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A Pollyanna approach to teaching environmentalism that’s less depressing

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A few years ago, I discovered my undergraduates had informally renamed my Intro to Environmental Studies class. They called it "Environmental Depression."

I’ve been teaching college undergraduates about the environment for 20 years. Like many others, I focus on how humans are changing the earth system through pollution, deforestation, resource exploitation and climate change. I school them on the inadequacies of environmental policy and try to shock them out of complacency and into action.

Problem was, it wasn’t working. Many students left my class feeling despondent and powerless. As one wrote to me, "what you have taught me makes me desperately sad, clinging to the last memories we will have of the planet as the world chooses material comfort over breathing fresh air."

Grim, no? I wanted to turn my students into change agents. Instead, I was doing the opposite. I was ignoring important research in my own field of climate change that demonstrates that fearful people feel disempowered and less willing to act. How would my students be motivated to do something if they felt paralyzed by fear and hopelessness?

So I decided to change my narrative. However negative I might feel about the environmental future, I started to include many more positive and hopeful examples and analyses in my lectures. For example, when looking at the American landscape, instead of focusing mostly on pollution, soil erosion and species extinction, I emphasized the transformative influences of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson in protecting landscapes and conserving wildlife.

Rather than lament the failures of U.S. policy to reduce climate risks, I point out how four decades of laws helped clean up our air and waterways, saving lives, money and ecosystems.

At the global level, I now highlight successful collaborations to improve the environment. I explain how we discovered the ozone hole in 1985 and then signed an international treaty in 1987 agreeing to control the chemicals that caused it, reducing risks of cancer. An earlier example is from the 1950s, when, miraculously, countries set aside the continent of Antarctica — all 5 million square miles of it, larger than the land area of the United States - for peaceful purposes, science and conservation with no human permanent residents (but millions of penguins).

And rather than spend so much time on the environmental injustices suffered by the poor, I talk more about how we have halved poverty and given millions access to safe water.

I tell students that they can reduce their own environmental footprint through conservation, recycling and changing consumption patterns; but I also empower them to maximize their "handprint" by spreading ideas, helping others or choosing a career that protects the environment.

I give examples of how individuals change laws, campaign for low carbon public transport and organize to elect officials who protect the environment. And I have students who lead campus "green" organizations — such as the "Compost Cats" that recycle campus, community and even zoo waste into compost — give guest lectures.

I’ve taught this revised class two times now, and the student evaluations are different. Now, students say things like "I’m motivated to follow a green career" and "My roommates are fed up with me telling them all the things they can do to save the planet."

To be sure, I sometimes find myself falling back in to the old pattern of finding downsides and caveats of all these positive examples — highlighting the new threats to wilderness, the failures of pollution control and how as people escape poverty they often increase their greenhouse gas emissions.

But then I remember: I’m not ignoring the terrifying things we are doing to our environment and our neighbors, it’s just that I am providing solutions and hope as well. To my surprise, this Pollyanna attitude has helped me as well. I invested in solar and water harvesting for my home, and I actively support local political candidates with strong environmental records. I’m glad I paid attention to my students and developed a more positive outlook.

Liverman is the co-director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, a member of the Op-Ed Public Voices fellowship, and a current Guggenheim fellow.

— Washington Post

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