This is Our Time! Training Students to Fight Climate Change
I teach many classes in environmental sociology and they are all steeped in the belief that we, as sociologists, must train students to work in the environmental field. As the need to address the climate crisis becomes more immediate, I see this almost as a moral imperative. Just as the discipline of engineering has trained students to advance the goals of the oil and gas industry, it is time for us to train students to help communities adapt and help the world stave off the worst effects of climate change.
I say this not because I think we are not doing so; I know that many are but we need a much more coordinated and concerted effort by those of us driven to do so. Young people are concerned and feel powerless. In fact, a new study finds that a majority of 16-25 year olds are extremely worried about climate change and it is negatively impacting their mental health. This should be reason enough to come at this forcefully in our pedagogy. As the character Mikey in the ‘80s classic The Goonies said, “This is our time!”
We have the knowledge and the tools to train students to go out and make careers in fighting the plague of global warming. For generations, university engineering and geology departments have directly partnered with and been funded by the oil and gas industry to train students to work in their field. This was all under the taken for granted assumption that this was good for society. After all, it was claimed, this industry was good for society and our economy; they made it possible to move around the world like never before. Of course, from the beginning a small minority blew the whistle that this was not such a good thing. The immediate carcinogenic effects at the ground level are enough to cause alarm, to say nothing about the larger implications for our climate. But I don’t think there was much debate in those classes. They just taught the skills the industry needed, kind of like “teaching to the test” but “teaching to the industry.”
But now it is our time. We can train the students that have the passion, intellect and skills to help us deal with this mess and start to make things more just, sustainable and prosperous. Job opportunities will continue to grow in this area and if a Civilian Climate Corps is created, our students should be well positioned to take advantage. We need to build on Burawoy’s call nearly two decades ago for public sociology. Environmental sociology is immensely intersectional so it covers a wide swath. We should be holding multiple sessions at our international, national and regional conferences about how to best prepare students for this calling. Of course, there is the whole “you don’t get rewarded for this” at our institutions and that needs to change, and we must demand that it does. Nevertheless, so often in our classes, and I am no exception, we get bogged down in just trying to explain the complex social dimensions of our environmental predicament. Before we know it, the semester is over.
In sociology, and more specifically in environmental sociology, we teach extremely valuable skills but we don’t always point out the skill as we teach it. For example, in teaching about smart growth or sustainable development students are gaining the knowledge about the negative impacts of sprawl and the potential positive social, economic and environmental benefits of smart growth, if done correctly. At least two of the skills students gain through this lesson are the ability to 1) coordinate advocacy and policy work and 2) conduct policy research and development. In another case, by learning about the positive social and ecological benefits of involving community members in a tree planting program students are gaining project development and management skills. I regularly see these skills listed in environmental job postings. And because of their understanding of diverse populations and peoples, students can facilitate dialogue, build coalitions, and have a better chance at positive outcomes toward organizational goals. These are in addition to the “normal” skills we teach students like research, collecting and managing data, and analysis and writing.
Skills like these should also be more formally presented, such as by listing them at the beginning of our syllabi and continually referring to them as they are taught. Students should directly be told the skills they are obtaining so that they can then communicate those skills to others, most importantly potential employers. Yes, I’m biased, but I believe our students are more well poised to help us all adapt to and alleviate the worst effects of climate change than those in other disciplines. Yes, biologists and climatologists know what needs to be done, but to get it done, equitably and justly, we need sociologists.
Consequently, we should teach students how to effectively communicate these skills. They must be able to confidently say why they are the best person for said position. For a multitude of reasons, as a discipline we have not done a good job of this. It goes back to sociology’s existential question, “what can I do with this degree?” that students ubiquitously ask. Of course, we know that they are trained for a wide array of jobs, but we have often given uninspiring examples like law enforcement, data analyst or human resources, to name a few. To be fair, I have seen several department websites presenting more nuanced examples; clearly many of us are thinking about these issues. But we need to take the time to teach students to communicate their skills. This requires asking students to write about and verbally describe these skills and how they are useful. Conducting in-class mock interviews in groups (students always learn better in groups) for actual job announcements in the environmental field is a useful tool. Furthermore, we must teach students to notice employment opportunities that they may otherwise overlook. I see environmentally related postings for positions like project or program manager all the time. The required skills they list are exactly the skills students are gaining in many of our classes. But if a student doesn’t know any better, they will see the job title and likely scroll or swipe right past it because they don’t think it has anything to do with sociology.
Additionally, I see many postings that require a dedication to sustainability, environmental and social justice issues. I know the students in my environmental classes are there precisely because they have this dedication and desire the training these classes offer. This is precisely why they are the best people to lead us down the path to a more just and prosperous world.
This is our time! The world and the planet are calling on us to give them our talented students. And most of all, this is their time. Some will work at the grassroots level in smaller, community based organizations and some will become the leaders working in organizations that influence change at the larger economic and political level. We need these talented young people working in communities on everything from sustainable agriculture to environmental racism to just economic policy. As the recent study reveals, these young people are worried and anxious. Let’s help them empower themselves with their own agency. Let’s give them the skills they need to make the change we all need.
David Burley is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University. He lives in New Orleans and is constantly looking for ways to expose students to what people and communities are doing to improve our environment, local economies and social fabric.