When I was sixteen, I left my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class having a full-on panic attack. In a lecture on topsoil collapse, my teacher had told us that the world had 100 years of agricultural soil left (which is not exactly true). When I asked him what we could possibly do about that, he replied that real change would require international cooperation in a way that has never happened before.
There are many impediments to transformative climate policies, and I was unwittingly experiencing one of them. It turns out that the problem-focused, panic-inducing AP Environmental Science class I took is the only standardized curriculum on that subject offered in the United States’ public school system, and only to high school students at select schools.
When I started at University of California, Berkeley the next year, I realized very quickly that “doomsday sermon” would be the theme of my environmental education. So I started teaching a class of my own design called Sustainable & Just Future. By my last semester, I had broken the record for the largest student-led course in the university’s history, twice. This program, which has now enrolled over 1,800 students and counting, is popular because it offers what our professors failed to: hope, a path forward, a solutions-oriented vision for the future.
Gen Z isn’t getting the education we need to survive and adapt to a climate-changed world. At the same time, 59 percent of young people are “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change, and millions have already lived through powerful climate-related disasters, some of which have wiped out entire communities. The existential threat of climate change has pushed us even further away from our textbooks, as thousands have committed to skipping school every Friday to protest climate inaction, waving signs that read, “Why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated?”
By the end of high school, young adults should have a robust understanding of humanity’s relationship with the Earth.
If adults want to get young people back into the classroom, they’re going to have to make some changes to the education they’re offering us. To do that, we need solutions-oriented environmental education that’s accessible to all. We could start children off with hands-on projects like gardening or foraging in elementary school, so they’re raised with essential life skills like food growing and plant identification. We could turn our public schools into havens for regional biodiversity, working to restore native species.
By the end of high school, young adults should have a robust understanding of humanity’s relationship with the Earth and the limitations of the resources that it can sustainably offer. An advanced curriculum would include a deep look at the environmental implications of the materials our lives are made of, always through a social justice lens. Who does the mining? Who does the harvesting, the sewing, the truck driving, and how must the system change to work better for them?
The goal of such an education system would not only be to revive the deep ties that we have to the places that raise us, but to also inspire people to be active participants in their ecosystems. A curriculum like this could drastically change our global society within a very short span of time. As children learn, so too would their caretakers and communities. And the next generation of people would have a drastically different set of priorities from those who came before them.
We could have a school system that helps young people grow up well-equipped to adapt to a climate-changed world. It’s true that we need more than a handful of educated activists and scientists; we need billions of people working together to meet the challenge of the ecological crisis. A better world is possible, and the environmental revolution must start with education. It’s time for my generation to take control of our own education and demand that we have access to the information we actually need.
This column was produced for the Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.