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Management Students Tackling Climate Change With Paintbrushes

We are living and will live for generations to come in times of wicked problems. If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the fragility of humanity and the insufficiency of its systems, climate change – the world we already live in – will increasingly demand us to adapt. Or, as Isabelle Stengers says in her book In Catastrophic Times. Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Gaia will continue, even without humanity.

Hence, it remains to be seen how this adaptation will take place: whether it is replicating the old models that brought us here – to IPCC’s Code Red for human driven global heating – or whether to a rupture that will lead us towards fairer, more inclusive, and more resilient societies, with the final comprehension that we are nature, affecting and being affected by Earth’s complex dynamics.

And what do business schools have to do with all this?

Everything! As educators, we cannot continue to fail to educate future managers and leaders to understand that planetary boundaries exist, and that companies and organizations need to operate within them. Furthermore, we cannot be satisfied with teaching “new” sustainability-oriented management tools or with how to design a good ESG strategy in companies. This is not enough in the face of a hotter, more unequal, more violent, and less democratic world.

What do we business school professors and practitioners need to do then? I don’t believe in unique answers, but I will share the one that has made sense to me and most of my students, and that guides my teaching practice, my academic studies, and my being in the world.

For me, management education should teach students how to decide what is right, to recognize that to solve wicked problems we need to value pluralistic knowledge (Kurucz et al., 2014). It should go back to the essence of what it is to educate: looking at each human being in the classroom – including ourselves – with their emotions, their values, and from that perspective, creating the conditions for each one to emerge as an ethical, autonomous, responsible subject, protagonist of her/his life and action in the world. In 2021, we celebrate the centenary of Paulo Freire, and he reminds us that we must educate for freedom, for autonomy.

But I was supposed to talk about art… and I will! For more than ten years now, here at FGV EAESP (Brazil) we have been running a sustainability course with undergrad business students called FIS – which in English would mean Integrated Education for Sustainability. It is a course anchored on Transdisciplinarity, meaning that it is an educational experience designed to expand the paradigm of perception and interpretation of reality; to make students more aware of themselves, preparing them to deal with complex issues; and to introduce several topics that are on the frontier of knowledge in the sustainability agenda. More than a course focused on transferring knowledge, FIS aims to transform people.

And art at FIS is understood and practiced both as a method, process, and product in the student’s learning experience, with the intention not only of developing skills and competences, but mainly to promote critical reflexivity, bring sensitivity, learn through experience and through all the senses, allowing yourself to know, collaborate with other people and get involved in the common good.

In 2019 our FIS group had the challenge to produce an arts exhibit about the urgency of Brazilian agriculture’s adaptation to climate change. As students were not artists, we designed the course inserting visits to museums and art exhibits, bringing artists and artwork to classroom, giving arts activities (painting, poetry, dance) as means of expressing themselves, strengthening the group relationship, and building bridges between arts and the course topic (climate change, adaptation, agriculture).

We used arts in a transdisciplinary approach and what we got was a powerful education experience, which made students:

  • Learn about business and sustainability
  • Develop skills to be a responsible manager
  • Mobilize for action – in this case to tackle climate change
  • Build collaborative relationships and mobilize affections
  • Experience a journey of self-knowledge

Bringing the words of one of our students:

“I realized that art is a universal language capable of uniting people through feelings and perceptions, which are qualities / skills present in all human beings. In the delivery of the project, art was expression, it was connection, it was feeling, and it was provocation”.

It will be a very rich exchange at our multi-stakeholder panel discussion at GBSN Beyond 2021. Let’s together give more paintbrushes to our business students!