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Rethinking ELT's Environmental Impact

22nd October 2019

By Martin Cooke

Introduction

Globalisation has resulted in many good things. To list just a few examples, it has eradicated diseases that used to be endemic, with most of the world’s human population enjoying rising standards of living and longer life expectancy than any generation before. Globalisation has also resulted in wonderful technological developments, giving us instant access to vast amounts of information. We can communicate in real time with people on the other side of the world, and can travel around it faster and more comfortably than our ancestors could ever have imagined.    

The spread of English and English language teaching (ELT) has gone hand in hand with these processes, and like globalisation, the ability to teach, learn and use English has brought huge benefits to many. With English long established as a compulsory subject in schools all over the world, and the undisputed language of international trade and commerce, millions have become proficient in the English language, gaining access to jobs, university placements, business prospects and other opportunities that they would never otherwise have had. The ability to use English is now so widespread that, according to the British Council (2006), it is considered ‘a global norm [and] a basic skill’, something that everyone – not just the privileged – should be able to do. Meanwhile, huge numbers of teachers have benefitted from the seemingly exponential growth in demand for English, often travelling thousands of kilometres to locations with cultures and customs unlike anything seen “back home”.

Some might hope that the spread of English will continue into the future, becoming a true lingua franca for humanity as a whole, enabling us to share ideas and communicate with even greater ease than we do now. While this might still be a possibility, others argue that the spread of English - and the proliferation of English teachers - cause more harm than good in the longer term. The potentially negative effect on other cultures has been previously explored in detail by, among others, Adrian Holliday and Robert Philipson, who criticize phenomena such as linguistic imperialism and native speakerism. Those arguments remain relevant in their own right, but, as will be argued below, might now need to be viewed in the light of a potentially wider, more problematic issue that is only becoming more intractable over time.

 

The global climate crisis

Humanity as a whole, according to Al Gore’s 2016 TED talk, now pumps “over 90 million tons of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere every twenty-four hours”. According to Jeremy Lent’s 2018 book The Patterning Instinct, we burn 2.7 million gallons of gasoline every minute, and the carbon we burn is equivalent to more than 400 times all the plant matter that grows in the world in a year. The natural processes that lead to the creation of oil would take fourteen thousand years to replace the amount we consume in a single day (italics added).

All of this is causing terrible damage to the earth’s ecosystems, its wildlife, and the environment upon which we all depend. We are in a crisis situation, and a key aspect of the message coming from those who seek to prevent climate catastrophe is that while we can all take individual steps to reduce our respective ‘carbon footprints’, such actions are unlikely to be enough on their own. If we are to curb emissions and reduce the rate of global heating, collective action is urgent.

Gore, Lent, Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace, the Extinction Rebellion movement and the global scientific community are now telling us that we – ‘we’ meaning human civilization as a whole - must act now to save the planet from a catastrophe that will cost many millions of human lives, perhaps billions. Only by acting as a whole can we truly rethink and reshape the processes of global trade, economics and globalisation, reforming the parts that can be used for the good of humanity and the planet, while ridding ourselves of the harmful elements.

If we are to heed the message of the environmentalists and reform globalisation, we must also reconsider phenomena that have been central to it, including the English language and, especially, ELT.

 

Considering ELT’s impact on the environment

In the past couple of years, a number of articles have been published that explore and criticize ELT’s ‘carbon footprint’, and most are full of great ideas. To name just a few examples, Christopher Graham’s blog post asks those of us in ELT to consider what we teach, how we develop, how we network and support each other, and the people we teach, and has good suggestions for projects and further action. Another article by Alex Standish (TeachWire) discusses how teachers can offer reassurance to students who are concerned about climate change. Owain Llewellyn’s ELT Sustainable site contains several useful articles and lesson plan ideas, while the recently established ELT Footprint Facebook group now has over 1800 members and is updated on a daily basis. Those who wish to explore environmental issues further can even try out the Open University’s course on the environmental impact of learning and teaching.

All of the above resources are definitely recommended. However, it’s arguable that a significant factor is still being overlooked by many of these authors and articles, and unless this is properly addressed, the overall environmental impact of ELT is unlikely to decrease.

In order to properly think about the environmental impact of ELT, it is necessary to consider a question which might, at first, seem only loosely related to environmentalism in ELT but may enable us to appreciate the real impact it has on the planet’s ecosystems, as well as allowing us to properly frame the ‘green ELT’ message for those who perhaps have yet to appreciate it: is ELT an industry or a profession?

 

The Industry / Profession Dichotomy, and Why it Matters

Keith Copley, writing for the September 2019 issue of English Teaching Professional, states that, while ELT has elements of both industry and profession, the industry side is far more prominent. As an example, Copley describes how the main motivation for taking the CELTA qualification comes from a desire to live and work overseas: “it is significant that even Cambridge don’t claim that the primary motivation [for taking the CELTA] is an attraction to teaching per se, or even an aptitude for languages.” Copley goes on to portray ELT as something many people – particularly ‘NESTs’ - see as merely short-term, linked more to ‘TEFL adventurism’ and the so-called ‘gig economy’ than the mainstream teaching profession. To extend Copley’s argument further, a ‘backpacker teacher’ in, say, Thailand or China who intends to teach for a couple of years before returning to their home country is probably part of the industry, while a Director of Studies who has twenty years of experience, a Master’s degree, and who speaks at three or four conferences per year can safely be described as a professional.

