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How a Class on Zero Waste Became So Much More

How a Class on Zero Waste Became So Much More
Environmental activist Sage Lenier is seen teaching her class at UC Berkeley. Irene Yi

By Sage Lenier

Sage Lenier, an environmental activist and graduate from UC Berkeley, created a wildly popular course at her university dedicated to sustainable solutions and circular systems thinking against the broader backdrop of environmental justice. In Spring 2020, the course enrolled more than 300 students eager to learn how they can drive the shift toward a more ethical and sustainable society. The World Economic Forum sat down with Sage for a quick Q&A.

What Drove You to Start Teaching Zero Waste?

When I started at UC Berkeley, I was excited to be going to a school that had – I'm told – one of the best environmental curriculums in the nation. But I quickly realized that much of the education I was receiving had little real-life application; the material lacked the call-to-action that is really necessary for addressing the ecological crisis.

That's why I decided to create a course that was solutions-focused and action-based. I started out with the concept of zero waste, but I scaled it up from individual-level action to build a vision for an economy, design system and culture that operate on the premise that natural resources are valuable and limited. I also cover modern food systems, climate change and decarbonization, and green cities, always looking at a global picture of access, equity, and cultural and ecological diversity.

The approach I take helps students learn how all of these things come together for a vision of a sustainable future. I want them to be excited about the year 2100, rather than terrified.

What Are the Biggest Misconceptions About Your Course?

Sometimes my course gets misconstrued as a place where I teach students about what they can do to lessen their individual environmental impact. It's not really that at all. I do try to walk my students through the changes that they can make in their own lives, but the course is really about a societal revolution. It's focused on structural change, political advocacy, and community power.

Two-thirds of my students are not environmental majors, and I try to give everyone something that they can do with their lives and their careers. A business major, after taking the class, might tell me: "I want to spend my career in businesses that fit with the circular economy." Or a biochemistry major might say: "I could operate a green lab." I'm focused on big-picture solutions, all of us coming together to accomplish something through so many different avenues with our different skill sets, as well as how we can make our community a little bit better.

When We Talk About Climate Change, Sustainability and Equity, Are We Really Talking About the Same Thing?

Absolutely, and I think most people are shocked when they start taking my course to learn that I'm not really here to advocate on behalf of trees. Climate change is a social justice issue; it is already exacerbating existing inequalities and will continue to do so.

I'm first and foremost a human rights activist. I've been passionate about feminism and racial justice from a very young age and have always done my best to educate and engage those around me. I came to environmentalism a few years ago with the realization that there are no human rights on a dead planet - this one movement really has the potential to encapsulate every social issue we have.

What Do You Think Needs to Happen to Enable Us to Move to a Circular Economy More Quickly?

If we really want to move towards a circular economy, we have to do a lot of direct targeting of the big corporations who already have the infrastructure, financial power and influence in our society. In our activism work, we need to be demanding that these massive companies that actually run our society and have control over our economy and government are accountable to the people.

College Students Were Heavily Impacted by COVID-19 This Year. What Was That Experience Like for You, as a Student, Instructor and Activist?

I'll be honest, I lost a lot this year. I had to give up my dreams of expanding this course to other schools and communities for now, and all of my activism campaigns completely dissolved. After I graduated, I slept on the couch at my grandmother's house for two months. I was very lucky to receive a job offer in July for an environmental nonprofit and be financially stable for the second half of this year, but I've had to fight very hard to get my mental and physical health back from where they went when I thought I was losing everything I'd ever worked for. This year has been transformative in some good ways too, though; I needed to take a step back before I burned out, and I deactivated my social media for six months after a few super viral posts because I wanted to ask myself why I feel qualified to educate people and check my intentions. I'm young, and it's easy to develop an ego and forget what you're really working towards when you start getting media attention.

What's Next for You?

Right now I'm just feeling very grateful to be employed and still doing important work. Zero Waste USA recently reached out to me about sponsoring my course on their online platform, so I'm very excited to be back to teaching in the new year, and the class is going to be open to everyone! I want to keep going with this curriculum and eventually turn it into a book because I think what I've created is really unique, and it's a lot of the information that the average person really needs. For now, I'm getting back into the swing of things with teaching online and making educational content for Instagram. My teaching assistants, Annie Mitchell and Victoria Bartoszewicz, are still teaching it at Berkeley and after the pandemic I still do want to take it to other colleges, high schools, communities – anywhere that wants it.

When that eventually comes around, I'll be applying for grants and trying to get the book published. The idea of trying to get funding and hoping I get it and hoping it keeps coming is really scary, but I'm also excited because this is the most important thing that I can do – to continue to educate people and create a better equipped and larger environmental movement. It's a huge risk, but this is all I've ever wanted.

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

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