There are moments when I'm teaching when time dissolves into stillness. A warm, complex light shines through the slice of white window blinds. The space fills with a collective calm. One of those moments took place during a class discussion of the film The Island President (2011), a film about former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed's mission to save his country from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
The calm of the classroom that day was solemn. One student said, “This is no joke. What is happening in the Maldives will happen here.” In my office, a young mother from the class worried about her three‐year‐old daughter proclaimed that she needed to do something about climate change. Clarity sometimes arrives as a sunrise slowly creeping over a dark mountain, or perhaps as a hawk's cry echoing in your ears for a while.
What became clear to me was that, not long ago, the primary concerns for college students were doing their homework, passing their courses, paying for college and getting a job after graduation. But now, do students think those efforts will matter?Climate Anxiety
When I ask students to share their perspectives on climate change in my literature and writing classes, they express a growing climate anxiety. Apocalyptic rhetoric and disagreements about future climate predictions escalate their anxieties. So, my approach to climate change is both realistic and optimistic, stressing scientific consensus and cautiously acknowledging the potential for a grim future.
How do we engage students about climate change without increasing their anxiety about the future?
I begin by keeping my own anxieties and grief in check. I think about ice in its many configurations, from the fragile and intricate to the spacious and majestic. Brittle or swirling blue, perishing ice binds us all. I sometimes ask my students to free write about ice. Paragraphs about playing hockey or winter driving become paragraphs about loss, dying glaciers and, ironically, heat.Environmental Literature
When teaching environmental literature, themes related to loss—of home, health, landscape and species—inevitably emerge. And yet, there is always space for hope. There is an abundance of writers who describe how healing can happen when we immerse ourselves in the wonders of the nonhuman natural world. Environmental literature often portrays the dance between hope and loss, the physical and the spiritual and violence and peace.
In my environmental literature classes, I typically assign works that directly address climate change. Margaret Atwood's The MaddAddam Trilogy, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower are more relevant every passing year. I don't sugarcoat the threat of climate change, but I do emphasize justice, ethics and social change. Literary writing can be environmental activism. And examining unsustainable worldviews can lead to a healthier relationship with our planet and one another.
Along with the readings, students also research efforts to mitigate a climate crisis. Some are aware of the forecast from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that 2040, if not sooner, may be a pivotal year for our planet. They know that corporate and political initiatives to alleviate climate change are lacking.
However, students often don't know about possible climate solutions because of the discourse of doom and denial about the planet's future. In their research, they cite reforestation efforts, technologies designed to capture carbon from the atmosphere, sustainable agriculture, examples of clean energy, the work of Greta Thunberg and other young activists, and the courts' halt of Trump administration environmental rollbacks. They ask, “Will this be enough? And will it be soon enough?”
I don't know. But their research shows them that neither catastrophe nor extinction are guaranteed.Warnings Aren't Guarantees
Climate novels are essentially cautionary tales. They provide stark warnings about the future: communities torn apart by social and environmental collapse. And yet, students, reading these stories, can see the light in these decidedly dark scenarios. Extreme weather events can create opportunities for communities to come together to rebuild, restore and reform—not only the conditions of their neighborhoods, but also their lives.
We can grow after disasters. These cautionary tales tell us that climate action must become a central political and social force. I can build climate confidence in students by helping them understand that there are struggles ahead, but we can adapt to a transforming planet and survive.
And yet, some people will be impacted by climate change more than others, with people of color and lower‐income communities being the most vulnerable. I draw from films and literature by immigrants and writers of color to show students the potential ecosocial facets of climate change. Climate change will mean that landscapes will change. It's estimated that millions of refugees will be seeking asylum beyond their home borders, radically remapping their countries of origin along with their own cultural identities.
When students become familiar with the idea of climate justice and explore the implications of this concept on future cultural narratives, they ask great questions: Where will the people of the Maldives go when their islands are underwater? What will happen to their culture? What is climate refugee literature? What will the world look like when more climate refugees begin telling their stories?
The effects of anthropocentric climate change are upon us. Literature and films about climate change can be alarming but also motivating to students. Building climate confidence is a process of examining facts, seeking hope and finding persuasive ways to empower others.
We may not be convinced that individual habits, such as recycling a bottle or using less electricity, are going to solve the climate crisis, but adding more options can inspire personal involvement. These include investing in renewables, divesting in fossil fuel companies, adopting a more sustainable diet, driving and flying less, planting trees, supporting carbon pricing policies and voting into public office political candidates who grasp the urgency of the climate reality.
Coming to terms with my own climate anxiety and recognizing it in my students has helped me to address the topic in my classes in a more complete, well‐rounded way. I've made it a priority to be sensitive to the emotional undertow that guides climate conversations. I don't presume that environmental literature will guarantee that students will figure out how to tackle climate change. Most students don't come to my office, like the young mother did, and say, “I need to do something.”
But as our climate continues to distressingly evolve, we can't forget our mental health and psychological well‐being. Inspiring others to be proactive about preserving our climate can make us feel less helpless and anxious about the future of our world. Our efforts influence others in our own communities and can help establish a foundation for collective action.
I often remind students of the “teaspoon attitude” by Amos Oz. While one teaspoon of water may not put out a fire, a million teaspoons of water will. We all need to be picking up our teaspoons and whatever tools we have available to help students face the current and forthcoming ecological challenges that are predicted to make a lasting impact on all of our lives.
Dr. Donelle Dreese is a poet, novelist, essayist and professor of English at Northern Kentucky University, where she teaches Multicultural and Environmental Literatures, American Women Poets and writing courses. Her writing has been published in a wide variety of journals and magazines. She's on Twitter (@donelledreese), and her website is donelledreese.com.