Interview: Ben Rawlence, CEO of Black Mountains College

Environment Journal sat down with Ben Rawlence, Chief Executive and Founder of Black Mountains College (BMC), to discuss the importance of education in combatting the climate crisis.

Black Mountains College, a green skills and sustainability institution, hosts several different courses, from teacher training to vocational courses in regenerative horticulture.

Now its in the running to win a prestigious award from climate charity Ashden for its innovation in environmental education. 

At the college a series of short courses are on offer, including A New Story which teaches people how to take meaningful action and align their values with their professional and personal life.

Accessibility is key to the college, with subsidies available for short courses and free vocational training and further education through Welsh statutory funding, as well as accommodation for those with disabilities.

Ben, who was a teacher at the University of London and the University of Chicago, decided to start the college after working in Africa for over a decade.

While there, the author and journalist, wrote about the lives of refugees from the biggest camp in Africa for a book, The Horn of Africa, as he witnessed climate destruction first hand.

‘I decided to put my energy into education and a new educational institution that would build new leaders and teach the kind of skills we need for action and adaptation,’ he explains

‘I’ve seen the future in the Horn of Africa and that future is coming to hit us here. Much, much sooner than everybody realises. ’

After gaining funding from Brecon Beacons National Park and the National Lottery, the college began teaching in 2021 after delays during the pandemic.

Ben’s experiences in Africa were instructive, since he saw directly how the climate crisis exacerbated existing social tensions in Africa, resulting in collapsed governments and conflicts. 

‘We are very good at predicting our science and predicting future environmental situations and conditions,’ says Ben. ‘But social science is really bad at predicting human futures and how human systems will respond. Africa in this respect is instructive because it doesn’t take very much to jeopardise the normal functioning of political and economic systems. We have seriously underestimated the disruptive impacts that that kind of stress has, like the cost of living crisis – inflation is a natural consequence of climate change.

‘There is an urgent need to educate people with transferable skills for a very uncertain future. Politics and economics are a key part of that because young people need to see hope. Part of hope is having options and seeing that there are alternatives for change. That means we have to understand how power works and we have to explain that to people, so that they can see viable ways to engage.’

Students at the college can also study the BMC degree, offered in partnership with Cardiff Metropolitan University, which is unique as a Bachelor of Arts rooted in ecology.

Just like the other courses available, it doesn’t just study ecology, but evaluates politics and the arts, questions current social systems and invents new ways of living to combat climate breakdown.

Other curriculums, like the government’s recently announced natural history GCSE, neglect significant factors which contribute to climate breakdown, according to Ben.

‘The changing climate is something that reframes the context for everything else and it’s so important that it doesn’t belong as an individual subject,’ Ben tells Environment Journal. ‘It belongs as the unifying theme of a whole curriculum. A serious climate curriculum would look at wellbeing, empathy, communication, collaboration and all of the subjects within that. An honest national curriculum based in science would say that we are going to hit two degrees in the next 20 to 40 years, we’re going to hit 1.5 degrees in the next 10 to 20 which means we need massive systems change. All of the things that we teach, need to be informed by that reality. It’s not the topic of a single GCSE and it’s already sidestepping the difficult stuff.’

Public messaging also has a big role to play and hasn’t been used nearly enough to inform the public on how climate catastrophe can be halted, despite article 12 of the Paris Agreement requiring governments  to raise public awareness.

‘When COVID-19 was emerging, the government spent a lot of money educating the public about how to stop transmission and how to comply with the regulations. When we had the AIDS crisis we had really scary adverts on TV telling everybody to change their behaviour. But we’ve had no nothing like that on climate change,’ adds Ben. ‘If governments did invest even a tiny amount of money in article 12, educating and informing, we would see a very different political landscape that would then build pressure and momentum to meet the other more ambitious goals of lowering emissions and changing systems. In my module, that I will teach on the undergraduate course, the theory of change starts with public education, the broader social discourse and the role of the government in leading and shaping.’

The premise of BMC is to provide people with the necessary skills to survive in a climate impacted world.

As temperatures continue to rise, Ben believes more and more industries will have to take into account the climate and consider ways to reduce their environmental impact.

‘Soon there’s not going to be any distinction between green skills and skills, there’s just going to be skills and one of those core skills is going to be climate literacy and ecological literacy. If you want to be an engineer, you’re going to have to consider the effects of warming on all your materials. You know, the effect of ecological change on how this concrete is going to sit. If you’re a lawyer in insurance you’re going to be looking at all sorts of climate impacted aspects of that job. So, I think my number one message would be that that it’s all skills, it’s not just particular green skills, but by the same token, it necessitates a complete rebalancing of investment and focus in training.’

The role education can play in the fight to bring temperatures down is immense and has not been explored enough, as of yet.

Ben expects the sector to grow in the years to come, with schools, colleges and universities offering more programmes aimed at improving climate literacy.

‘I think we’re already seeing that,’ he says. ‘There are 12 new climate change degrees starting this year at UK universities. There is a massive demand among young people to see sustainability and climate relevance mainstream to their education and universities will respond to that student demand.’

Photo by Ben Rawlence 


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