Aldo Leopold famously wrote,”One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” As environmental educators, we must ask ourselves what we are giving our students that equips them to deal with this harsh reality.
by Nick Engelfried (2017)
It hurts to love nature in the twenty-first century. Climate change, species extinctions, toxic forms of resource extraction like fracking, all will inevitably be encountered by our students in headlines and the evening news. Again and again, they will be confronted with news of harm being done to the world they have grown to love. What tools can we give students to defend themselves against despair and cynicism?
The solution, I believe, is for students to see environmental issues not as a serious of hopeless problems, but as a set of challenges with solutions they can take action to implement. By “taking action,” I don’t mean changing light bulbs, turning off the faucet, or reducing one’s meat consumption.
Making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices may provide a temporary sense of relief for some students. However, those who think critically about it will quickly realize that much larger forces than their individual footprints are at play in creating the climate crisis.
If we want to help students thrive in Leopold’s “world of wounds,” we must guide them far beyond the realm of personal consumption choices. We must help them see opportunities for collective, not just individual action. This is especially important for students of high school age and up, who are both developmentally ready to think about social change and increasingly likely to be exposed to environmental news as their awareness of the world around them expands.
I recently had the opportunity to experiment with teaching students about collective action and climate change, while co-leading a group of high school juniors and seniors on a 12-day backpacking trip for the North Cascades Institute (NCI) Youth Leadership Adventures program. NCI is a nonprofit that has been helping people connect with nature in and around the majestic mountains of North Cascades National Park for over three decades. NCI’s Youth Leadership Adventures program gets high school students out into the backcountry to learn about natural history, sustainability, and leadership.
In the lessons my two co-instructors and I taught while leading our students through North Cascades National Park, we made a point of emphasizing climate change solutions that involve collective organizing. The successes and challenges we encountered may, I hope, be useful to educators in similar positions who wish to help their students become effective agents of environmental change.
On the third day of the trip, one of my co-instructor colleagues led a lesson which introduced concepts like how the greenhouse effect works. We felt it was important to give students this grounding in basic climate science as a way to set the stage for future lessons.
Two days later, we introduced students to some specific impacts of climate change on people around the world. Another of my fellow instructors led a “Climate Change Mixer” activity taken from Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart’s excellent book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Students participated in a role play in which they took on the roles of real people whose lives are affected by climate change or energy extraction. Afterwards, several students expressed surprise at the severity of climate change impacts on people like members of the Gwich’in nation in the Arctic, whose way of life is threatened by melting ice and the die-off of caribou.
Having acquainted students with the science of climate change and some of its effects, we were ready to talk about action. The day after the mixer activity, I led a lesson on social change designed to get students thinking about how they could have a positive influence on climate issues. I opened the lesson by introducing a concept none of the students had heard of before: theory of change.
A person’s theory of change is their mental conceptualization of how change occurs in society. If you believe the solution to environmental problems is for each of us, one by one, to decide to change our lightbulbs and reduce our meat intake, that’s your theory of change. This is also the theory promoted by many mainstream environmental education materials, which emphasize individual lifestyle changes above all else.
Another, equally problematic theory of change most high schoolers have encountered is that major societal changes are mostly triggered by charismatic individuals and “super-people,” who inspire the masses with exceptional acts of daring or wisdom. The way history is taught at the elementary and high school levels tends to reinforce this theory. Traditional historical narratives focus on charismatic leaders—the George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns, and Martin Luther Kings—to the virtual exclusion of thousands of other ordinary people who contributed to making change happen.
To get students thinking critically about developing their own theory of change, I had us analyze one of the most famous accounts of personal bravery from US history: the Rosa Parks story. I asked a student volunteer to recount the story the way they’d learned it in school. The traditional narrative goes something like this: Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, decided one day that she would not put up with racist segregation laws any longer. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and this act of personal bravery inspired the city-wide Montgomery Bus Boycott. This in turn gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement.
I next introduced some additional facts usually left out of the Rosa Parks story (these particular bits of background information were drawn from Paul Schmitz’s article for Huffington Post, “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott”). They include:
• Rosa Parks had a long history of challenging segregation. In 1943, she was elected Secretary of the local NAACP chapter.
• Prior to her arrest, Parks had received training in nonviolent civil disobedience practices at the Highlander Folk School.
• When Parks was arrested in 1955, Alabama NAACP President E. D. Nixon was already searching for a good plaintiff to challenge segregation laws.
• Organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a major undertaking involving many people. Jo Ann Robinson, a local leader in the Women’s Political Council, spearheaded an effort to print and post 15,000 fliers supporting the boycott.
None of these details diminishes the significance of Rosa Parks or the heroic nature of her actions. However, the picture they paint is quite different from the traditional Rosa Parks story. Rather than an act of individual bravery spontaneously triggering change, this more accurate narrative becomes one about a community of people coming together to challenge an unjust system.
It was now time to get students thinking about social change in an age of climate crisis. To do this, I introduced a role play centered around a current issue in Washington State: the controversy over a proposed new oil export terminal on the Columbia River in Vancouver, WA.
I first gave students some context. Tesoro-Savage, an oil infrastructure company, is seeking permits from the State of Washington to build the country’s largest oil export facility at the Port of Vancouver. If built, the terminal would further the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, and would be serviced by four oil trains per day passing through many towns and cities in the Columbia River Gorge. A train derailment in any of these communities could cause a disaster involving a massive explosion and thousands of gallons of spilled oil.
Given that most students in our group came from Washington or northern Oregon, the Vancouver oil export debate is unfolding in their backyards. Despite this, not one student had heard about the issue before I introduced it to them. This says something about the state of environmental education in our schools.
