The causes and solutions to global warming are technological. But the will to do something about it comes from the heart and soul of the people. As the purveyors of meaning, the Humanities can and must play a critical role in envisioning and reshaping our societal norms and actions. In addition, action on climate change requires empathy and sharing. Our students need to hear and read voices of those most impacted and develop their own skills at sharing these stories. Indeed, they are likely to be their own stories. This message is eloquently presented by the team at Treehouse Investments, LLC (link) in their recent interview by the Association of American Poets (Poetry.org).
The science of climate change is unequivocal. Its negative social and financial consequences are clear, dire, and exponential. The technological solutions to reverse it exist and are now cheaper than fossil fuels, particularly if you include fossil fuels’ negative externalities. The capital is available. We have a clear problem, with clear and actionable solutions. And yet we have been unable to effect change at the necessary scale.
We have failed, somehow, to humanize this issue. We have failed to communicate, or perhaps to understand. We are failing to inspire.
We came to understand that we were dealing not with a climate crisis but with a human one.
Humanities classrooms can also provide a source of hope. It is a place “where paradise can be realized, a place of passion and possibility” (Bell Hooks).
As a non-humanities instructor, I imagine discussions centering around spoken word performances, poetry, essays, etc. I have an example of the possibilities as well as articles on actual assignments below.
Performances from poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner (Marshall Islands)
Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a educator and performer from the Marshall Islands who speaks powerfully of the harms inflicted upon her marginalized people by climate change and nuclear weapons production. There is much “material” here to discuss many issues of social justice (or, more accurately, injustice). She is just one strong voice that can be used, but I especially like to elevate her voice in part because she also has a Portland connection having worked with K-12 educators during the several years she lived here.
Dear Matafele Peinam (6:50) (a powerful love-letter to her daughter, as delivered at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014). I use this in Biology 103 at MHCC. A lesson on using it in an English class is below. In workshops for educators, Ms. Jetñil-Kijiner tells a fun story about the experience of addressing the UN as a young, new mother from a marginalized community and following Leonardo DiCaprio. “No pressure!” She shares how she fretted and fretted about how to share the urgency of the issue. And then realized she should just talk to her daughter and the words flow. A good message for our students experiencing “writer’s block” – write for someone you know…
Dear Matafele Peinam (3:11) (the high-quality video version without the speech).
My use of this poem in Biology 103A – LINK
My prompt for Biology 103A, a general education, lower division biology course.
Although every living thing on Earth is influenced by changes in climate, some areas and some populations will experience the effects sooner and harder than others. In this way, changing climate can be seen not only as a ecoystem services issue, but also as an environmental justice issue. For example, people living nearest to pollution sources are often living in impoverished communities with fewer services. Similarly, people living in coastal communities and island communities are already severly impacted by more intense weather systems and rising sea level. Because of this, it should be no surprise that some of the clearest voices describing these concerns are people from these affected areas. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet who currently lives in the Portland area (look up the Marshall Islands. Where are they?). Ms. Jetñil-Kijiner presented a moving testimony to the United Nations about her concerns for her people and all of the next generation of inhabitants of the Earth. Watch her video performance of the poem below, reflect on your experience, then post your answers to the questions in this week’s discussion area.
– What about her message was most meaningful and most impactful to you?
– Think about who is likely to be a climate refugee. In what way are the residents of California, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Houston, Florida, and even Oregon also likely to be climate refugees?
– Whose problem is a warming climate and who is responsible for solving it? This last question is a big one and I don’t expect a huge answer – just engagement!
Performance by Prince EA – Sorry
Biology instructor Catherine Creech uses the spoken word performance by activist and arts Prince EA in her majors biology course, BI 213. It’s a powerful presentation of a message to future generations. Below the link is Catherine’s wording to students for the assignment.
Thinking about climate change always makes me upset and I’m working on balancing my anxiety out by consuming more hope-filled media and art. I want to share one of my favorites with you; this beautiful spoken-word piece by activist and artist Prince EA called “Dear Future Generations: Sorry” (6:02). As a heads up, there is a bit of politics mentioned around the 2.5 minute mark, but please don’t let that ruin your enjoyment of the work. Art doesn’t always agree with our personal politics and I hope you can view this as an ecologist with an open mind.
Articles on teaching climate change in humanities courses
Teaching to the Heart by Michelle Nicola in Rethinking Schools (a lesson plan for using KJK’s poem) – LINK
Why Address Climate Change in the English Language Arts Classroom? Part 1 by Abby Haverin (2017) – LINK
Teaching Ecopoetry in a Time of Climate Change by Craig Santos Perez (The Georgia Review, Fall 2020) – LINK
Additional Resources for Reading, Writing, and Literature Courses
Poems about Climate Change (poets.org) – https://poets.org/poems-about-climate-change