Lessons in Hope

When Kate Darby teaches about environmental problems, she includes how people are working together to address them

A few years ago, WWU Associate Professor Kate Darby changed the way she teaches environmental studies.

Her students were leaving her class with an abundance of data and analysis on problems of the environment, but not nearly enough information about how to solve them.

It left her students distraught and hopeless, she says. Students told her they expected bleak futures due to climate destruction.

“If that’s an inevitability, then what do you do?” she asked. “You throw up your hands and be nihilistic about things, right?”

In response, Darby developed “Hope and Agency for a Climate-Altered World,” an introductory class that flips the typical syllabus to spend more time studying community-based solutions to global warming.

Tell us more about why you developed this class.

I would say over the last 15 years of my teaching students have grown increasingly distraught over the impacts of climate change. Many of them are directly feeling the impacts. I've had students from communities in Alaska who are on the frontline of the climate crisis, and even students who are not as connected are feeling really strong emotions around climate change.

It is not typical in college classrooms to acknowledge emotions at all. Certainly not in STEM fields. But, of course, none of us can learn well if we’re feeling anxious or upset. Giving students space to acknowledge these emotions is really important.

What changes did you make?

There’s a "hockey stick curve" that shows the climb of our global temperatures, that I used to start every lecture about climate change. That image tells a story of a problem that is out of control, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I asked myself, how could I teach a class on the environment that flipped that narrative, that started not with the world is on fire and everything is a disaster, but started instead with, there are amazing things happening around the world in communities just like ours -- or different from ours.

How can we turn our intellectual energy into understanding what's working in those communities, instead of turning our intellectual energy into dissecting the problem?

I was really motivated for this class, and some reframing of other classes, by an article written by an educational researcher named Eve Tuck, who asks educational researchers to stop doing damage-centered research. She tells us that in many cases we already know what the problems are. In the case of climate change, we have great science to tell us what the problem is. But by continuing to diagnose and dissect, we’re not moving forward.

What are some of the case studies you share with your students that give you hope?

One of the case studies I use in my classes is around wind energy adoption in Denmark. I think it's a really important story about how Denmark was able to devote so much of its energy production to wind over time. And it’s also really beautiful story because it's not simple. It's not just that one person or one entity decided that this was a good idea. There were a lot of lucky breaks along the way and some really important geographic context of Denmark being what it is.

I also teach a lot about participatory forest management. I think this idea of giving people who live in the place control over their forest resources is an important and hopeful story around climate. Forest protection has really important contributions to maintaining and regulating the climate, and there's lots and lots of research and examples out there that suggests the best way to protect and manage forest resources is to put that management in the hands of people who have always lived there. We draw from case studies in India, but it's happening even north of the border in Canada. There's some interesting Indigenous resource management happening in the U.S., too, and that that gives me hope as well.

The other piece that gives me hope, although not on our campus, I have to say, is around more structural changes around divestment. There are successful divestment campaigns all over the world, and this is a way for institutions to put their money where their mouth is. I see students and young people really leading the way in those campaigns and being really successful in shifting financial investment from fossil fuel industries to clean industries.

Hopeful Science Fiction

Fiction can fuel a vision of a more hopeful future – and inspire us to work toward it. Some suggestions from Associate Professor Kate Darby, graduate student Brandon McWilliams and guest editor Amy Harder:

  • Imagine 2200,” an annual short-fiction writing contest sponsored by Grist, and environmental justice news organization.
  • Darby’s non-fiction bonus suggestion: “Emergent Strategy” by adrienne maree brown.

Do you have any advice for the rest of us?

One piece of advice coming from mental health practitioners is to acknowledge the strong feelings around climate and the environment. It does none of us any good to try to push those away, so acknowledge that this is a very rational response to a global crisis. I think not being too hard on ourselves when we feel these strong emotions is really important.

The second piece of advice I give to students that I think also applies to other folks is if this is an issue that you care about, find your people. I think too often folks think that that engaging in climate work is an all-or-nothing sort of activity. Like, either you can just throw up your hands and say “I don't know what to do with this. The problem is too big,” or you become like a Greta Thunberg, right?

In reality, we all have these communities in which we can exercise agency and make change. So, I'm a mom, and I have lots of other mom friends. That's a community in which I could engage around climate change.

Folks can think about what they can do at their workplace. There's a lot of really great climate work happening in corporations because individuals within those corporations are stepping up. Thinking about taking action is not just about your individual action or your individual responsibility, but instead being part of a larger group.

The third thing that I recommend to students and to other folks is to read hopeful science fiction. The arts give us a really beautiful sense of imagination for what could be, and that creativity and sense of imagination is really important in the times we're living, and not just because of the climate crisis.

Why is hope important, in an academic sense?

I don't want to say to you, don't feel sad. I don't want that to be the message. But I do think that without hope, we can't imagine a different future, a future that's desirable.

Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray wrote a book called “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety.” She's a professor of environmental studies, at Humboldt State and she talks about her students really struggling to imagine a future that they would want to live in.

So I do this exercise now with students, taken from her book, where I say, “Tell me about the future 10 years from now.” When I don't prompt them with any of this hope stuff, they tell a really sad story. And if that’s the story that we're telling, if that's the narrative, then how can we possibly move towards something better? How can we possibly address climate change if our vision of the future is despairing?

What if, instead, we replace that vision of the future as a with a hopeful vision, then we have something to work towards. And we can actually do something about the climate crisis and hopefully navigate the world with more joy in the meantime.

Evidence-based hope

The Salish Sea Institute recently brought to campus Elin Kelsey, author of “Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way we Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis.”

“If we just keep focusing on what’s broken to people who already know it’s an emergency, we feel doomed,” said Kelsey. “We end up undermining that empowerment that we need so much.”

Kelsey encouraged people to seek out solutions journalism: reporting that draws attention to solutions to problems. Much of what we think we know about the environment may be out of date, she says.

“Research shows us that when we know how much something has changed, we’re much more likely to be optimistic that things can change, and therefore engage in them.”

See Kelsey’s talk online.

Above: Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Kate Darby, center, discusses readings with students during a seminar class in Arntzen Hall. Photo by Luke Hollister.