As I’ve blogged about a few times recently, I have been working with a couple of collaborators, Susan Cheng and JW Hammond, on a project aimed at understanding student views on climate change. As part of this, I’ve been thinking about what we teach and how we teach it, and also about a common challenge faced by instructors who teach about climate change: how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?
As I was working on the manuscript describing the first set of our results, I typed a sentence to that effect, and then just sat and stared at the computer for a bit, wondering “Is it my responsibility as a biology instructor to leave students empowered and with a sense of purpose?”
I often just plow through as I write, leaving things like “<insert more here>” to avoid disrupting my flow while I am writing. So, to sit and just stare at my computer for 5 or so minutes after writing a sentence is unusual for me. Less unusual is that I decided to go to twitter to see what other people thought:
It was interesting, and I think encouraging, to see that almost all the people who responded (excluding the folks who just wanted to see the results!) said yes.
A few days later, I got to the section of the discussion where I wanted to go into this more. I wrote out a topic sentence that laid out the idea that educators would ideally want to both educate and empower students, and asking how instructors can do that. Once again, I got stuck. I had no idea what to write, so instead added a comment indicating I needed to do more reading and thinking before I could actually write that paragraph. And, since I was working on that section while home with kids on yet another snow day, it wasn’t a great day for reading and thinking and reflecting, so I moved on.
When the kids finally went back to school, I came back to that section. I came up with this list of things that might leave students feeling empowered rather than despondent:
- Empowering women and girls can help fight climate change (TED talk by Katharine Wilkinson on the topic)
- The Green New Deal, which aims to substantially reduce US carbon emissions, has rapidly gained in popularity and, therefore, political viability
- Young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are organizing climate strikes in which tens of thousands of students have participated
- Leading students in the World Climate Exercise, which has been shown to increase the motivation of participants to take action on climate change, including leaving participants with greater feelings of urgency and hope and a greater desire to act on climate (Rooney-Varga et al. 2018).
As I’ve thought about this, I’ve ended up with countless tabs open in my browser as I try to think about what I can change in my course to give students some hope. But then I got to one of those tabs, which argues that we shouldn’t aim to have hope:
Everything will be okay. We say it even when we don’t believe it.
Maybe we should stop saying it. There is opportunity in this acceptance. [Climate scientist Kate] Marvel thinks we need courage, not hope. We must know what’s coming, we must realize it will hurt, and we must be very strong together.
I also found the idea of solastalgia, which is “the homesickness felt when one’s home environment is damaged or degraded”, really interesting. As the person who coined the term, Glenn Albrecht, writes, “we are in the middle of a pandemic of earth-related distress that will only get worse. Everything that was once familiar and trusted in our environment will be experienced as the “new abnormal” as development and climate pressures continue to build.”
Given all that, should we be trying to leave our students feeling hopeful?
I’d love to hear from you, based on your experiences as a student and/or instructor in a course that covers climate change. Should we aim to leave students with a sense of hope? Should we aim to leave them feeling inspired to action? And, if so, how can we do that?