Teaching our children about climate change- Part 1: Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts which will address climate change education for children (with some notes specifically for Quaker children). It may well burgeon into related topics — like, climate change education for adults.
These posts draw on my professional work: For 30 years, I’ve done research and curriculum development in science education, mostly for middle and high school ages (and their teachers). Since at least 1989, climate change has been a primary or secondary focus. Indeed, if (as the climate scientist Kevin Trenberth says), climate change is part of all weather now, it is just as true to say that climate change is now part of all science education.
This work has made me acquainted with research on the psychology and cognitive science of climate change and climate change communication, and the results are important enough that anyone who is involved with climate change education should make use of them.

Here is a rough table of contents for this series

Part 2:  Why is climate change hard to learn, and to teach?

Part 3:  Pre-school and elementary age— Coming to know and love the world  (with stories of earth care and discovery)

Part 4: Middle-school age, and the awakening social consciousness (and stories of witness)

Part 5: High school:  Envisioning and creating the future (with stories of prophetic movements for climate, peace, and justice, their methods and consequences)

Along the way, I will provide links or references to resources that I have found useful.  I will also be grateful for feedback and discussion!  It will be especially important and useful to hear from people about their experiences — either in learning or teaching about climate change.

I here note also that while climate change is the focus of these posts, there are important other challenges facing life on earth — in particular, the biodiversity crisis in all its forms, and what I will call the “pollution crisis,” referring to the increasing load of toxic waste that leaves few organisms unaffected.  Each of these crises  has a long history, but a different tempo of development;  for each of them there are many unanswered questions.

Before I start writing more about the specific content, a couple of further comments.

  1.  As I have thought about “learning” in our faith community, about any concern, I often recall this passage from the gospel of Luke (10:27):  Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind.  This is first and greatest commandment, and the second is like unto it:  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
    This helps remind me that emotional work (heart), spiritual work (soul), intellectual work (mind), and changes in habit and behavior (strength) must all be held in consciousness and given their due as one follows the concern; and moreover, all these are surrounded by a social context and meaning (neighbor/self).  While it is useful sometimes to focus on one or another of these aspects, they are all facets of one jewel.  Therefore, my exposition (I hope) will address all these facets to some extent, and also suggest places where I think Quakerism has resources (in its practice and theology) that can be of use.
  2. Climate change is a spiritual challenge.  What does that mean?   I here make so bold as to quote a letter I wrote to New England Friends in 2012:
    A spiritual challenge is one which requires us to grow, because it is hard to integrate with our prior spiritual beliefs and habits.  It demands some definite change in the way we act on and interpret the world and our condition; and  it may require us to seek and use spiritual, intellectual, community, or physical resources to guide and feed the growth required.  If we engage with such a challenge whole-heartedly, we will know we have met it, for the time being, by the reward of peace or sense of inward reconciliation, by a sense of clarified understanding, by a removal of some fear and sense of insufficiency, and by a renewed understanding of and faithfulness to all of our most essential spiritual commitments.If we take seriously the news coming in from all parts of the planet about the gathering storm of changes,  the spiritual challenge is desolation.  There is grief, and alarm, at the loss of much that is beautiful and valuable in itself, and at the consequent increase of suffering that will accrue to our ever-more-numerous human family. The changes we have set in motion will take decades to fully unfold, and it will be centuries before a new equilibrium is reached.  At this point, even if dramatic measures are taken in the next 5 years, we will only be able to somewhat soften the blows that are coming.  The temptations to self-preservation at all costs, to competition and exclusiveness, will only rise, because these are the most natural responses to crises that are already under way, and indeed accelerating.   Moreover, our political systems by and large have developed in such a way that they are now best suited to serve a few powerful interests, rather than the common good.Beyond the invitation to anger and despair that the science news brings daily, I have therefore found myself losing illusions that, I realize, have been sources of hope, but which cannot any longer be relied upon. Some of my hope has been placed in enforcing social structures, such as government or other political agencies.  It is increasingly likely that the major social structures will not respond in time to prevent protracted climate disruption.  Some of my hope has been wedded to the idea of progress and reform. God’s will is peace and justice, abundance, agape, and creation — but I no longer see how this translates to “progress” as Americans and optimists have usually meant it. Finally, I have placed stock in knowing, being able to comprehend not only my personal dilemmas, but also the trends in which I am embedded.  And I must admit that the hope that I have in knowing really reflects my deep desire to have control over my life, for my well-being and that of those I love.We have not confronted the spiritual challenges of climate change until we recognize that some of our grounds for hopefulness are false, and that we need again to ask where the Holy Spirit and the Gospel story (including its later, Quaker chapters in some of which we are appearing right now), can be found in the midst of it all.  At such a time, indeed, we are challenged to bring our grief and our need before the Living God. Many Friends [and others] have experienced surprising grace when driven to such an extremity, seeing that many of their props and resources were unreliable  —”When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do…”  We cannot tell God what to do, but we can know some things about how God moves among us.

