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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's Note: Climate Change as Teaching Tool

Environmental leader Bill McKibben discusses grassroots solutions to climate change, and how to involve our children in the process.

For this special issue, we engaged a special guest to pen our Editor's Note. Bill McKibben is one of the leading lights of the environmental movement, a man who combines head and heart as he inspires and illuminates. We can think of no one better to open our first Green Issue.
--James Daly, Editor in Chief


Credit: Veer

If education is defined as something that prepares students for the future, then in schooling, there's no escaping the need to deal with global warming. There's nothing -- not terrorism, not technology -- that will affect the adult lives of today's kids as much as the coming shifts in the basic physical stability of the planet, and the measures we'll need to take to deal with them. And nothing, happily, is as useful as climate change for teaching kids about how knowledge interacts across disciplines, and about why knowledge counts.

The science part, of course, is obvious -- and the good news is that the basic physics and chemistry of climate change are fascinating and relatively easy to understand. If nothing else, students need to know just how ubiquitous carbon dioxide is -- they need to understand that if you burn a gallon of gasoline, you produce 20 pounds or so of carbon dioxide. Until you understand that, in your gut, it's hard to figure out why dealing with this problem is going to be so hard.

Unlike other pollution problems, which usually involve technical fixes to reduce the output of something noxious, fighting global warming means getting off fossil fuel -- it means leaving coal and oil and gas behind. This will be of interest to history classes, because it's with coal, oil, and gas that the Industrial Revolution began, and mass affluence started to spread. It's probably the most important historical development of the last 500 years.

Some of the solutions to climate change will involve new engineering -- all the sexy stuff like solar panels and hybrid electric cars that kids enjoy investigating. But it's likely that more of the answers will come from changing habits and ideas -- that is, from social studies and psychology.

Here are some questions I'd ask students:

  • How is it that Europeans manage to lead good lives, and yet burn only half as much energy per capita as Americans?
  • If you were designing a mass-transit system for your suburb, how would it work? And, more importantly, how would you get people to actually trade in their cars for a ride on the bus?
  • If your school were going to reduce its carbon footprint, where would you start? With the lightbulbs? With local food in the cafeteria? With turning down the thermostat in winter? With getting more kids to walk or bike to school?
  • Why is it that researchers have found that shoppers have ten times more conversations at a farmers' market than at the supermarket? What does it mean that farmers' markets are the fastest-growing part of the food economy in the United States?

For me, the best thing about questions like these is that they emphasize both the need and the hope for real transformation -- and that hope is crucial, given the bleak reality of onrushing climate change. I worry that, in the face of these changes, young people will become too depressed to want to act. It's scary, and scary things can cause us to turn away.

Instead, we need to be drawn in, seduced by the pleasure of imagining new futures. Because plan A -- going on just like we are now -- won't work, we need a plan B. And the younger you are, the easier it is to envision that plan B, because you're not as locked in by decades of habit or economic necessity.

But it's not just because students are young. It's also because they're in school, which is to say part of a community. In a society as hyperindividualistic as our own, that community may be the single most important ecological lesson a school has to teach: the simple power and pleasure of functioning as a community.

Just to walk outside and see the line of yellow buses is to remember that your town already has a mass-transit system. Simply to think about recess is to understand the pleasure of doing things together, not one by one. Those lessons about community -- about how to work with one another -- will be more important in solving the environmental crisis than any piece of new technology.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on the environment, including The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life, and a founder of Step It Up 2007, which has organized the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dana Bennis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I whole-heartedly agree with Bill McKibben that global warming is an essential issue that will effect young people's lives and that we need to discuss in schools, I believe he and others writing about these issues are missing a key ingredient:

Until and unless our schools are empowering, democratic, and respectful places in and of themselves we can not expect our young people to work to create empowering, democratic, and respectful societies, and that especially means working for a more sustainable and ecologically-friendly world.

As it is our schools send the message that young people's beliefs and interests are unimportant, and that adults have the right to subject young people to whatever we think they ought to do and learn. Is it any surprise, then, that our world is filled with hierarchy, subjugation, oppression, and destruction of the world's resources for our own use?

We must respect young people to direct their own learning and to be involved with the decision-making processes of their schools. We must not wish for a more sustainable and democratic future and continue the hypocrisy of schools that deny young people a voice and treat them as second-class citizens.

Thank you,
Dana Bennis

Hillel Weintraub's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dana, I think you've hit upon a basic element about what our schools are really teaching, and it ain't math (or grammer) (or spelling!)(sic-sick!) You know, we talk about bullying and we try to get kids to stop it, but how can kids grow up to be something other than bullies when they're being bullied at home and school, most of the time? Simply put, as Dana did, if we don't respect kid and give them a voice in their lives, they will grow up learning that lesson - if you got power from your age, sex, position, wealth, race, country, use to keep others in control. That's what bullying is and there's no bigger bully in the world right now than - well, let's avoid politics and stick to education, as though education is not a political issue!

So Dana, are you a parent, a student, a teacher - or some combination? Can you find ways to empower young people in whatever contact you have with them, and treat them like real human beings? I think we all have many opportunities to do this, and each chance is important. I tried to do this for nearly 40 years in the classroom, with still-growing awareness of my own bullying of students, and I'm trying in my everyday encounters with kids that come into the gallery I'm running.

with at least al modicum of hope, Hillel

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's thoughts like these that keep us dragging our feet on this critical issue. We can't do "A" until we do "B". We must address global warming NOW!!! We must address other important issues as well, but let's not buy into the wrong idea that we can't address global warming until we have fixed everything else that's wrong in our schools.

Kimberly Corrigan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bill suggests our students "design mass-transit systems for their suburbs," yet the vast majority of kids are attending school in big cities. Let's also focus on more directly connecting to urban settings/challenges.

The topics of nonviolence and peace are essential to "greening." Perhaps we can include a broader approach here and explore 'sustainability' as the interconnectedness of the environment, economics, and social justice within a framework of building a culture of peace.

One amazing resource for doing so is the Earth Charter -- a powerful blueprint of principles and values for creating a more just, sustainable and peaceful world, drafted by thousands of people, young and old, in seventy-seven countries from Argentina to Zambia over a 10-year grassroots process. Ratified by UNESCO in 2000 it's been an empowering 'guide' for almost a decade now.

Take a peek and prepare for inspiration! www.earthcharterinaction.org

"Professor" Paul O. Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul O. Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

Thank you Bill! You hit this issue right on the nail! Young people are going to be impacted the rest of their lives with this issue. I constantly hammer this issue into many of my discussions in both Biology and Anatomy and Physiology. I deal with Science Teachers in my part of the world that say that "Climate Change" does not exist! They are more concerned about the profits they are going to reap from the oil that they are pumping out of the ground, than being concerned about the well being of our planet! Science teachers who are not teaching "Climate Change" are actually promoting a political agenda in their classrooms. I guess it is hard to promote "Climate Change" when you have eighty percent or more of your students' parents who are working hard out in the oil field. I am more concerned about solving this issue because this is impacting our kids and grand kids' lives NOW and in the future!
Thank You Bill!

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