Telling the story of climate change: a call to action

You probably didn’t notice, but this past week another round of major international climate talks were held in Doha, Qatar, surely one of the least “green” locations on the globe.

The mainstream press barely bothered to give a nod to what has come to be a mind-numbing ritual of bait, switch and dodge.

The alternative press knew better than to look to the assembled ministers in Doha for any real news, focusing instead on the grim report released early last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

The 84-page report, titled “Turn Down the Heat” and funded by that radical fringe group known as the World Bank, demonstrates that if we continue our reckless heating of the planet at the present rate, all the scenarios of which readers of this blog are well aware—sea level rise, droughts and floods leading to severe food shortages, more frequent and more severe storms, loss of biodiversity and loss of human life on a biblical scale—will come to pass.

The executive summary of the report concludes with a measure of urgency:

“A 4C world is likely to be in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally.  It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured and unequal than today.  The projected 4C warming simply must not be allowed to occur–the heat must be turned down.  Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.”

But this takes us in circular fashion back to Doha, where as we know, nothing substantive is going on.

Those of us who are aware of what’s happening on the climate front—and let’s face it, there aren’t that many of us, we probably form our own little 1% club—find it frustrating and frightening to have to sit by and watch as our beloved planet goes into drastic human-induced traumatic shock while our leaders bicker and fiddle and run down the clock.

I find myself constantly pulled between A) wanting to support political efforts like Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour, which aims to educate and inspire action (specifically, divestment from fossil fuel companies to pressure them to reinvent themselves as bonafide green energy companies) and B) wanting to simply hunker down and build resilience at the local level, perhaps enrolling myself and my sons in a crash course in how to survive a disaster.

For the moment, I am focusing on doing what I can within my purview as a teacher to help the upcoming generation of young adults get a handle on what’s happening to our climate, and do their own productive thinking about how to engage in the struggle to turn things around.

Yesterday I was fortunate to have had a chance to participate in a small way in my colleague Eban Goodstein’s C2C Fellows Workshop, a national program based at Bard College that seeks to give young people the skills and understanding to become successful leaders in the global effort to stabilize our climate and create a sustainable economy.

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

This is an ambitious undertaking, and Goodstein is going at it full tilt, holding weekend workshops several times a year at college campuses across the country, and bringing graduate students to Bard, with generous funding, to undertake Master’s degree programs in environmental policy with a special emphasis on climate-related policy and advocacy.

As Goodstein puts it, “Stabilizing the climate is not the work of a year, of a presidential term, or of a decade. It is the work of a generation.”

I see it as an essential commitment and responsibility to use my skills as a writer, scholar and teacher to help equip the upcoming generation for this great work we must all undertake now.

Goodstein is a unique blend of science policy wonk and communications guru, and I’m convinced that it’s at this very nexus that real change on the climate front will be forged.

All the dire scientific reports in the world won’t get people to wake up and change their daily habits, or insist that policy changes are made at the local, state, national and international levels, if the information is not presented in clear, compelling language.

A significant portion of the C2C Workshop, therefore, is spent in developing students’ storytelling skills.

It was interesting, and somewhat disheartening, to watch the students’ puzzled reaction when asked by Goodstein to talk about a favorite storyteller in their family.  Very few hands went up.

This is because most Americans today are reared listening to the TV tell us stories, not cherished individuals in our actual lives.  We are avid but passive consumers of prepackaged stories, and as a result most of us—unless we have the ambition to become stand-up comedians—don’t see storytelling as a skill we need to master.

Goodstein’s important insight is that storytelling is key to getting people’s attention, and telling a good story is essential to success in environmental advocacy and politics.

Good persuasive communication, he said, starts with a personal story, and then moves into the political.  Hook your audience with a personal anecdote, keep their attention with a strong narrative, and then finish up with a call to action.  And once you’ve got a strong story developed, practice telling it, over and over again, until you can do it in your sleep.

Armed with this advice, the group of some 80 students broke into smaller groups of five, each accompanied by a faculty or graduate student facilitator, for a two-hour intensive storytelling workshop.  Our task was to each come up with a short story about an inspiring person or event, write it up and tell it three times, to three different partners, then refine it and tell it again to the whole group.

The stories would be refined further the next day, told again to new audiences, and several would be singled out for telling to the entire big group, and given awards.

This is the kind of work for which I have been preparing my whole life.  There is nothing I would rather do than facilitate a writing workshop on inspiring stories!  And it gives me special joy to do it as part of a program aimed at giving young people the skills and mojo to tell the climate change story in a way that galvanizes action.

It may be that in the end, I would have been better served by spending my time learning survival tactics in the woods, but the truth is that even in the most dire circumstances, human beings have always needed their storytellers.  A good story well told can keep us warm in ways that may not be measurable, but that are profound nevertheless.

Here is the story that I wrote and told the students yesterday in our workshop.  I offered it to them—and now to you—with love and an earnest desire that it may inspire us all to each get to work on the climate change issue—in our own ways and spheres—before it’s too late.

My friend Pauline tells the story of how she came home from work one day and discovered that a civil war had started in her country, Congo-Brazzaville.  Suddenly she had ten people, mostly women and children, sheltering in her house as gunfire and bombs shook the streets of the city. 

When a bomb hit the house, she and her family and friends knew they needed to make a run for it.  They gathered what food and supplies they could carry, and left the house in the middle of the night, heading for the countryside. 

What followed was weeks of deprivation and terror as they huddled in the forest waiting for the conflict to die down so that it would be safe to return home.

I tell this story because it is emblematic of the many stories I have studied over the years, in which women and children are disproportionately affected as victims of social conflict and war. 

I tell it because I fear that in the age of climate change this is a story that will be repeated over and over again. Whether the violence is human—men with guns—or natural—hurricanes or droughts—the effects will be the same: women and children on the run, vulnerable and afraid.

Recent studies indicate that hundreds of millions of people will become climate refugees in the next half-century.  And they won’t all be in Bangladesh or the Maldives, either.  Just ask a former resident of Breezy Point in New York City, devastated by Hurricane Sandy, how it feels.

In our lifetimes we will all witness–and many of us will likely experience—the kind of fear and hardship that Pauline lived through, when the social order disintegrated and violence became the norm. 

There are many, many guns in America.  It would not take much in the way of food and energy shortages to trigger violence.

Sometimes I find myself wondering whether I should be learning and then teaching others survival skills, instead of critical thinking and writing. 

What good will my PhD in literature do me in an age of relentless, recurring Hurricane Sandys?  What good will a vaunted college degree do my students?

But I do continue to believe that the stories of survivors like Pauline matter, and increasingly these are the stories I offer students in my classes on human rights, environmental justice, politics and literature.

We all need to learn from Pauline and other survivors about the amazing resilience of the human spirit.  Even in the face of terror and chaos, people can choose to be compassionate, generous and respectful of one another. We don’t all choose the violent path. 

It will not help any of us to focus on fear right now, as the climate change crisis gains momentum and threatens to engulf us.  What we must concentrate on instead is hope, resilience and solidarity.  That’s what the world needs from us now.

Education at the crossroads: cookie cutter or cutting edge?

“Education has to be at the forefront of restoring this country,” said Bard College President Leon Botstein today, at a ceremony formally welcoming incoming Simon’s Rock provost Peter Laipson to his new post.

“The problem with America is an absence of discipline and an unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths,” Leon continued, elegantly making the case for liberal arts education as a crucial piece of the on-going struggle to bring our country back to its core values of democracy, tolerance and creativity.

Most importantly, he said, “young people need the tools to be able to think for themselves.”

So true–and yet this kind of active learning has to start long before the college level!  I contrast Leon’s remarks today with the parents’ open house I attended last week at my son’s middle school, where all of the teachers made reference to how their lesson plans included preparation for the MCAS exams (the Massachusetts version of the No Child Left Behind federally mandated standardized tests), which the 7th graders will be taking next spring.

The middle school principal, in his welcoming remarks, talked about school as a place to ignite students’ passions, but once the teachers took the stage there wasn’t much talk of passion, nor of the kind of student-centered learning that helps kids find out what they’re interested in.

In today’s networked world, kids don’t need to memorize information or formulas.  They need to be turned on to the excitement of learning; they need to be encouraged to develop their creativity, to take the risk of venturing into unexplored conceptual territory, to become the innovators our society so desperately needs.

It was good to hear Leon Botstein and Peter Laipson affirm Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, the founder of Simon’s Rock, as a social entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and who dreamed big and had the staying power to manifest her vision of an early college–a completely new idea back in 1966, and still quite unorthodox today.

Betty Hall realized that some high school students have the intellectual and social maturity to start college after the 10th grade, and she took the risk of actually trying it out.  The rest is history–the history of Simon’s Rock, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

As a Simon’s Rock alum (I earned my B.A. in English and journalism there in 1982) I can attest to the excitement of switching from the dull routine of high school to the much more intense small-group discussions that characterized Simon’s Rock classes then, and still do today.

I went to an excellent high school, Hunter College High School–and yet once I got to Simon’s Rock, in part because of the interesting, stimulating peer group, I was clearly in a whole new ballgame.  I was indeed encouraged to explore my passions, which at the time were reading and writing.  Under the guidance of outstanding mentors, I wrote a B.A. thesis on androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, while working part-time as a reporter for The Berkshire Courier, the Great Barrington weekly newspaper.  I credit those two experiences with the whole unfolding of my subsequent career, from the Ph.D. in literature to the on-going interest in and practice of journalism and media studies.

Leon is right that education has a key role to play in turning our country around.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in an earlier post, even at the college level things are not what they used to be, as the tenured faculty gives way to legions of adjuncts–freelancers with Ph.Ds–who now are frequently not even on campus, but rather teaching through distance learning platforms from their homes.

It’s too soon to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning.  It has the potential to be emancipatory, accessible to far more students, including those who could not afford the luxury of a four-year residential liberal arts education of the kind Leon Botstein was talking about today.  It could also turn into the worst kind of cookie-cutter education, MCAS on steroids.

One of the tasks of educators today has to be to enter with spirit into the unfolding of the distance learning revolution, making sure the technology is being used to promote active learning and critical thinking, not rote learning or multiple choice testing.  We also have to make sure that networked computer technology actually connects young people, rather than alienating them from each other and from potential mentors.

As Leon said, it’s not a question of teaching students to believe any particular truths or ways of seeing the world, it’s a question of enabling them to make their own informed observations, and giving them the tools to act on what they see and know.  We’re not talking about education as indoctrination, but about education as the constant opening of new doors to further understanding–a never-ending process that should not, and cannot be confined merely to the classroom.

Communicating the excitement of learning is the single most important role of a teacher at any grade level.  Once we teachers become jaded or bored with what we’re offering, it’s all over.  We have to find ways of making it new, by constantly leaving ourselves open to new ideas and viewpoints.  Often for me, it’s the students themselves who lead the way into new ways of seeing familiar texts or concepts.

It can be hard for a teacher to give up the powerful illusion of being the one who knows all the answers.   The truth is, we’re here to enable the next generation of thinkers to imagine questions that have not yet been asked or even thought of.

What could be more exciting than that?

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