Although many ELT professionals do have a lot of influence, and are using this to press for a greater awareness of green issues, they are arguably outnumbered by teachers who tend not to see ELT as a long-term career and who are therefore unlikely to think of themselves as professionals. They probably won’t subscribe to ELT journals, they are unlikely to attend ELT professional conferences, and therefore may be less likely to ‘get the green message’.

As an example, while Christopher Graham’s blog post is definitely recommended reading, there’s an underlying problem that he perhaps doesn’t fully address. When Graham states that “CPD (continuous professional development) is a priority for most of us”, the ‘us’ he is addressing are ELT professionals – the few – not the many. Graham also mentions conferences, and while the ‘need’ for writers and academics to fly regularly to international conferences deserves to be questioned, those who work in short-term TEFL jobs are unlikely to have chances to go to them, even if they want to.

Christopher Graham is undoubtedly an ELT professional, and as far as ELT professionals are concerned, his argument remains a good one; any efforts ELT professionals do make to reduce their carbon footprints should be applauded. However, when cast against the greater ELT picture, such messages can only go so far. ELT professionals are the minority within a much wider ELT industry (or, if you prefer, ELT community), and their blogposts and articles might reach an audience of just a few thousand, most of whom will already agree with what they read. To truly make ELT ‘green’, it might be better to stop preaching to the converted and develop a more direct message that will cause those who consider ELT as an industry – employers, publishers, owners, investors, and (most) teachers – to consider the damage they are causing, and to take action.

If ELT is more an industry than a profession, then we perhaps (a) ought to treat it like one, and (b) might benefit from looking at what other industries are doing to protect the environment.

 

Which Industry can ELT be compared with?

Overall, much of ELT and TEFL bears a closer resemblance to the international travel and tourism industry than to professions such as university academia or the civil service, especially when - as Copley tells us - it is presented as an opportunity for (mostly) young native speakers to travel and experience other countries and cultures. Various well-known course providers and TEFL agencies advertise teaching English as ‘the key to unlocking your teaching abroad dreams’, or ‘the perfect way to travel the world, enjoy a fantastic adventure, and inspire the next generation’, while ‘the greatest benefit [of a TEFL certificate] is gaining the opportunity to travel’.

It might therefore be pertinent to consider arguments such as those made by Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked (2012), which looks at the social and environmental impact of global mass tourism. Becker’s text is critical of the environmental degradation and damage caused by mass tourism, and she describes in detail how destinations such as Venice, Italy and Angkor Wat in Cambodia have been negatively impacted by having to deal with tens of thousands of visitors on a daily basis. However, as Becker tells us, there is some hope. Costa Rica is described as one example of how tourism can be managed in a way that does not despoil the landscape or the oceans, and the growing trend toward ecotourism and responsible tourism, though not without its own problems, is depicted as a potential way forward.

A number of countries have introduced, or are introducing, restrictions on tourism, and the World Tourism Organization (now the UNWTO) has outlined the following principles of responsible tourism:

Responsible tourism is tourism which:

-       minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts

-       generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities

-       improves working conditions and access to the industry

-       involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances

-       makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage embracing diversity

-       provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding          of local cultural, social and environmental issues

-       provides access for physically challenged people

-       is culturally sensitive, encourages respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence

(Cape Town Declaration, 2002, accessed via sustainabletourism.net)

At least some of the above principles could be adapted for a ‘responsible ELT’ code of practice, although it also has to be said that ELT’s similarities to – and close links with – the more negative side of mass travel and tourism also need to be questioned. The tendency for many to work in TEFL for just one or two years leads to a greater number of international flights being taken than would be the case if those ‘teachers’ considered teaching English to be a long-term career choice. That trend also causes many short-term TEFL teachers to never bother trying to properly understand local customs and culture, or to learn the language(s) their students speak. Those teachers, considering themselves temporary visitors, remain within their ‘expat bubbles’ and, through habits such as having new clothes, electronics and books shipped in from their home countries rather than buying locally, often end up creating an even bigger carbon footprint than they would if they really got to know their surroundings.

Travel is and always has been closely linked to ELT, and the ELT industry could never have reached its present form without the availability of cheap international flights. This has meant, for example, that the ELT industry members in Taiwan (in contravention of EU law) might advertise TEFL jobs for ‘native speakers only’, restricting employment to citizens from Australia (over 4000km away), the USA and Canada (over 9500km), the United Kingdom (over 9500km), South Africa (over 11,000 km) and a handful of other faraway locations whose citizens are deemed to have a suitable command of the English language. It’s hard to calculate how much pollution is caused by all those flights, but if we think of a plane that burns 12000 litres of fuel for 1000km, it would need to use up almost 50000 litres of fuel for a single flight from Darwin, Australia – perhaps the closest place from which ‘native speakers’ can be sourced – to Taipei.

