Where does our motivation come from?

Photo by Alexandru Tugui on Unsplash

In the midst of the news about the growing coronavirus concerns the stories of panic buying in supermarkets and pharmacies has caught my eye in particular. The motivation people feel in response to this pending pandemic to go out and stock up on items they believe will give them a greater chance of avoiding being affected is palpable. Don’t get me wrong, I regard the potential threat of a global pandemic as seriously as the next person – the consequences of such a thing occurring would be catastrophic indeed, so it is important that we take it seriously and take the necessary precautions in our homes, workplaces and communities.

So, not to downplay the threat that comes with coronavirus at all, my interest lies in the fact that so many people are motivated to act with such urgency when faced with the threat of this potential pandemic, yet remain comparatively unconcerned about some of the other threats to our humanity and life on the planet. Is it because the personal threat is perceived as more imminent, more immediately impactful and with the consequence of death as one of the likely outcomes for many – not to mention the impact on jobs and income as the economic impacts of a pandemic kick in.

It is interesting to see how immediately governments, businesses, schools etc. have stepped up their efforts to put in place a pandemic response plan, and the communications surrounding that, including the intense media interest – yet we don’t see the same level of urgent concern and demands for action about so many of the other global issues that are potentially as big a threat. The World Economic Forum has published an excellent infographic on this in a post titled Coronavirus isn’t an outlier, it’s part of our interconnected viral age. It shows the extent to which issues such as climate change, food crises, biodiversity loss etc are all a part of an interconnected web of consequences of our rapidly rising population and the demands this is placing on the planet we call home.

Yet we are less motivated, it seems, to take the sorts of actions we see around the coronavirus when it comes to some of these other things. Consider the following:

  • Air Pollution – According to the World Health Organisation there are 4.2 million deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, yet we continue to pump vast quantities of air pollutants into our atmosphere every day – for example, we are now burning 80% more coal than we were just 20 years ago.
  • Heat waves and wild-fires – now more common on our news than ever. In 2018, more than 60 million people suffered the consequences of extreme weather and climate change, including more than 1,600 who perished in Europe, Japan and the US because of heatwaves and wildfires. The WHO predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
  • Biodiversity loss – threatening the security of the world’s food supplies and the livelihoods of millions of people, according to a new report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
  • Water CrisisNearly 1 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases which could be reduced with access to safe water or sanitation. Every 2 minutes a child dies from a water-related disease.

When faced with such predictions, and evidence of this happening around us, why don’t we see the sorts of responses and urgent action that we are seeing with the coronavirus? It would seem that, as dire as the projections are, if you are surveying the topic from a privileged western perspective, it’s easy to overlook how bad things have already got, to accept these situations as simply the unfortunate nature of things. This is what some refer to as future normalisation – the prospect that we might raise, incrementally but inexorably, our baseline of acceptable human suffering. 

And so we might understand that as long as our privilege allows us to ‘stand above’ these things (i.e. they don’t affect us immediately or in ways that matter in terms of immediate consequence) we can tolerate that they exists and may matter to ‘someone else’ – but not us. The problem is, in a globalised society such as ours, these things matter to all of us – perhaps not in this moment, but for the future of the planet and for all of our existence, they do.

So back to my original question, “Where does our motivation come from?” – this is a question that is important at many levels for me as an educator. To understand what creates the motivation in a young person to seek knowledge and to learn is foundational to then creating the conditions under which they will thrive as a learner. But becoming skilled in the ability to access and represent knowledge is just the first step – real learning is demonstrated when there is action that follows.

Our education system doesn’t exist simply to fill young people’s minds with ‘stuff’. Its foundations were established on principles of preparing young minds and lives to put that learning into practice – albeit as cogs in the industrial wheel of the time. Since then, however, our vision for our young learners has expanded beyond simply being ‘work ready’ to understanding what it means to be a responsible citizen on planet earth, and how we might ‘thrive’ together in this future world.

As we consider, then, the responses we’re making in the midst of the coronavirus confusion, let’s use that as an opportunity to truly educate, to raise the awareness of the extremely interconnected ecosystem that we are a part of and how the actions we take matter in terms of the overall impact. It’s a sensible and responsible thing to do – not motivated by fear or panic, but from genuine inquiry and an opportunity to become familiar with some of the ‘big ideas’ that will be important to our future generations who will have to deal with these challenges of global proportion (and impact).

Questions lingering in my mind include…

  • How can we really understand what motivates us to take action about the things that matter, and how can we use that knowledge, as educators, to design curriculum that gives our learners the opportunities to deeply and meaningfully engage – and act – on these big issues?
  • What evidence is there of Western Privilege in the decisions we are making, as educators, parents and citizens, in response to these ‘big issues’? How might we address this? Is it possible to change such attitudes?
  • Where might we start in terms of developing programmes in our schools – and our communities – that build the awareness of, and desire to act on, some of these big issues?

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