Yearly Meeting #4: All testimonies reinforce each other

“If it happens that it cannot be that one thing be reconciled with another, that is a certain sign for you that it is not from God.” Meister Ekhart.

New England Yearly Meeting 2016 has made two strong declarations, on race and on climate, which I think in their scope and force amount to testimonies. What each of them will look like, in my life (or yours), or in the life of meetings, remains to be seen. Sitting among Friends, though, I had a powerful sense that this dual emergence gives promise of real renewal of Quaker faithfulness — if we can understand the unity of the spiritual work that will be necessary to make each of these testimonies part of our reality.

My own first tendency, when I think of this challenge, is to reach for thematic connections,or synergies, between climate change and racial justice.  These are not far to seek, and they are important, but if I stay at that level I will avoid the spiritual work and promise that are being offered to me and to us all in these times

This is because the way we come to bear a testimony — in a way that is consistent with our spiritual commitments — is by personal change:  spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and practical.  Coming to bear a testimony in a way that attunes all these 4 levels is a way to enlarge our capacity, increase our integrity as individuals, and as a people.  A testimony is both about a way of acting, and a way of being.  Authentic action arises from an inward condition that is not in contradiction with the act (word or deed).  Right action, indeed, can come before the inward change has matured enough to be stable, but a real unity between inward and outward conveys truth, and carries truth’s force.

It appears to me, too, that we can’t dictate in what order heart, soul, strength, and mind will be transformed in a testimony-bearer. There is much wisdom in the Quaker view that convincement (whatever triggers it) opens the way to the more thorough, intricate process of conversion and the renewal of mind, in which the power of God and the individual soul collaborate.

To get more practical:  In seeking to understand and grow in my climate witness, I have encountered (more than once) grief, fear, and anger.  I have grappled with despair sometimes — and that reasonable temptation is always present.  I also have found paths forward, to creative action and increased understanding and attentiveness.  I have felt convicted of ignorance of the facts of the case, of history and its meanings for myself and society, so that I have been possessed, at times, by an intense need to just know more— know more than I know how to make use of.

I have been frustrated that people — and Friends — were not responding in a way proportionate to the crisis.  I have been frustrated by my lack of energy, ingenuity, or capacity to see a path forward for us, and articulate it effectively— because in the end, my faithfulness needs yours, too.

I have wanted “revolution without tarrying for any,” and raged that the powerful, the comfortable, the distracted, just do not (will not) see.

I have struggled over and over to feel how to bring all this to the root and ground of love, Who is also Truth, Judgment, and Wisdom, so that conviction and healing come together.

No matter which testimony you are seized by, or you find laid upon you most urgently, all are part of our proclamation, and living into any one presents the same challenges to the individual. At this level, we can communicate with each other about how Truth prospers for each of us in our journey, and working at this level can build unity and unified power in us as gathered people — can help us feel ourselves gathered — far more than an intellectual description of how “your” concern is reinforced by “mine” —  rightly held, they are all part of the one concern, the one motion of love.

I am convinced that we are called to hold each other’s experiments with truth in love, and this means actively to find ways — from time to time — to stop and share our experience in the birthing of our new selves,  the work, pain, and joy of the transformation that our witness is requiring of us (often to our surprise). We need to do this not only in grateful retrospect, when we’ve achieved something, or figured it out, but also in process — when the pain or burden is heavy and not yet resolved: and yet also in thankfulness because we feel that we have been brought into our dilemma by a motion of love, that leads us in paths we do not know.

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.  But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every one to profit with…” (I Cor 12)