Even if the TEFL recruit from Darwin is just one of 200 people on the flight, he or she is responsible for almost 250 litres’ worth of emissions. According to Christie van Tol of the University of Toronto’s TEFL Online program, over 100,000 English teaching positions open every year. Not all of them will be filled by speakers recruited from other countries, but a significant number will. When we think of all those ‘newbies’ being recruited into language teaching, most of whom come from locations over 10,000 kilometres from the places where they will be working, and who will require at least one return flight per year, that’s a lot of emissions. If half of those new TEFL jobs go to new NESTs recruited from their home countries, even if they all came from Darwin, that would be… 12,500,000 litres’ worth of emissions. That’s about five Olympic-sized swimming pools, just for the outbound flights.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat crude calculation but the point, I hope, is clear: environmental responsibility in ELT is tied in with the trends toward native speakerism and the portrayal of ELT as an ‘adventure’ for young westerners – the very same things that Adrian Holliday and Robert Phillipson have been criticizing for decades. Those who make excuses for the hiring of unqualified ‘native speakers’ ahead of so-called ‘NNESTs’ often say that it’s ‘what the market wants’, but as the travel industry – and some other industries- have discovered, what the market ‘wants’ is often not what’s best for the world. As Christopher Graham does mention in his article, a switch of focus toward localization might help to reduce ELT’s carbon footprint by encouraging employers to hire locally where possible, and if international recruitment was deemed necessary, to look at qualifications and experience – evidence that the job candidate is a professional - rather than nationality. After all, if your own country already has many decent, well-qualified, dedicated teachers, why fly someone else in from the other side of the world?

At the same time, if you are (or want to be) a decent, well-qualified, dedicated teacher, why should you have to fly to the other side of the world to prove it?

 

Why going online may be ELT’s best option

Over the past fifteen years or so, teaching English online has exploded in popularity among both learners and teachers. This option allows teachers to provide English language lessons without having to travel thousands of kilometres from their home countries – you might not even have to leave your own home. Learners do not have to travel either, and may find online learning more convenient than the alternative. However, it is a section of ELT that remains largely unregulated and is one where the ‘industry’ side of things is far more dominant than the ‘professional’ side. Discrimination against non native speakers – and even among native speakers – remains common, while salaries are often low, with online teachers often employed on a ‘freelance’ or ‘zero hours’ basis, rather than being offered a formal contract with employment rights. Not every online ELT employer is unscrupulous or dishonest – some are excellent, and of course many teachers go truly freelance and set up their own online schools.

If the existing negative portrayal of (much of) online ELT were to change, it might become part of the solution to the climate crisis. This may in fact be the best option, and it is therefore worth encouraging, or perhaps pressurizing, the big stakeholders in the ELT industry to shake online ELT up a little bit, shifting it away from its current unregulated ‘wild west’ state to one which would attract, train, develop and sustain ELT professionals. ELT then could, like globalisation, continue, but virtually.

From a green perspective, a greater focus on online teaching would be a huge plus. While it’s true that online teaching does have a carbon footprint of its own - see climatecare.org for a helpful infographic – there’s an advantage in the fact that a teacher living and working in Manchester can teach students in just about any location worldwide without having to leave their own home - no long-haul flights necessary. Online classes do not have to be one-to-one, as software and hardware now enable multiple connections, nor do they have to be ‘live’, as various platforms allow teachers to record lessons (or entire courses) for learners to watch later. And online ELT isn’t just about teaching – entire conferences can be (and are) conducted via the internet. Similarly training courses including entire Master’s degrees and core components of both the Cambridge Delta and Trinity DipTESOL; staff meetings; interviews; and tests and assessments have gone ‘virtual’. Meanwhile, one publisher recently announced that its entire coursebook range would become solely digital within the next few years, and others are expected to follow suit.  

Online teaching isn’t for everyone - some teachers will always prefer teaching ‘face-to-face’, and some learners will always prefer learning that way. Others will be happy to try a mix of the two. It’s extremely unlikely that the physical classroom will ever be entirely replaced by the virtual one, nor should we want it to be. Nevertheless, when we consider the global climate crisis, there simply is no justification for hiring new teachers from ‘native speaking’ countries when local teachers are almost certainly available, and if they are not, the next best option has to be going online rather than importing teachers from faraway countries at a terrible cost to the environment.  

In summary, to minimize ELT’s carbon footprint, it may be better to promote online teaching, learning, training, development and assessment, and to promote them as part of a real career in its own right, rather than something anyone can do to supplement their income, usually on a short-term basis. If this were to be done, a greater number of future ELT professionals would look at it as a way of embarking on their chosen career without having to leave their home countries, and some of those ‘Olympic swimming pools’ of oil would remain exactly where they belong - under the ground.

Useful links:

Online teaching jobs

Carbon calculator

The 44 people changing the way we travel

ELT Footprint blog

Open University: The environmental impact of learning and teaching course

Martin Cooke

Martin Cooke lives and works in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, where he teaches on an intensive Business skills and foreign language programme for Taiwanese university graduates. He has been teaching EFL for almost a decade. His interests include ESP, Business English, teacher development, action research, creativity in language learning and cultural awareness.

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