumer citizens to know but to quietly ignore an escalating process of extermination being enacted in their name. In the face of this lethal collective gaslighting, what we see happening on that snooker table is precisely an act of ecological citizenship – an assertion of human relationality, accountability, and care.


A bomb disposer’s calm

Speaking to a decidedly secular gathering of Just Stop Oil activists in 2022, the Catholic theologian and philosopher Carmody Grey speculated that abstruse musings on the nature of the human at a moment of such overwhelming urgency might evoke a certain impatience in her audience. Her contention was that now more than ever we need to become better acquainted with this stranger in our midst: the anthropos at the heart of the Anthropocene.

To borrow a phrase from Nigerian ecological philosopher Bayo Akómaláfé, ‘the times are urgent, let us slow down’. What we need to cultivate, Grey suggested, is ‘a bomb disposer’s calm’: a state of observant attention that gathers into an ever more focussed absorption, the more immediate the danger. Andreotti’s praxis of depth education – ‘slow down to grow up’ – brings a grounded relational and intellectual rigour to this reparative work. It meets the challenge of disarming affective landmines with a humane criticality centred in honesty, humility, hyper self-reflexivity and humour, qualities that will be increasingly indispensable as we navigate the radically unpredictable death processes of the dominant culture. 

If we looked for ways to foster such attentive slowing-down within our universities, then acknowledging these institutions’ leading role in accelerating this polycrisis might be a good place to start. In doing so we may need to ask whether a neoliberal university can now with any credibility present itself as offering reliable solutions to the socioecological catastrophe that is neoliberalism. And if it turns out that a university as we’ve come to know it can offer no such thing, then what, as David Orr’s shade still stands here asking us, is it actually for?

Suppose we responded to Orr’s question by admitting none of us can see where things go from here? Perhaps our best reply would be to take stock of what’s being done in our name: to hold space for what this culture of manufactured indifference means – and for what it will mean – for others. As this polycrisis exponentially worsens, how will our universities answer to the confusion, pain and moral injury, and to the recovery from confusion, pain and moral injury, simultaneously at play in these youth-led activist campaigns? Our most basic compass in stepping up to this shared predicament may turn out to be a capacity for attentive, reflexive listening. Up to our necks we may be, but what we are not is alone. 

Perhaps our best reply would be to take stock of what’s being done in our name: to hold space for what this culture of manufactured indifference means  for others.

I want to end with a small example that brought some of this into focus for me. A few months ago I attended a follow-up meeting between Falmouth University management and the End Fossil student occupiers to discuss next steps. The meeting’s chair began by proposing that instead of speaking of this situation as a crisis it would be more constructive if we spoke of it in terms of ‘sustainability’. There followed several presentations to the End Fossil team, including one about the university’s ground-breaking new software, which can now detect any use of the word sustainability at every layer of its operation. The real failure here, the chair told them, was one of communication. How had it come to pass that the students found themselves occupying that lecture theatre without yet knowing about these great things that their university was already doing?

Linocut by Phil Green, Falmouth University End Fossil student mobiliser

When he’d finished, one of the End Fossil team leant towards him and said: ‘Thank you for that. If it’s OK I’d like to ask you a question. We’ve told you about a crisis overshadowing our whole lives, one threatening our very existence as a generation. In reply you’ve told us about the university’s new software and recycling policies. What I really want to know is, how does what we’ve told you make you feel?’


To join the growing campaign to end all new UK oil field licences: /juststopoil.org/ 


IMAGE: Standing Rock, Coming of the Black Snake by Christopher Benson
Oil on linen
Permanent Collection of the North Dakota Museum of Art
I made this painting in response to protests by  the Native American Standing Rock Sioux tribe against a proposed oil pipeline that would traverse their traditional lands and  watershed. It was a powerful, moving act of civil disobedience by a coalition of native peoples against an intrusive, environmentally destructive act of corporate capitalism. The event upset me so much that I felt compelled to make a picture about it, without knowing ahead of time exactly what form that picture would take. Instead of formulating some narrative tableau that would tell the viewer exactly how I wished for him or her to think about this issue, I imagined the place and began to make marks on the canvas that were expressive of the emotions I was having. It was immediately a picture of light and darkness at war with one another. Land and sky dominated the picture so much that I ended up leaving out any representation of either the pipeline builders or the  protesters themselves, save for the tiny image of a lone Sioux warrior on horseback confronting the storm. Almost immediately, a huge  black storm cloud formed above the land, which took the shape of a rearing serpent (the protesters referred to the pipeline as  the ‘Black Snake’ (from Issue 20 – ABYSS)

Christopher W. Benson is an American oil painter and an essayist, author, designer and publisher of artist’s books. Originally from New England, he has lived for much of the past 30 years in New Mexico and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Benson has exhibited in galleries on both coasts and in the western states since the late 1980s. His work is in private and museum collections throughout the US, as well as in private collections in Canada, Europe and the UK.


Machado de Oliveira (aka Andreotti), Vanessa, Hospicing Modernity: facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism, North Atlantic 2021

Orr, David, Earth in Mind: education, environment and the human prospect, Island 2004 (reprint)

Weintrobe, Sally, Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: neoliberal exceptionalism and the culture of uncare, Bloomsbury 2021 


Andreotti, Vanessa, Harvard University Canada Seminar January 2023, Depth Education: confronting coloniality, navigating complexity and rewiring the unconscious, https://edst.educ.ubc.ca/events/event/depth-education-confronting-coloniality-navigating- complexity-and-rewiring-the-unconscious 

Grey, Carmody with Extinction Rebellion 2022, Where do we find the Courage? https://www .youtube.com/watch?v=-CrlPCTZV oo&t=1 1s 

Grey, Carmody with Just Stop Oil 2023, The Ethical Basis of Civil Resistance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD6__9Rldi0&t=42s


Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS

Our Autumn 2021 journal is a special all-colour collection of art and writing that delves into the legacy of extractivism


Read more

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