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Recently, I read a letter to the editor in my local paper decrying educators for filling the heads of young people with “climate change nonsense.”
“It’s all part of nature,” said the author. We can’t change anything, so why induce all this existential dread?
“Youth,” he said, “should rebel against this conspiracy to brainwash them.”
I decided to ask my grade 12 students to reply.
One wrote, “The author is right that our hope for the future lies in rebellious ‘kids,’ but he misses the mark in every other part of his argument. Teens and young people are using our critical thinking skills and coming to understand and care deeply about thoroughly researched scientific fact…It’s true that an individual’s personal impact on the environment is technically minuscule in comparison with big businesses—given that just 100 companies contribute 71 percent of all global emissions. We not only acknowledge the fact that government, industry, and big business are the biggest culprits of climate change, it is the youth acting as whistleblowers.”
So, that was pretty rad. It was satisfying to get such a clear and fierce response from one of my students. But still, as a teacher, I try to be aware of the emotional dimension of learning, and I do think a lot about existential dread and how living in a time of crisis may be impacting young people.
Kids these days—how frequently their attitudes are judged and mischaracterized in one way or another. There are limitations to how fully we, of older generations, can understand the outlook of those whose experience of the world is being shaped in new and unprecedented ways.
What we do know is that young people are human beings who are inheriting a complicated world, who are fundamentally tender-hearted, and who are often overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of it all. Sometimes they care deeply. Sometimes they want to tune it all out. Most of us adults feel that way too—so that’s a starting place for connection.
Learning is emotional and acknowledging the emotional dimension is helpful when introducing difficult content in the classroom. When I first began teaching, I generally considered it my duty to draw my students’ awareness to all of the urgent problems facing our planet. When I was a kid during the Reagan Era, teachers who didn’t try to sell me a story of a functional and harmonious capitalist dream were a welcome dose of honesty cutting through snake oil. But by the time I was teaching, that ersatz 80s optimism was already dead.
My students seemed much more pummeled by “hard truths” than anything else, and more in need of inspiration and ways of working with overload, stress, and feelings of dread. They still needed real information, but also ways to work with it in order to navigate between the rails of apathy on one side and anxiety on the other.
Here are some ways I’ve attempted to teach on climate change with the objective of fostering empathy, engagement, and bravery in high school students.
I’m aware that context is all-important, and some of these ideas would not fly in some classrooms, but hopefully they will spark inspirations or gesture to some fresh ways of thinking.
Mindfulness is a theme in my school, so I often try to weave it into my teaching. I generally teach about the climate crisis toward the end of the year, when the students have developed some familiarity with mindfulness. This means that they have practiced bringing their awareness home to the present moment by noticing how they feel, what is occurring in their minds, in their bodies, and in the field of their emotions.
Even if we are not mindfulness teachers and have not laid this foundation, we can suggest our students attune themselves to their feelings while discussing and studying this topic. We can introduce the subject from a human perspective—acknowledging that it can evoke a range of feelings, and thus vulnerability. Sometimes, it brings up a feeling of anxiety; other times, a feeling of sadness; or maybe even a sense of righteous indignation.
If we are mindful of the natural and fickle human feelings that rise and fall within us, we become more capable of holding those feelings with care and awareness, rather than allowing them to send us into shutdown or overload.
As teachers, we can check in with students regularly to see how they’re feeling. Difficult emotions like despair and anxiety are a likely outcome of studying scary stuff, so we shouldn’t be alarmed when those feelings show up. Instead, we can acknowledge them, normalize them, and proceed with care, going slowly if necessary. It can be helpful to model this by verbalizing our own feelings: “When I hear about all the species of plants and animals that are going extinct, I feel so sad. What feelings are arising for you?”
The Spiral of the Work that Reconnects
“The Work That Reconnects” is a process that was designed by Joanna Macy in the 70s to bring courage and resilience to people striving for peace, justice, and ecological sanity. It’s a deep body of work, but you can learn the basics by watching Joanna on YouTube, or by reading her book, Active Hope. The “Spiral of the Work” is a simple sequence of contemplations that bring us home to a sense of natural empathy and connection with the world.
