Teaching (and Doing) Climate Change Activism

By Bradley B. Walters, Mount Allison University, Canada §

I teach at a relatively small, primarily undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university in Atlantic Canada. Bucking academic trends elsewhere, we actively cultivate interdisciplinary learning, and students are encouraged to pursue extra-curricular experiences. We are a public institution, but top-ranked and so recruit many first-rate students from across and outside the country who bring with them unusually high levels of self-confidence and leadership potential.

These conditions foster a teaching and learning environment where it is normal to interact with students one-on-one and in small groups. I feel fortunate to teach such high-caliber students in such a constructive setting, but this privilege comes with added responsibilities. Talented students in close, regular contact with their professors demand more of them. To put it bluntly, it is easier to B.S. one’s way around a large class of anonymous bodies than a small cadre of engaged young people, many who know you on a first-name basis. My decision to teach a seminar class on environmental activism emerged out of this intense learning environment, and in tandem with my evolution as an academic activist.

Mount Allison students join anti-shale gas protest, Fredericton, NB, Nov. 19, 2011
Mount Allison students join anti-shale gas protest, Fredericton, NB, Nov. 19, 2011. Photo by author.

I have a knack for communicating academic/scientific matters to lay audiences and so have often been approached by media and other outside groups to comment and present on environmental issues. However, the urgency posed by climate change combined with a right-wing federal government in Canada that is alarmingly hostile to science and environmental concerns propelled me towards more direct activism. Beginning about 4 years ago, I assumed an early, lead role in the fight against shale gas development in New Brunswick and soon after became an active supporter of Idle-No-More when this movement emerged and spread in the region. I also became more pro-active on the media front, writing commentary pieces that directly criticized Federal and Provincial government for their continued failures on climate change, renewable energy, and related policy fronts.

The seminar class on applied environmental activism that I have now taught for three years is unique by virtue of its emphasis on students actually doing activism. At the outset, we discuss some classic readings (Thoreau, Chomsky, etc.) and students must each complete a small, independently-researched paper profiling a real-world case of environmental activism. But the majority of time and work in the course is focused on students, working in small groups, devising and implementing an environmental advocacy campaign. These have included both on-campus and off-campus-focused campaigns on such varied topics as promoting university carbon divestment; raising awareness about the Northern Gateway Pipeline; lobbying for the passage of a local municipal ordinance outlawing the consumption and sale of shark fins; and mobilizing public support for upgraded wastewater treatment in a nearby coastal town. I and my students (based on their own feedback) have found teaching and taking this course to be an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, is a welcome source of thought-provoking material that fits well within the intense learning environment that characterizes the activism seminar. Klein is a gifted writer and an engaging thinker. It is refreshing to read an author of such stature on the political left who engages the science of climate change so seriously and on its own terms. From this foundation, she applies lawyer-like skills of analysis and argument to deconstruct the links between free market ideology, capitalist policies, and worsening greenhouse gas emissions. Her analysis at times can be too partisan, but overall the book’s contribution is timely and highly relevant.

Mount Allison students participate in anti-shale gas protest at highway overpass, Sackville, NB, Oct 19, 2013 (1)
Mount Allison students participate in anti-shale gas protest at highway overpass, Sackville, NB, Oct 19, 2013. Photo by author.

But Klein is more astute at diagnosis than at offering a cure. The book was frustratingly short and superficial in its treatment of the hard policy questions associated with making the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It is a convincing rallying cry, but a poor road-map, and so it needs to be complemented by readings that address more mundane matters of energy and environmental policy as these will inevitably do most of the heavy-lifting for the needed transformation. In this regard, something like Lester Brown’s The Great Transition (2015) can provide the pragmatic clarity needed to move beyond Klein’s lofty political rhetoric and onto concrete plans for action.

I have so far introduced This Changes Everything only to members of my fourth-year activism seminar (and only late in the term given the timing of its release). Seeing as these students were already steeped in various forms of activism, it is not surprising that most were energized by the book’s searing and lucid criticisms of the political status quo and its compelling calls for change. It was positive re-enforcement for them and its undeveloped road-map for change was not viewed as a major shortcoming. I have not yet used Klein’s book at the introductory level, but I suspect that students may be overwhelmed by her frank, often bleak assessments and scathing political commentaries. Some softening-up of the edges might be called for.

James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (2005), delivered an engaging, but deeply pessimistic lecture several years ago at my university. When asked by a despondent student during question period what one was supposed to do in the face of such a depressing prognosis, Kunstler responded with enthusiasm (and I paraphrase here): Get engaged! Get involved! Try to do something about it… anything! Nothing better counters despair of the future than making an effort to change it!   

I have not read Kunstler’s book, but this seemingly simple bit of advice rang remarkably true to my own personal experience. It is our responsibility as scholars and teachers to tell our students the “truth”—to the best of our knowledge—about the state of the world. It is not easy looking young people in the eyes and telling them how grim the future looks in light of climate change. But it is a lot easier to do so if one speaks with the confidence of an activist actually trying to change the future for the better. After all, students not only seek knowledge in a university setting, but role models as well. At this critical time, we do not have the luxury to avoid that added responsibility.

Works Cited
Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kunstler, James. 2005. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Grove Press.

Brad Walters (PhD, Rutgers, 2000) is a Professor of Geography & Environment at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. Brad writes about research methodology and has done field research on the interactions between people, land and forests in the Philippines and West Indies. He has authored over 30 peer-reviewed articles and co-edited two books. Brad is also a frequent public speaker and media commentator on energy, the environment and climate change.

This post is part of our thematic series, Anthropology and Climate Change: Intersections of Teaching, Interdisciplinarity, and Activism.