By Phil Smith
Speaking 4 the Planet (S4P) is an arts-based approach to sustainability education. I designed it originally to be a competition for secondary school students as a way of celebrating youth voice on matters related to the planet and the future – their future.
Despite the criticisms being levelled at humanities and the arts in Australia right now, S4P is proudly an arts-based initiative that allows students to intertwine humanities and sciences, to philosophise about human actions, and to imagine a better world while standing deep in the science of the world they live in.
Youth marches and student strikes are the very public faces of (climate change) protest. Speaking 4 the Planet is an equally powerful opportunity for students to speak up and advocate for a healthy future - albeit at smaller personal and community scales.
The first S4P competition was at The Jannali High School on World Environment Day (WED), 5th June 2013. WED is the United Nations’ principal means of promoting awareness and protection of the environment. Since then, S4P has evolved to accommodate opportunities and regional sustainability priorities. It has been re-shaped and re-named as Kids 4 the Planet for primary schools and Speaking UP 4 the Planet for teacher education students at universities; and it has experimenting with new approaches and categories. Competition categories now include speaking, drama, art, writing (30 words!), memes, TikTok, and video.
The variety enables students to understand, represent, and express their views on issues in ways that best suit their interests and capacities.
Events have been run in metropolitan and regional NSW. This year, S4P is being piloted with a group of five local councils in the east of Melbourne. In 2019 and 2020, S4P was held in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2019, S4P expanded to Thailand as part of a Youth Camp that preceded the annual World Environmental Education Congress in Bangkok. An international, online competition is being piloted at the end of this year.
In the main, the competition topics have been the WED themes, and the events have occurred around WED. Themes since 2013 have included Beat Plastic Pollution, Connecting People to Nature, Illegal Trade in Wildlife, Seven Billion Dreams, One Planet, Consume with Care, Raise your Voice, Not the Sea Level. Think.Eat.Save., and Beat Air Pollution. Student presentations have explored solutions to sustainability problems through these themes and issues. In recent years, the competitions have also used the Sustainable Development Goals. These SDGs will remain key to future S4P events.
Students think creatively and propose quirky solutions. There have been chess games where losing pieces are islands drowning. Calls to eat less meat. Time-travellers offering advice from the past and the future. The realisation that we need a Copernican shift in how we dream – putting the planet not our desires at the centre of our values, thinking and decisions.
In one drama piece, Humanity was the boss of Earth, a company. Humanity sacked the hardest worker – Nature – but then had to beg Nature to return. ‘I will,’ she said, ‘but there will be conditions.’
The arts, humanities and sciences are at the core of S4P. In other words, students explore the fabric of society through this initiative medium.
Poet, Mark Tredinnick, says the humanities and the arts teach us how to be human. He says,
“They teach independence (of mind and speech). They teach courage and self-reliance and critical imagination. They teach justice and what it means, and how it must always be fought for, since capital and commerce will always work against it. They teach freedom. Of thought, of choice…”
The Arts teach one how the real world goes, and that it does not go the way the ideologues (in religion and banking) say it does. The real world has nature in it and music and fine language and forests and love. And god help us, beauty. The Humanities teach one how to be a citizen, a being, and not just a consumer or an employee; they teach you how a job is not a life, how a good life might go, how self-interest will not keep civilisation liveable, how technical knowledge, though great, is not the same thing as wisdom….”
“The humanities teach you how to unpack a dodgy argument, to smell a rat. To smell a crock.”
S4P events inspire young people to think creatively, independently, and courageously; they create space for students to ask challenging questions; and they provide opportunities for critical thinking – applause and jeers – about decisions made at various levels of government.
The arts ability to capture the sentiments behind political wrongdoings and express them emotively is raw and exposing. I wonder if it is a fear of being called or caught out on poor decisions that is behind the war being waged on the arts by the NSW and Australian governments.
While secrecy and wrecking balls and a focus on high-end cultural projects define Berejiklian’s philistine government, Morrison’s authoritarian government abolishes the federal Department of Communications and the Arts and increases the fees on arts and humanities degrees; job-ready over life-ready, workers and consumers rather than engaged, worldly citizens.
S4P is the antithesis of what they want. I rejoice.
S4P creates opportunities for youth voice, not silence. The sustainability changes that the world needs won’t occur by following existing dogma and practices. New thinking is required. Youthful thinking is required.
The arts open influential ways of communicating, ways that invite students through school curriculum areas typically omitted from sustainability education. Speaking 4 the Planet is founded on the beliefs that science provides the information we need to achieve sustainability, and the arts deliver the vehicles for transformation. Science provides the data; the arts change the world.
Perhaps one day, students who have experienced the freedom to speak will emerge as leaders who understand the deep connections between the arts, personal health, spirituality and sustainability. Perhaps those students will rise to power, and when PM will echo the 2018 words of the NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in regard to our own country.
“I want to see a country where the creativity and joy that comes from the arts is available to the many, not reserved for a privileged few. I want to see a country where the arts flourish and breathe life into, well, everyday life.
I want to see a country where the arts are available to us all and help us express ourselves as unique individuals, brought together in diverse communities. I believe the arts and creativity are integral and inseparable parts of what it is to be human.”
One day perhaps. I live in hope that it’s not too far off.
Phil Smith is a regular contributor to the New Bush Telegraph and the founder of Speaking 4 the Planet When we found out about S4P we asked Phil to write about it and thus this inspiring article.