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.

Leave a comment


  1. It seems like, with high-stakes testing, even less time is spent on environmental issues. Or even science for that matter. Which I think will be absolutely terrible if it continues. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m always looking for good teaching books.

    Darlena O.

  2. leavergirl

     /  January 25, 2012

    Well, you know… the primary purpose of public schools has never been education.

    Besides, if a school did it this way, some parents would come yelling that it’s not right to scare kids like this, and it’s all a hoax anyway.

    Even The Economist is not facing reality. Is it rational to expect better from schools?

    And finally, scenarios are a stupid waste of time. At best. At worst, they seduce people into scenario crafting and planning while the doing gets short shrift.

  3. In Australia, David Holmgren who co-founded the permaculture movement likens our denial to bitching about a crack in the pavement while about to blithely step into the precipice ahead. Truly we are an amazingly stupid species for not using this big brain of ours to save ourselves and all the inhabitants of this precious planet. You are so spot on with your posts, Jen.
    To me our paramount responsibility to kids facing the collapse due to climate chaos and peak oil is to prepare them for adaptation. Certainly they need honest assessments of future scenarios so they will be psychologically prepared, although I must say, having survived one extremely traumatic climate change event, it’s really hard to undermine recovery by letting on to my girls that extreme wildfires will recur.
    None of us want to be harbingers of anything other than assurance with children, which makes this stuff really tough. But Australia, which is expected to be hard hit, is already a mess of droughts, floods, fires and hurricanes. It always was, but the frequency and severity is definitely on the up. Like you, we constantly hear mention of record temperatures, rainfall (absence then deluge), wind-speed, etc. Yet the majority think “Some-one will fix it”, or “It’s all a beat up conspiracy by the left with their hands in the pockets of the climate scientists.” Jobs and economic growth are the sacred mantra of the mainstream, so the coal station building and mining and destruction/pollution continue. Other than the Greens, the politicians are weak. Of people who do see our situation there are some nasty reactionaries, like the cooky Survivalists and the insane Deep Green Resistance extremists, both with strong and regressive violence agendas.
    Then, thankfully there are reasonable people, like you, who get it, and advocate preparation.
    For me, adaptation involves expecting less, making do, and developing as much self/local community reliance as possible. It involves a massive shift away from the consumer inanity that has become our culture. The kids need access to the possibility of simple living, through education. They could use (bloody) Facebook to share and explore sites pertaining to voluntary simplicity, permaculture, transition initiatives and so on, and then get active. If they get inspired maybe they can find ways to soften the awful fall awaiting them, even in New York City?
    Kids can adapt to less. Mine accepted vegetarianism, for example, without protest, and I certainly did not expect that! Kids really don’t want to exacerbate the problem, they just aren’t being led to where there are possible alternatives.

  4. leavergirl

     /  January 27, 2012

    Hey Angie, what you say all makes sense.
    Except: “honest assessments of future scenarios”
    There ain’t no such thing. They are, generally, panic-monger propaganda.

    I’ve stopped paying attention to these thing, and focus on what makes sense. Part of our preparation is surely getting good at sifting the wheat from chaff?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: