As a former student, I was inundated with signs that the world is crumbling around us through the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and – ad nauseum – in the classroom. While there is growing yet diffuse support for the environment across the country among the student body, it is hard to cut through the feeling of ‘what can I, as one person, really accomplish?’ At the same time, our leaders seem to have met global environmental challenges with fractured responses, inspiring nothing more than a fatalistic stupor. This slow, fragmented environmental progress poses a challenge for today’s environmental leaders and educators. In an age of pessimism and uncertainty, they will need to guide a growing, environmentally passionate base of individuals through the next generation of environmental challenges.
For many, environmental education begins in the classroom. In the short time since I graduated university, great strides have occurred in a number of university programs across the country that have either been created with an environmental focus, or have been amended to include one, such as UBC’s new Masters in Public Policy and Global Governance. However, a focus on the environment is only a step in the right direction. University courses must be conscious of how they are presenting the myriad of environmental hurdles yet to be addressed. Among the doom and gloom, there must be a focus on possible solutions in the face of these challenges.
David R. Boyd, also known as the ‘Optimistic Environmentalist,’ notes that students he comes in contact with overwhelmingly communicate a feeling of helplessness and despair regarding environmental issues. He stresses the need to focus on key successes, such as national legislation working to save endangered species, to protect land and water, and to repair the ozone layer. Much of this legislation came from environmentally passionate individuals within and outside of parliament that recognized the need for a legally-binding framework to protect our environment. The key point is that successes, big and small, local or national, often begin with individuals who have an idea, and who can make that idea a reality with the support of our democratic system of governance.
Building the Next Wave of Environmental Leaders
Many of us have become acutely aware of environmental problems. What’s needed is to embed the idea that strong environmental leadership can still affect change.
In the recent Federal election, an impressive cohort of 14 environmental leaders from the GreenPAC Green 18 were elected and subsequently placed in significant areas of influence. Backed by supporters from across the country, each brings to the table a portfolio of expertise when it comes to tackling our biggest environmental problems, and now they are taking the stage. The environmental challenges are manifest for these newly elected leaders, but the latent challenge is to inspire the next generation of skilled leaders to take this path.
There is no one way to empower the next generation of leaders, but I would urge change-makers and educators to shift focus from the impending (or surpassed) climate ‘tipping-point’ narrative to a more optimistic and engaged story. Consistently feeding the fear of climate change can overwhelm the confidence to seek solutions. A 2009 study published in the journal Scientific Communication entitled ‘Fear Won’t Do It’ showed that imagery focusing on fear may be effective at raising awareness about climate change, but highly counterproductive in motivating individual engagement. Focusing on fear will increase barriers to engagement and create an environment of reflexive apathy.
Instead of ringing the alarm bells, what we should expect from our current leaders is commitment to real environmental change. Recently, in Prime Minister Trudeau’s public mandate letter to Ms. McKenna, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, he outlines the party’s top priorities to becoming national leaders in creating a clean environment and sustainable economy. The letter in itself is a reason to be optimistic, but more importantly it establishes a set of commitments to the environment through established legislative and regulatory processes.
Ultimately, if we see more national leadership from our government in terms of progress on environmental legislation, we will be more inspired to become leaders ourselves. Moreover, within this complex lies the opportunity - and the responsibility - to make sure they get there. We can do this by rallying in our communities, workplaces, and, indeed, our schools, and becoming informed citizens who aren’t afraid to speak out if our politicians stray from their commitments. This is an idea well worth promulgating in the classroom, and is something to remember when confronted with that helpless feeling of ‘what can I do?’
Nathan Seef is a freelance writer/researcher who holds an MA from the University of Sheffield, UK in international criminology and specializes in transnational environmental harms.