Teaching Against Hope?: Helping Students Face Global Problems

It goes something like this: I cannot save the people out in the rafts upon the Mediterranean. I cannot help them– a few dollars to a worthwhile charity is essentially meaningless. I cannot help the women trapped in sweatshops because I don’t know where my clothes come from and without those jobs, they might starve anyway. I cannot end or slow climate change, even if I never drive and live without electricity. The Trump Administration will do more harm than the good I could ever do. I cannot save the Great Barrier Reef. Even if I stopped using plastic bottles or wearing micro-fiber shedding fleece jackets, even if I became an anti-microfiber/microbead warrior, it won’t be enough.

Elsewhere on this blog I have claimed, maybe bragged, that with my students I pursue the vexing questions of our age–climate change, migration, rising nationalism–with a “solutions-based” mindset and curriculum. Today I don’t think it’s good enough.

I have spent weeks looking at the issues arising from our reliance on fossil fuels and the other sources of atmospheric pollution. My students and I considered the melting Arctic and the fate of the Sami people; we looked at the Marshall Islands, where US nationals will likely one day become climate refugees.

We’ve looked at the economics of climate change, and watched an excellent lecture by Dr. Chris Hope, of Cambridge University, called “How Large is the Bill for Global Climate Change?” He calculates “the social cost of carbon” and argues that even places with carbon taxes, such as British Columbia in Canada, are nowhere near where they need to be in accounting for the full cost greenhouse gasses our children and their children will have to bear. We are falling further behind and the “bill” for climate change is growing rapidly. This is bad news. Experts, like Yale economist William Nordhaus, who expressed confidence that climate change could be managed with good planning are now sounding the alarm.


We looked at careful, dispassionate data like that in this 2014 graph from Dr. Hope. It posits a 90% chance that global temperature rise will be between 1.83 and 4.64 degrees celsius. That top 5% speaks to me, however. There is a 1-in-20 chance that our grandchildren will live in a world over 8 degrees fahrenheit warmer? These are not odds I would take. But I suppose these are the odds of the world I live in. I don’t get to choose.

Repeatedly, despite days spent on “solutions” to each problem we encounter, some of my students express the feeling that whatever they do, no matter how they live their lives, even if they dedicate themselves utterly to “saving the earth,” their efforts will likely be unmeasurable.

I hear these moans. I often feel this way myself. It occurs to me now: this is where we enter the realm of ethics and philosophy. There is no real alternative to addressing our need for moral and ethical guidance, especially working with young people who may not have had the opportunity to carry on through the disappointments, setbacks, and defeats of a typical adult life.

How does one teach that our purpose or our meaning may not reside in the outcome but rather in the struggle itself? There is a beauty and a logic in the belief that we should act on our beliefs, we should contribute, step into the crowd and take a minor part in a great movement. Yet at schools like mine we also tell our students that they will be leaders, innovators, winners–this is what the best and brightest do.  I get stuck in this disjuncture. I feel I’m moving against the American grain to suggest that no matter how hard a child tries, they will fail, their efforts will not move the needle. And playing a bit part doesn’t leap of the college application form.

But I am not convinced we should only join causes with good chances of success. My mind goes to the “Serenity Prayer” of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Where does climate change fit within this prayer? It’s a lot easier to envision it while saying the first line rather than the second. Perhaps my students need the courage to try to budge the things they suspect they cannot change?

As we considered the plight of the world’s poorest and how globalization heightens our awareness of their suffering (and of our own lives of decadence, waste, and luxury) I asked my students to watch a lecture by the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer advocates “effective altruism,” thoughtful data-based giving focused on doing the most good possible. His heroic “effective altruists” are Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

“One person who’s thought quite a bit about this issue of how you can have a career that will have the biggest impact for good in the world is Will Crouch. He’s a graduate student in philosophy, and he’s set up a website called 80,000 Hours, the number of hours he estimates most people spend on their career, to advise people on how to have the best, most effective career. But you might be surprised to know that one of the careers that he encourages people to consider, if they have the right abilities and character, is to go into banking or finance. Why? Because if you earn a lot of money, you can give away a lot of money, and if you’re successful in that career, you could give enough to an aid organization so that it could employ, let’s say, five aid workers in developing countries, and each one of them would probably do about as much good as you would have done. So you can quintuple the impact by leading that kind of career.”

I’m not sure I buy this argument, though I think it’s seductive to young people fearful that a “moral life” is one of economic deprivation. Pedagogically, I was trying to throw a lifeline, to offer a way to keep feeling connected.

Titian’s Sisyphus (1548-49), at the Museo del Prado

Some of my students knew the myth of Sisyphus, at least its second half, and a few of us could consider his fate in light of our own situation.  The condemned king is forced by Zeus to roll a giant stone up a hill, only to have it roll down the other side. This continues forever. His crime? They are many, but at heart he was avaricious, deceitful, and disrespectful of the gods. He literally cheats death, tricking Thanatos and trapping him in chains. So Zeus appoints him to his eternal “Groundhog Day.” Yet Camus famously reframed Sisyphus as “happy,” at his own center of a universe, “without a master,” his heart filled (sufficiently) by the availability of labor. Recognizing the inevitability of his work “makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.” Somewhere here may be the kind of resigned contentment that might be the best psychologically that we can do. I’m not sure. Should I assign this next semester?

To conclude our unit on climate change, I assigned this brief video, from philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. She recently left a position at Oregon State University to dedicate herself full-time to fighting climate change. I find her take on the issue of how to proceed useful and uplifting.

Kathleen Dean Moore

For the hopeless person who believes that nothing he can do will make any difference, she has a stark message: “You do what’s right because it’s right.” She goes on to say that hope “is a particularly disempowering concept because it puts us in a real paradox because we can say, ‘I have a great deal of hope that we are going to solve this climate change problem, so I don’t have to do anything.'” This is the moral abdication of hope, she explains, and its twin is the moral abdication of despair. That emotion, too, frees us from doing anything to help. Either way, hope or despair, we may give up. Between these poles rests an outlook that encourages moral integrity. Like the absurdist Camus, Moore calls on us to see the world as it is and then make our own choices. Unlike Camus, she identifies the holy–in her case, the earth itself. “So you act reverently towards the earth,” she tells us, “because it’s sacred.”

And here is her instruction for living in a fragile world, advice that resonated with some of my students: “The question is not whether you’re going to save the world. It is whether you are going to save yourself. Are you going to live a life that you truly believe in.” Perhaps this is good enough. We help out students identify what they believe to be true, good, sacred. and then we encourage them to strive to live by their own standards.

Moore offers an answer to another of my students’ questions: what can one person do? “Stop being one person,” she says. Come together with other concerned people and together, “think of a better way.” Because of her belief that our current way of living in the global North cannot be continued because of its impact on the environment, we must begin to “reimagine who we are as human beings.” It will be more fun to to do this reimagining together.

Thus she returns to Tolstoy’s chief question: “what shall we do and how shall we live?” Science may not, as Tolstoy pointed out, offer an answer to this question. Nevertheless, scientists’ reports from Antarctica suggest that some philosophical work needs to be done and that the “how” of our lives must be shaped in part as responses to a call to action on behalf of our shared environments.

I have queried friends and colleagues about this issue of teaching about disturbing or intractable problems and I will share their responses in another post. The counselors at my school also want to sit down and talk. At first I thought strategies for helping the truly anxious or depressed would be of little use to the disengaged, privileged student unwilling to connect with these problems. But I am curious how they help young people who are paralyzed with fear and dread–maybe this will help me with my investigation as well.

Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Kathleen_Dean_Moore_(9099460686).jpg




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