There are four parts of the spiral. I have my students journal on each of them over the whole period of time that we study climate change.
1. Gratitude. Fostering gratitude or appreciation for the world goes hand in hand with mindfulness. It’s a means of restoring our connection to natural wonder, the poignancy of each moment, the beauty of ordinary life, the natural magic of interdependence. It’s a way of remembering why we care. The prompt for writing, taken from Active Hope is: “Things I love about the world include…(be specific).” This is an easy exercise that has surprising results. I can generally feel the environment shift in the classroom as students begin writing tentatively, and then slowly lean in as they begin to flow with the discovery of love that isn’t that deeply buried.
They write things like, “I love the ocean and the beach and sand squishing in my toes. Hamsters. Elephants, even though I’ve never seen one. Rain hitting my tent…” One student, a senior girl who generally suffers from depression and trauma, remarked, “I was surprised. I didn’t think I cared about anything, but I found out that I care about a lot of things.”
2. Honoring Our Pain for the World. Having laid a foundation of gratitude and care, we turn our attention to the world’s pain. This is letting our natural compassion express itself, which is healing for us and for others. We all, even young children, have pain for the world, but sometimes we are not welcome to express it. As Joanna says, allowing this pain to express itself, “is the most subversive thing you can do,” because it awakens us from our numb, trance-like fixation on materialism. Acknowledging the wound we share with our world is a healing action.
The prompt for writing is: “Concerns I have for the world include…”
3. Seeing with New Eyes. Rather than simply accepting stories and perspectives that feed into our habitual loss of heart, we invoke inspirations that we have some connection to, whether they are political, spiritual, scientific, or imaginary. We allow our mind to travel in a new course and we see where it leads us.
adrienne maree brown calls this, “creating more possibilities.” Rather than “reducing the wild and wonderful world into one thing that we can grasp, handle, hold onto,” we can use our imaginations and visions to open up possibilities. “The more we take it in our hands, imagine it as a place of justice and pleasure, the more the future knows we want it, and that we aren’t letting go.”
A prompt for this can be: “A perspective I find refreshing or inspiring is…”
4. Going Forth. Finally, we turn our minds to what we can do to actually engage and offer our service to the world. Perhaps we will only come up with the same ideas we had yesterday, but having infused ourselves with the three previous steps, we may feel quite different—more connected to the deeper meaning and importance of our actions, even if they are modest.
We begin with: “Steps I can take to heal humanity and the world include…”
These four prompts can be used as dialogue openers, but my students tend to be too self-conscious for that, so I find journaling works better. Afterward, I may ask students to rewrite a few sections that they liked from their journals and hand them in, or ask for volunteers to read what they’ve written out loud to the class. The results are moving.
Expanding and Enriching our Engagement
Often the takeaways, especially for youth, after any lengthy, harrowing presentation about the sad and seemingly unstoppable ramifications of climate change, are about small lifestyle adjustments that are pretty superficial, intuitively insignificant, and rooted in the same, destructive paradigm that is the cause of the problem.
It seems like we should be saying, “Considering all the evidence before us, we are profoundly rethinking the very models by which we are living on Earth,” but instead we say things like, “Bike to school once a week, turn off lights when you leave the room, use eco-friendly products, etc.” These obtainable goals are important—we need to keep thinking about and enacting them—but as educators we can gesture toward richer possibilities of engagement.
Here are a few ideas along those lines:
Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall coined the term, “Two-Eyed Seeing” for the concept of learning to appreciate the best of Indigenous ways of knowing as well as the best of Western knowledge and using those together for the benefit of all. My students are often fairly attuned to thinking of potential technological responses to our challenges. Indigenous knowledge includes a deep sense of connection to nature and our interdependence with the natural world as well as caring for future generations. Ideally, we can invite Indigenous speakers into our classes to introduce and discuss these principles.
Small is Beautiful
Consumerism is the basic M.O. of modern society. It relies on things like cheap mass-production, mindless energy use, and globalized economies—things that tend to sideline genuine human and ecological concerns. It’s disturbing how little of our public discourse even considers weaning our communities off of this paradigm, generally equating that possibility with voluntary asceticism and poverty. That’s the part where we can shift the narrative and begin to develop an appreciation, especially for young people, for the life-giving benefits of smallness.
