The revolutionary rock musical Hair encapsulated the angst of a generation confronting environmental degradation, racism, sexism, homophobia, and an endless unwinnable war (sound familiar?). It laid bare — especially in the last scene — the disillusionment with a bleak future and job prospects that only perpetuated the problem. Young people dropped out and dropped acid, marched and burned draft cards and clamored for fundamental change. They achieved much, like the first round of legislation protecting the environment and civil rights, so on this May Day I focus on the mobilization of youth underway today fighting to protect and extend those successes. The existential threat is no longer an American teenager being shot in a Southeast Asian jungle, but all ages everywhere confronting climate change. And if you don’t believe it’s a physical threat right now, just look at the temperatures in India.
Young people worldwide are deeply concerned, to the extent that nearly half of youth globally report that climate stress affects their daily activity. “Governments are betraying me and/or future generations” state fully 58% of respondents in the study published in the prestigious journal Lancet a few months ago. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, 57% of American teens are afraid of climate change, and 54% say they are “motivated.” Thus, many are working feverishly to undo past damage and build on past achievements through aggressive movements like Sunrise, Action for The Climate Emergency (ACE), Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, and more. Some are forcing divestment from fossil fuels at colleges and universities. Others are confronting climate impacts through social justice and anti-poverty efforts.
But many are not engaged at all, and this describes most of the students I teach every day in suburban Philadelphia. The impressive statistic from the Post-Kaiser poll that one-quarter of students have taken some action on climate change does of course imply that three-quarters have not, and the latter cohort is mostly whom I deal with. They’ve dodged the Greta Effect, so part of my own nascent climate activism, the theme of this monthly blog, is figuring out how to change that.
I love my students. Not because of their academic prowess (though some certainly display that), but because of their struggle. My campus’s demographic profile is a sample of the New America: Children of immigrants from India, Vietnam, Morocco, Jamaica, El Salvador, Liberia, you name it, alongside the D’Angelos and O’Briens whose ancestors came through Ellis Island and all those whose genetic memory is of slave ships. So many the first to go to college in their family; so many in my department (Biology) who envision themselves as the first physicians or veterinarians. They come to this miniaturized Penn State University rather than the main campus (the football stadium, surely the center of the Penn State Universe, is 176 miles away) for a number of reasons, often because it’s cheaper, accepts students with lower GPAs, and allows them to stay close to — usually live with — their families. They often represent the eighteen-year-olds who can’t imagine moving away from kin, as opposed to those who can’t wait to get away (that was me in 1976).
Climate change activism isn’t high on these kids’ to-do lists. I know: I gave a talk on the topic at a teach-in on campus last month, part of a week-long environmental justice fair (you can watch it here). The attendance wasn’t great, and I knew many of them were there for extra credit points or the free lunch later. I forged ahead with photos of enthusiastic peers and praise for youth who weren’t going to let the Establishment ruin their future. I pointed out that one of the co-founders of the acclaimed and influential Sunrise Movement was a recent graduate of nearby Swarthmore College, where he helped force the institution’s divestment from fossil fuels.
But here I verbally acknowledged what I figured they must be thinking: “Sure, Swarthmore. Rich kids who aren’t working thirty-hour weeks at Wawa and bringing their abuela to the doctor to translate between classes.” I saw the smiles and knowing nods. Indeed, Politico states that Sunrise is populated by “young activists [who] attend or graduated from schools like Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Stanford and other elite colleges.” How do we engage the overburdened Brandywine kids sitting in front of me, and the vast majority of students they represent, when absolutely every voice is needed to move the mountain of old white politicians?
We did a little word cloud activity on what terms were brought to mind by “political activism.” The cell phone app worked its magic and the screen populated with colored terms like “boycotts” and “petitioning”, with “protests” holding center stage as the most frequent mention. Then I asked, “How many of you have been to a protest, of any kind?” No hands. I chose another word. “Has anybody participated in a boycott?” No response. I reached into the cloud again. “How about writing a letter to the editor, or a politician?” A young woman offered that she had contacted her senator once about an internet security issue. Quite a few had signed petitions.
I know the students I teach are concerned about climate change from conversations and class exchanges, but political action is not on their radar. Yet these are the people who will be more affected by food shortages, sweltering heat waves, pressure to relocate, and increased crime than the privileged activists from elite colleges. It is critical to engage them in advocating for their future in ways that are straightforward, consume little time, and give them a sense of empowerment and hope.
Teaching resources on climate change are abundant, and some materials, like those from the Zinn Education Project, focus on climate justice issues of xenophobia, racism, and economic inequality, topics which may resonate with a diverse, economically challenged clientele. (I do shudder to think what would come of such a curriculum in Ron DeSantis’s Florida). Lord knows I have been sharing educational content for oh so many years, but what I want to do now is inspire action. Even from a pedagogical standpoint, active learning is the goal for any curriculum. Take it from Sarah Stapleton, Assistant Professor of Education and the current Environment Initiative Faculty Fellow at the University of Oregon. Here’s what motivates her to teach an entire course on climate activism:
We know from environmental education research that knowledge is not enough to inspire people to act sustainably. My own research has shown that asking students to engage in environmental action helps young people see themselves as environmental actors, furthering environmental identity… Climate change is such an urgent crisis, teachers need to engage with it in a way that inspires students to act NOW to make changes in their communities and country.
I attempted to do this at our ill-attended event, describing different ways to get involved by telling my recent history, the stories of this blog. I insisted that the time commitment need not be great, and that the joy and camaraderie could be downright euphoric while chanting at a courthouse, marching down Franklin Parkway, or phoning environmentalists in West Virginia (though I must say I was disappointed when nobody recognized Joe Manchin’s photo). Then, near the end of the session, I polled them to find out what activity they could see themselves doing. Protesting actually took the lead, followed in order by writing letters, phone banking, organizing and leading, lobbying, and, at the bottom, door-to-door canvassing.
Will it happen? Were they humoring me for the extra credit? I don’t know. But at the very least I proved my point by mobilizing my attendants on the spot, giving them the White House comment URL and something to write Joe about, based on my last blog. The Ukrainian invasion is being funded by European purchases of fossil fuels, I said, and the valves could be closed if our allies had efficient electric heat pumps instead of gas furnaces. The President could invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up domestic manufacturing of the units and ship them across the pond with lend-lease agreements such as those employed during World War II, rather than investing in fossil fuel infrastructure like LNG facilities. Everybody wins . . . except Putin. I gave them some suggested language to use, and off they went, clattering away on their keyboards.
They were clearly engaged and enthused. For many, it was their first political action ever. I hope it is the beginning of a transcendent, mind-blowing trip.