Having given students basic facts about the oil export proposal, I next introduced a fictional scenario set in a hypothetical community called Columbia Village. I asked students to imagine that Washington Governor Jay Inslee had given the oil project its final permit (in fact, Governor Inslee is expected to make a decision later this year). Oil trains would soon begin rolling through Columbia Village, which is situated in the Gorge along the rail line. For the role play, students would take on the personas of people from a variety of backgrounds meeting at the Columbia Village Community Hall to discuss a response to this environmental and public safety threat.
Unlike the roles assigned to students in the Climate Change Mixer, those I created for this activity were not based on real people. However, as someone who has attended dozens of meetings where members of a community came together to challenge fossil fuel projects, I carefully modeled each role around a different point of view that one frequently encounters at such gatherings. Specific characters included a mother concerned about dangers to her children, an activist advocating mass civil disobedience, and a member of the Yakama Tribe concerned about the oil project’s impact on fishing rights.
At this point in the lesson we took a break for dinner, and to let students familiarize themselves with their roles. I explained that students’ job at the community meeting would be to advocate for their character’s point of view about an acceptable course of action. Students would be allowed to “change their minds,” but only if they felt this was realistic and that the concerns of their character had been adequately addressed.
My hope for this activity was students would realize that many characters in the role play represented very different theories of change—and that their job at the meeting must be to reconcile these diverse points of view into a plan that could realistically achieve the desired result. I myself participated in the role play when we reconvened, acting as the meeting facilitator whose only goal was to ensure a consensus was reached without advocating any particular point of view.
The role play that unfolded over the next forty minutes or so at least partly satisfied my hopes for the activity. Unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious issues was that of using civil disobedience to confront the oil trains. One character in the role play advocated people blockading the oil trains with their bodies—and several others responded negatively to this idea, arguing that it was too dangerous. It was not unlike actual debates over civil disobedience, which I have listened to at many real-life meetings.
As an alternative to civil disobedience, another student suggested organizing a massive but legal protest near the rail line. I was surprised that the students seemed to think getting a permit for such an event would be a much longer and more arduous process than would probably really be the case. More predictably, many students were a bit naïve about how many people they could get to show up at a protest, envisioning a crowd of 100,000. The Dalles, one of the larger towns in the Columbia Gorge, has a population of only some 14,000, and most Gorge communities are much smaller.
Another character in the role play suggested everyone work on reducing their individual carbon footprints so as to make oil infrastructure irrelevant. I had added this point of view hoping it would force students to grapple with whether individual lifestyle changes are really enough. As it turned out, many students seemed genuinely torn about this. Some were understandably drawn to the idea that individual changes might inspire larger community-wide actions. Others pointed out that even if an entire town’s population switched to energy efficient light bulbs, this wouldn’t have much impact on global economic forces that made the oil export project viable. While students never addressed the lifestyle issue in quite the direct way I hoped they might, I felt satisfied they were coming to realize that individual changes are necessary but not sufficient.
In the end the students, through their role play characters, arrived at a consensus for a compromise course of action: to move forward with a march and a petition-gathering effort, while also embarking on a public education campaign to encourage sustainable lifestyles, and preserving the option of civil disobedience for those who wished to engage in it. In real life, such a wide-ranging, ambitious plan of action would probably seem unrealistic for a new community group’s first meeting. However, I feel this is far less important than the fact that students were able to recognize the value of different theories of change as well as some of their defects, and to come up with a plan not unlike the strategies some real climate activist organizations have developed.
After the social change lesson, I realized in my eagerness to get students thinking about collective action, I had neglected to fully bring the lesson back to students’ own experience and concrete actions they themselves could take. Fortunately there was time to rectify this. Later in the trip, one of my colleagues led an activity in which students made a pledge to themselves to take a climate-related action of their own choosing within the next year. Some students’ pledges centered around lifestyle changes like using less plastic or water. But I was pleased to note others chose collective actions like getting involved in activist groups or starting a climate-focused club at their schools.
The climate change lessons my colleagues and I taught during this 12-day trip represented an experiment in getting students to think about how environmental change actually happens. There are things I plan to do differently next time I teach a similar curriculum. At the beginning of the social change lesson, I wish I had spent more time illustrating the theory of change concept with specific examples. In designing the oil trains role play, I also could have done more to flesh out the characters assigned to each student, which perhaps would have led to deeper conversations about diverse perspectives.
These lessons learned aside, I feel the curriculum my colleagues and I devised for this backpacking trip successfully helped students take the first tentative steps toward envisioning how they might play a role in confronting climate chaos—and not just by participating in Meatless Mondays. I hope they came away with at least a few tools for fighting back against the sense of hopelessness despair that can come from living in a “world of wounds.” ❏
Bigelow, Bill and Tim Swineheart. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2014. 410 pages. ISBN number: 978-0-942961-57-7. The “Climate Change Mixer” activity described on pages 92-101 is referenced for this article.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, With Essays on Conservation From Round River. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1970. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1949 and 1953. 295 pages. ISBN number: 0-345-34505-3. The quote used in this article, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” appears on page 197.
Schmitz, Paul (December 1, 2014). “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Huffington Post. Retrieve August 7, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-schmitz/how-change-happens-the-re_b_6237544.html. This piece was used as the main source for background information about the Rosa Story.
Nick Engelfried is an environmental educator and activist, currently working on his M.Ed. in Environmental Education through Western Washington University. As part of his work for the degree program, he is participating in a year-long residency working with the North Cascades Institute.