Food and Community
I like to open this topic by talking about food. We can talk about what we eat, and where our food comes from. We can explore the true costs of our food—including the climate impact of things like large scale farming, beef production, and international shipping. We can talk about the experience of our food—whether or not we have any sense of connection to its sources, the people who grew it, the land where it was cultivated.
Then we can talk about local food: farmer’s markets; how people and communities bond around food; growing food ourselves; how local, seasonal, organic food tastes different; and how it benefits the local economy. It’s also important to talk about why local, organic food is usually really expensive and may not be accessible to lots of people.
I like to show the film, “Black Gold,” about the destructive nature of corporate coffee, and then take my students out for coffee (or hot chocolate) at Java Blend, my local coffee shop and roaster, where on a slow day the staff will talk with the students about direct trade and their relationships with the farmers whose coffee we are drinking. Or a class could include eating apples from the farm stand down the street with discussion about how our province (Nova Scotia) is famous for its apples, produces nearly twice the amount of apples we consume, and yet imports about 50 percent of the apples we buy to eat (total GHG emissions for importing apples is 7,960 tonnes CO2 equivalent).
It’s common in politics to frame economy and environment as two systems in conflict. This dichotomy exists, in part, because we have a narrow, capitalist view of economy. Can we start to reimagine the concepts of wealth and economy as something richer than money? Charles Eisenstein’s short film, “Sacred Economics” is a great way to open discussion and inquiry into what economy is really about. This topic can be a bit abstract for young people, and yet, the old model of “go to school, work hard, get a job, earn lots of money, retire happy,” has for many morphed into “go to school, work hard, take on insurmountable debt, don’t get a job, get creative.” So maybe it’s time to get creative earlier?
My high school students are intrigued by this discussion—it’s about things that are just about to get real for them. While we’re at it, we can explore questions like: How big do our houses really need to be? How many cars do we really need? Where does our money go when we buy things? What changes when we make different purchasing choices?
Who is Going to Help when the Zombies Come?
One thing that keeps us hooked into consumer culture is the fact that most of us in modern Western society no longer know how to do much of anything from scratch. I like to ask my students, “Who knows how to do something? I mean anything that doesn’t include computers?” To put them at ease, I share that I can hardly do anything, and would not be much help in the zombie apocalypse. Who knows how to grow vegetables? Cook? Bake bread? Use tools? Sew or knit? Build something?
A personal step we can take is to learn to do something, not because the zombies are coming, but because these slow, earthy skills contribute to community resilience and personal empowerment. They undo a little bit of the stitching in the fabric of individualistic, consumerist capitalism.
Drawdown, based on the work of Paul Hawken, lists 100 solutions to reverse, not just slow down, climate change. The solutions are accessible and inspiring and described simply on the website. Have your class divide up and do some research into a few of them, then report back to the group. Hearing about positive actions rather than focusing only on reducing harm is inspiring and reverses the feeling of helplessness we so often fall into.
Spotlight Young and Current Champions
My grade 12 textbook talks about Rachel Carson and the first buds of the environmental movement, which is fine, but young people need to see the champions who are taking up the mantle right now—so I show videos and discuss the work of folks like Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bill McKibben, and the Standing Rock Water Protectors—warriors who are creating pathways young people can actually step onto right now. Or Wangari Maathai, who started the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi, which has planted over 51 million trees and trained over 30,000 women in forestry, beekeeping, and other trades.
Vote. And also…Revolt!
Political engagement is our only hope of pushing for systemic change. We can encourage young people to think about voting when they are of age by helping them understand the issues and the political system, and asking them to consider whether politicians are prioritizing climate change. We can also encourage them to engage in politics by participating in protests, or by writing letters to office holders.
The recent student marches for climate action were inspiring, and it was cool to see some teachers marching with their students. But from what I’ve gathered, most schools discouraged students from participating. What are we even teaching for if not to inspire warriors and engaged citizens?
It’s getting late, and it’s clear we need a true revolution—one that flows from compassion, connection, and courage. Let’s start it in the classroom.