Green Teaching: What the World Needs Now

In President Obama’s speech last night, he talked a fair amount about the importance of making higher education affordable for all Americans, and about how essential a highly skilled workforce is to America’s future.

I felt like I was in some kind of time warp.  Wasn’t Bill Clinton talking about just the same things, almost generation ago? Not only has insufficient progress been made, but while we’ve been fiddling and squabbling amongst ourselves, the whole landscape behind us has shifted radically.

It reminds me of one of those cartoon scenes where the mice are fighting amongst themselves and don’t even notice the huge cat face looming over them licking its chops.

The huge cat face, today, is the drastic heating of the planet.  Obama went on and on last night about manufacturing—we need a skilled workforce to support American manufacturing, we need to bring outsourced manufacturing back home, we need to adjust the tax code to benefit workers and manufacturers.

All the while, looming above the statehouse, is the runaway monster of climate change, which is at on the one hand fattened by all this manufacturing, while at the same time threatening to blow it all away.

I quite agree with Obama that we need to be pouring resources into education.  The question is, what kind of education is going to be most valuable for today’s children, tomorrow?

At the very least, we need an education that does not have its “eyes wide shut” about the fact of global heating and the impact this will have on us all in the near future.

I was encouraged this week when I picked up a print copy of the journal Green Teacher, and found an article by David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa entitled “Unleashing Blessed Unrest as the Heating Happens.”  In it, the authors offer concrete curricular suggestions for how to introduce students in grades 5-12 to the reality of climate change, without sugar-coating it but also without leaving them so devastated that they lapse into denial or despair.  Since the article is not available online, I’m going to quote from it liberally in what follows, because this is news we can use.

The authors quote Jess Worth, who likens climate change denial to “finding out that you have cancer, but then delaying going to the doctor’s for treatment for a few months because you want to repaint your house.”

Selby and Kagawa speculate that because the “ever more dire accounts of a global climate lurching towards ever-deepening crisis” are so frightening, we tend to practice a kind of avoidance, which in education takes the form of “characterizing climate change as a technical problem that can be managed by a mix of technological innovation and policy solutions that avoid challenge to ‘business as usual.’”

For example, they say, “the recycling bin in most classrooms is…often cited as evidence of the school’s commitment to sustainability,” but “it can easily convey the subliminal message that consumerism approached responsibly can be benign.”

Reviewing American curricular materials for K-12, the authors found “a reluctance to investigate the culpability of neo-liberal economic growth models and to explore slow growth or no growth alternatives…. There is, too, an avoidance of envisioning and addressing personal and societal climate change scenarios that are likely to be played out in the learner’s lifetimes.”

This is certainly the kind of education I see my own son getting in his American public middle school.  The focus in his social studies, English and science classes has so far been squarely on the distant past.  There has been no discussion that I’m aware of about the fact that here we are at the end of January, and we are still seeing green grass outside.  NASA has just confirmed that nine of the ten warmest winters on record have occurred since the year 2000, and 2011 was the 9th warmest since 1880. Excuse me, shouldn’t we talk about that?

Selby and Kagawa say that instead of maintaining an “eyes wide shut” avoidance pattern with our youngsters, we need to engage in “an honest education facing up to the onset of what Alastair McIntosh describes as ‘a great dying time of evolutionary history’” and “overturning…the comfortable delusion that major disruption of Earth’s climate can be avoided or neutralized.

“Recognizing that present and future generations need hope, we have to ask what the hope is grounded in and what kind of hope it is.  Is it a spurious optimism, a comfortable fiction based on what we would prefer to see happen while keeping our ‘eyes wide shut’?  Or is it a pared down and realistically straitened optimism born of confronting the present and future earth condition?”

We have a responsibility as educators, parents, and elders to tell our children the truth about where we are as a global civilization, and where we are likely headed.  Wouldn’t you rather be forewarned, rather than bowled over by surprise when the shocks start coming?  Don’t you see it as the responsible thing to do to start preparing for those shocks now, both emotionally and practically?

The educators brought together in Selby and Kagawa’s new anthology Education and Climate Change advocate for a transformative learning agenda, involving “conscious, deep and sustained processes of engaging with pain, despair and grief over what we are losing, moving towards acceptance while searching for radically new meaning and values, and equipping ourselves for personal and collective empowerment and action.”

Concretely, they offer classroom exercises to guide students through these stages, including some pretty heavy-duty visioning of possible future scenarios that we may all have to live through.  The goal is not to depress students, but to empower them by moving from the disaster scenarios to hopeful plans of action to stave off the worst effects of climate change, or adapt successfully to whatever comes.

“A citizenship education for “blessed unrest” in a time of rampant climate change,” the authors say, “needs to be shaped by engagement in community-based action that creates, resists and transgresses in the name of sustainability.”

The time to start talking about these issues with our students and children is now, while we still have options as to how to confront the changes that are coming.  To do any less is to fail in our responsibility as the adults who should be out blazing the trail for the kids following behind us.  If we know there’s white water up ahead, let’s at least give those behind us a heads-up and see what we can do to ride out the rapids safely, together.

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