Environmental Education Begins with Hope
Some say that the best way to learn is to teach. In my second year as a college environmental educator, I have learned much more about my subject matter—namely the increasingly tenuous ability of nature to meet the needs of seven billion human consumers. But I have also come to learn the barriers to understanding and acting upon the signs of planetary peril, including climate change, peaking oil production, water depletion and toxics in our food.
Antioch University Midwest in southwestern Ohio, where I teach, has since 1990 required all of its students to take a course entitled, Global Ecology and Public Policy. At that time, ozone layer depletion was a prime concern, climate science was just beginning to show that human-caused climate changes were occurring, and the world seemed awash in relatively cheap crude oil as the suburbs continued to sprawl.
In many ways, my course probably looks similar to the one offered in 1990. I have my students read books by Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, published well before 1990. I treat my students to an overview of the modern environmental movement beginning in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and give presentations on long-standing problems like hunger and poverty, global water shortages and soil depletion, and show how the exponential growth during the industrial revolution, and consequently environmental destruction, came with the explosive increase in fossil fuel use. I could have given similar lectures in 1990, if I weren’t just eight years old at the time, that is.
Yes, the environmental situation has deteriorated. Today, civilization’s prospects are more dire as conventional oil production peaks, money and credit get scarcer and resources become more monopolized. In addition nearly every environmental indicator has worsened over the last 30 years, such as measures of biodiversity, habitat loss and species extinction.
The perennial war between humans and nature rages on, while in the battle of ideas an anti-environmental perspective appears to prevail, with many environmentalists portrayed as “doomers” in the media because of their focus on resource limitations and industrial decline.
At the same time, the populace remains detached from the ecological world, distracted by the race for money and consumer goods, while buried in debt, trapped in concrete jungles and viewing nature through the distorted lens of a television screen or car window.
Is hope and optimism fading with the worsening environmental indicators? Were my course to be taught in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, there might have been much more optimism. Even in 1990 it may have seemed as if environmental awareness could reach such a height that over-consumption might be stemmed before resource limits were reached. The problems themselves are daunting, but even more daunting is the long lull since we became so much more aware of them.
The thinking goes something like this: “Surely, if we were going to stop our environmental collapse, we would have done so by now. Since we haven’t, we won’t.” I find this hard to disagree with, yet my role as an environmental educator is not just to explain threats to humanity but to combat despair.
Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the role of formal education itself, which Berry and Leopold are highly critical about as it elevates book learning over knowledge gained from being in nature, and thus creates a populace indifferent to the natural world and its fate. As Leopold asks in A Sand County Almanac, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.” We should take heed.
This semester I will dust off a few of my old PowerPoints with graphs and statistics that hit like a bomb in the classroom. But I will also take my students hiking, spend time at local farms and parks, and explore our emotional and physical relationships to the natural world. We will trace the origin of our water supplies, find point-source pollution in our neighborhoods, discover why mass-produced food is so cheap, and learn the human and natural consequences of our addiction to finite and fast-dwindling fossil fuels.
If industrial civilization soon collapses, as those “doomers” claim, we face living directly from nature’s bounty, deteriorated though it may be. So we better become familiar with our local habitat and living locally. Saving our dying planet, and ourselves, is preceded by knowing, loving and caring for this place and its inhabitants. Leopold put it best: “We grieve only for what we know.”
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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