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What Would It Look Like if Higher Education and Student Affairs Made the Climate Crisis a Priority?

November 1, 2023 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2024

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: A Series of Articles 

It was spring 2023. The line was long, and the excitement was rippling through the crowd. Hundreds of young people were anxiously awaiting an acclaimed university guest perform her craft. It was among the largest audiences I’ve seen in my nearly 20 years at the university. No, the artist wasn’t Taylor Swift; it was Robin Wall Kimmerer, an environmental scientist, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the author of the highly acclaimed book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Dr. Kimmerer’s book is a revered text among environmentalists.

Reading Braiding Sweetgrass moved me to remember the connection with nature I experienced deeply in my year-long sabbatical in the Western United States. Not only were those wonderful memories refreshed, but Kimmerer’s writing has enriched my remembrances through beautiful descriptions of the natural world, told both through her deep understanding of biological science and her poetic manner of narrating the planet’s story.

As I observed the earnest interest among the students filling the large conference room at the Kimmerer event, it was clear to me that today’s students are ahead of my field of educators—the student affairs profession—in acknowledging and facing the existential realities of the environmental crisis. Indeed, there is little attention in the student affairs curriculum addressing matters of climate change and related issues such as the destruction of the natural world through extractive industries, and the insidious contributions of consumerism and framing higher education as a private good, not to mention the disparate impact of climate events on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

 A recent article on campus sustainability efforts uncovered several recent cases of institutional sustainability initiatives, such as recycling/waste management and reduced energy use (Ezarik, 2023). Approximately half of students believe that their institutions are taking steps, but efforts are not comprehensive. While there are many such environmental efforts on the part of institutions, the student affairs literature and professional conference agendas have given little attention to the profession’s role in equipping students with the knowledge, skills, and commitments to address this existential crisis.

Student Affairs Curriculum and the Climate Crisis

One of the ways in which student affairs can attend to the climate crisis is to include it in the formal professional preparation curriculum. An article that stood out in my perusal of the literature was a 2023 article in About Campus by Jessica Ostrow Michel and colleagues. This article laid out ways in which preparation programs for student affairs and higher education professionals can incorporate content about the environmental crisis into their curriculum. From classes on student development, critical issues, and assessment, the authors provide valuable guidance for including information about the climate crisis in the curriculum. By expanding preparation curricula to include environmental concerns, emerging professionals are reminded that this work is an important part of their prosocial agenda.

One particularly rich opportunity for connecting the climate crisis with preparation curricula and student affairs program delivery is to imbed it in diversity and inclusion work. Today’s student affairs curriculum places a great deal of emphasis on issues of social justice and inclusion. Climate justice provides an opportunity to extend the common conversations about social justice on campus to broader global concerns around justice. The reality that the climate crisis disproportionally affects the world’s most vulnerable populations is resonant with the justice-oriented impulses of many student affairs professionals and graduate students preparing for student affairs careers. It also stretches the field beyond a domestic-focused agenda, and is a reminder that today’s students are preparing for the future in an interconnected, global society. As current and emerging professionals cultivate eco-justice consciousness, they would also be able to find ways to highlight this in their work with students. It is a way in which to connect with the realities of many students—especially those who are members of Gen Z—and are feeling the burden of a deeply concerning future.

Being More Like Kimmerer

 Engaging students in learning the scientific facts surrounding climate change is important, as deeper understanding of the intricacies of ecosystem dynamics can inform solutions to this growing, global problem. Indeed, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s credibility and effectiveness as a climate educator comes from her extensive knowledge of plant life’s role in the climate crisis. While Kimmerer’s technical understanding of botany is informative, it is her lifetime of immersion in and resulting love of the natural world that inspires audiences. In my own immersive sabbatical experience, the connection with nature provided me with a sense of awe and reverence for the amazing gifts of our planet-home. At the program I attended at Ohio University, Kimmerer took those present on an expansive journey that paralleled my sabbatical experience. I believe that her ability to communicate the importance of stewardship of the planet is as important as scientists’ development of earth-friendly technologies during this precarious time.

Her writing and speaking are fundamentally based in science. And her commitment to the preservation of a sustainable environment is compelling. However, it is the careful and thoughtful way she delivers her message that draws me in. She is like a spiritual guide and an artist, who paints pictures with words that enliven spaces and enlarges their presence, beauty and intrinsic value. She beckons us to put our attention toward what matters—the beauty of the natural world. I found that my own encounters with nature led to a heightened acknowledgement that an abundant life can be found without accumulation of things. There is fullness in encounters with the beauty and mystery found in nature that cannot be filled by conventional, neo-liberal views of progress.

Higher education and student affairs could take cues from Kimmerer’s educational approach.  In an interview with the Guardian (UK newspaper) in 2020, she shared:

I don’t have the power to dismantle Monsanto. But what I do have is the capacity to change how I live on a daily basis and how I think about the world. I just have to have faith that when we change how we think, we suddenly change how we act and how those around us act, and that’s how the world changes. It’s by changing hearts and changing minds. And it’s contagious. I became an environmental scientist and a writer because of what I witnessed growing up within a world of gratitude and gifts.

Ah, a much-needed world of gratitude and gifts! The climate crisis has contributed to an increase in anxiety among young people, and this certainly includes today’s college students (Haupt, 2022). Student affairs professionals are aware of and working on solutions alongside mental health experts to address these challenges on campuses. Kimmerer’s comment about gratitude and gifts is no small matter in this context. Immersion in nature is one powerful path to cultivating a sense of gratitude and overall well-being amid the climate crisis. Student affairs educators can also promote well-being through engaging students in activities such as collective and meaningful agency during this time. Our field has a long tradition of gathering students in purposeful pursuits. By bringing together students to focus both their attention and action in the direction of environmental justice, student affairs professionals can foster a sense of agency that, in turn, builds a sense of meaning and purpose among students who are often languishing. Helping concerned students to direct creative and collective efforts into societal change will be, in the words of Kimmerer, contagious. Students are looking for belonging and purpose, and the field of student affairs has immense potential to affect students’ present sense of wellbeing and their future reality on this vulnerable planet.

So, my best answer to the question, “What would we do if the environmental crisis was a priority?” is to be more like Robin Wall Kimmerer. We would open ourselves to a change in our own thinking and may even cultivate passions among our students who have a grand universe of possibilities ahead of them.

References

Ezarik, M. (January 2, 2023). Actions and hopes of the sustainability-focused student. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/students/academics/2023/01/02/sustainability-actions-students-take-and-want-their-colleges

Haupt, E. (August 5, 2022). How psychology can help fight climate change—and climate anxiety. Time Magazine. https://time.com/6204083/climate-change-mental-heath-psychology/

Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.

Michel, J. O., Buckley, J., Friedensen, R., Anderson-Long, M., & Garibay, J. (2023). Infusing Sustainability into Graduate Level Higher Education and Student Affairs Coursework. About Campus, 27(6), 4-11.

Yeh, J. (May 23, 2020). Robin Wall Kimmerer: “People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how." The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/23/robin-wall-kimmerer-people-cant-understand-the-world-as-a-gift-unless-someone-shows-them-how