Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Black Mountains College

By Ben Rawlence

Talgarth, Brecon Beacons National Park

Around the world, young people are suing governments for what is coming to be known as ‘intergenerational theft’. Lawsuits allege that governments are not upholding their constitutional duty to protect the rights of future generations.

Here in Wales, we are ahead of the curve. The 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act commits the Welsh Government to put plans in place for the long term, with the well being of the unborn in mind. What the Act means in practice though, is only beginning to be tested. The future, always a battleground for competing visions, has suddenly become a very crowded place. With the looming threat of climate change, the relationship between present action and future consequence has never been more sharply in focus.

Black Mountains College (BMC) was founded with the intention of getting ready for a very different future. De-carbonising our society, economy and culture is an enormous challenge that requires complex systems thinking. The first step on that journey is an imaginative one. We must imagine how things can be different. And we must imagine (and learn) how to live within the ecological limits of the planet. We need creative and adaptive thinking that puts human wellbeing and flourishing in the context of a healthy biosphere. This mission demands a different kind of educational experience to most global undergraduate courses, one in which immersion in the landscape, in the rural, is integral to learning.

Again, Wales is ahead of the curve, here, with the new Donaldson ‘Successful Futures’ curriculum, which puts creativity, environmental education and project based learning at the heart of its approach. BMC will provide a seamless progression from the Donaldson curriculum into the undergraduate experience with the aim of producing a new kind of graduate. Not one schooled in a particular subject or discipline, but someone trained to listen, to process information, solve problems, to communicate, to collaborate, and to care.

Our first year core curriculum requires all students to study neuroscience, ‘How We Learn’, because understanding both how you individually learn, and how other people do too, is essential if we are to become effective people. The other core unit is ‘Ecology and Morality’ — the hard science of how the earth works and the moral questions for the humans who depend on those systems. In between these two cores are five sensory units designed to hone the skills required to become a lifelong learning, creative and adaptive human: visual arts, sound and music, making and using, theatre and movement, cooking and growing food. We know from neuroscience that humans process information with all their senses and learn faster when more than one is engaged, and we also know that we learn far more effectively outside. All our classes are capped at 20 and will be taught, in the majority, outside, in the natural classroom of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

At a time when collectively, society seems to have lost its mind in relation to fossil fuels, it is only the natural world that can help us come to our senses again. This is an explicitly rural college — not an agricultural one — a full spectrum appreciation of the human relationship with the natural world, from arts to science, to big data. Second year students will take further core course in modes of inquiry, systems thinking and information technology before specializing in one of three pathways: Land, Arts or Technology. A final year student-led research project will be based on implementing the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act on the ground in Mid Wales.

We hope that students who go through this rigorous education will help the rest of us imagine what the future could be like, what, perhaps, it must be like, if we are to survive as a species in convivial relationships with each other. And here, most likely, the rural past has much to teach our rural and urban future. Without cheap fossil fuels, without long supply chains, without disposable plastic, without pesticides, fertilisers, doctored seeds and soil-depleting methods, many ancient and rural skills will need to be relearned.

Agroecology, or regenerative agriculture — farming with the grain of nature, building soil carbon, biodiversity, revisiting ancient crop rotations — will be a feature of the undergraduate pathway and vocational courses. And rural skills such as hedgelaying, coppicing, dry-stone walling and low head hydro-power such as the hugely efficient mill wheels, will be part of our further education offering.

These skills, we believe, will not be coming back into fashion as hobbies but as essential elements of a far more sustainable human economy. The story of our relationship with the land and the biosphere holds many lessons for our future, but first we must learn to listen. The National Park and the stunning rural environment of Wales is an essential resource for all of us as we try and turn the ship of humanity away from the impending iceberg — it is classroom, library, museum and laboratory all in one.