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Tips for Teaching Sustainability

Beth Conklin, Vanderbilt University Professor of Anthropology, offers various suggestions for using ecological footprint calculators well and for teaching about sustainability issues generally:

  • Beware of Student Overload.  The rhetoric of urgent and global environmental crises can overwhelm students when they consider the immensity of the problems humanity face and the difficulties involved in coping with them.   These feelings of cognitive or emotional overload can cause students to feel disengaged, disempowered, and even resentful, which can disrupt the learning process.
  • Avoid Doom and Gloom.  While teaching students about the many challenges to environmental sustainability will necessarily introduce some risk of overload, teachers can limit this by being sure to discuss environmental success stories.  For example, this may include discussion of environmental policies or movements that have succeeded in mitigating pollution, conserving resources, or promoting ecological resiliency.  Whatever the success, incorporating them into courses can help students envision a future that is shaped by their agency, and avoid any descent into cynical resignation or fearful reaction.
  • Focus on Quality of Life Issues.  Students facing the emotional overload of environmental problems can easily feel that their entire lifestyle is threatened by resource limits and the environmentalists who champion living simply.  Educators can sometimes add to this sense of threat by taking a moralizing, prescriptive, and unyielding approach to more sustainable lifestyles.  An alternative approach is to engage students by discussing their definitions of happiness and a quality of life, and whether they are correlated with high levels of consumption and resource use.  If students reflect prior research findings (Consumerism and its Discontents, To Do or to Have? That Is the Question), they will often argue that the two are not highly correlated, providing a basis for a positive discussion of alternative lifestyles and social changes associated with them.
  • Peer Engagement and Support.  Engaging students in group discussions and projects in which they have the opportunity to dialogue and support one another can help to alleviate these feelings of overload.  It also can allow for the moments of problem-solving, debate, analysis, teamwork, and reflection that are so crucial to developing the critical thinking and leadership skills students need to face complex problems.
  • Student Analysis of Data.  Students may learn more about a given environmental problem by wrestling with empirical data for themselves, rather than receiving pre-digested analyses from lectures or secondary sources.  In doing so, they will not only grapple with methodological and theoretical issues of data analysis and presentation, but they will be empowered to examine environmental issues with greater nuance and insight.
  • Deconstruct Eco-rhetoric.  Spend time investigating the historical origins and often conflicting uses of environmental terminology such as “sustainability,” “environmentalism,” “stewardship,” “nature” itself, and other language.  This will provide valuable teaching moments about the historical development of environmental studies, and it will empower students to examine environmental problems and solutions more critically.
  • Precautionary Principle.  Succinctly defined, the precautionary principle states that, if an action risks causing harm to the public or the environment, and there is no scientific consensus that it is indeed harmful, the burden of proof that it is NOT harmful falls on those taking the action.  An often debated principle, it provides a useful starting point for class discussions of how to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  It also offers an opportunity to discuss policy options regarding resource use and the tradeoffs between potential environmental harm on the one hand, and economic or political costs on the other.
  • Embrace Interdisciplinarity.  A critical and thorough understanding of issues related to environmental sustainability necessarily involves contributions from a wide variety of disciplines throughout the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.   This may be daunting for students and educators alike since it often requires us to think outside of our intellectual expertise.  Doing interdisciplinarity well can be a challenge, but it becomes easier with a more effective use of resources on one’s campus community and beyond, such as team teaching with a colleague from a different discipline, organizing guest lecturers from across campus, or bringing in guest speakers from the local community.  Mostly, however, it requires a courage to step out of one’s comfort zone and explore topics that will enrich the learning experience for our students and that will stimulate us to think in new ways as educators.

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