By Diana Liverman August 20 Diana Liverman is the co-director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, a member of the Op-Ed Public Voices fellowship, and a current Guggenheim fellow.
Steam rises from the stacks of the coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plant outside Point of the Rocks, Wyo. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
A few years ago, I discovered my undergraduates had informally renamed my Intro to Environmental Studies class. They called it “Environmental Depression.”
I’ve been teaching college undergraduates about the environment for 20 years. Like many others, I focus on how humans are changing the earth system through pollution, deforestation, resource exploitation and climate change. I school them on the inadequacies of environmental policy and try to shock them out of complacency and into action.
Problem was, it wasn’t working. Many students left my class feeling despondent and powerless. As one wrote to me, “what you have taught me makes me desperately sad, clinging to the last memories we will have of the planet as the world chooses material comfort over breathing fresh air.”
Grim, no? I wanted to turn my students into change agents. Instead, I was doing the opposite. I was ignoring important research in my own field of climate change that demonstrates that fearful people feel disempowered and less willing to act. How would my students be motivated to do something if they felt paralyzed by fear and hopelessness?
So I decided to change my narrative. However negative I might feel about the environmental future, I started to include many more positive and hopeful examples and analyses in my lectures. For example, when looking at the American landscape, instead of focusing mostly on pollution, soil erosion and species extinction, I emphasized the transformative influences of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson in protecting landscapes and conserving wildlife.