We Need to Ask Our Students to Dream — and to Dream Big

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: Adolfo Valle

Back in the 1980s, I taught an elective class at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, called Literature and Social Change. It centered around the questions “What is a good society and how can we get there?” To seed students’ utopian imaginations, we read books like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A number of the novels we studied paid insufficient attention to race and class, and we read all the books critically, but students were enchanted by a number of them. My aim was not to provide a blueprint for the New Society so much as to urge students to consider that another world is possible.

Regarding this society as temporary — and considering alternatives — has always been a worthy educational aim. But because of the climate crisis, today it is more apparent than ever that our curriculum should become utopian, in the best sense of the word — that it asks students to imagine, and to become a part of creating, a Green New World.

We know with certainty that if we continue to allow planet-altering decisions to be dictated by the profit-hungry imperatives of the already-too-rich, we face a horrific future. As one Australian filmmaker told the New York Times in the midst of the hellish wildfires there, “We have seen the unfolding wings of climate change.” What just a few years ago seemed science fictiony, distant, and intellectual is now visceral. Climate change is here, it is now.

A central mission of today’s curriculum must be to help students grasp the enormity of the climate threat that confronts us. But, paradoxically, this frightening reality itself requires us to fuel our classrooms with hope, to imagine the radical changes that are essential if we are to confront the root causes of climate catastrophe. We need to guard against our climate curriculum focusing too much on loss — and on supposed solutions that appear punitive, subtractive: check your carbon footprint, no more driving, no more flying, stop buying so much stuff, no more meat, turn down the heat. Climate change lessons can present a dystopia of rising seas, drought and growing desertification, raging wildfires and toxic air, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, biblical flooding, species extinction, and the exodus of climate refugees. To help students face these realities with the resolve needed to combat and ameliorate them, we need to nurture a vision of the future that is not rooted in fear and deprivation, but is hopeful, possible, and exhilarating.

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Rethinking Schools editor Ursula Wolfe-Rocca alerted me to Daniel Denvir’s The Dig, an excellent podcast that recently featured two of the authors of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos. (Other authors include Alyssa Battistoni and Rethinking Schools contributor Kate Aronoff.) The book is probably not one that I’d use with high school students, but it is one that teachers should read and discuss. A Planet to Win clearly and compellingly presents how a Green New Deal will respond to the immediate demands of the climate crisis, and, at the same time, address the seemingly intractable problems of health care, jobs, houselessness, education, and racial inequality.

As Rethinking Schools editors wrote in our summer 2019 editorial, the Green New Deal is more inspiration than legislation, but A Planet to Win begins to flesh out what it could look like in practice, and why a radical Green New Deal is actually more politically feasible than the tepid proposals advocated by mainstream pundits and politicians. The authors remind us that “Capitalists invest in projects to make money and to consolidate their power, not to make the world a better place.” Thus: “To decarbonize fast, we have to take democratic, public control of much of the economy to put equitable climate action first.” 

We can still escape a large portion of the misery and barbarism that the climate crisis promises to unleash, but, as Naomi Klein writes in the foreword to A Planet to Win, we need to seize this moment to dare to “dream big, out loud, in public, together.” And in school. Our schools need to be sites of radical imagination, where we invite our students to picture what our society could look like if we took the climate crisis seriously and acted accordingly. What will it take to abandon fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy in just a few years? If we’re going to survive with any measure of health and social decency, this will be an inventive, revolutionary — and potentially joyful — period of transition. Our curriculum needs to reflect and contribute to this process. This is the opposite of the “It’s going to be awful — yours must be a life of sacrifice” message that our climate teaching can too easily slide into.

A Planet to Win authors group the work ahead into four categories: moving rapidly and aggressively away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy; vastly expanding low-carbon work as we transition away from high-carbon work, targeting investments especially in poor, working class, and communities of color; rebuilding the world (“a radical Green New Deal could build landscapes of no carbon splendor in and beyond cities”); and international solidarity, to ensure that our green transformation is not at the expense of the Global South, as could easily happen.

This utopian dreaming is beginning to burst into the public conversation. In large part, this is thanks to young activists like the 150 middle and high school students who this February demanded congressional action on the Green New Deal at a Sunrise Movement demonstration at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re done playing by the rules,” said 18-year-old Selene Santiago-Lopez of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Santiago-Lopez was one of 20 students arrested.

The Green New Deal is now backed by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which calls for “public transit, free for all, arriving on time, available around the clock, and completely powered by the wind, sun, and seas.” The inspiring Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, declares that “our federal government must spearhead a national mobilization that . . . harnesses American ingenuity, creates millions of well-paying union jobs, and saves the planet for our children.”

In our classrooms, we need to invite students into this work. Students might take on the positions of other labor unions and imagine what the Green New Deal might look like in their sector. We could first have them look at the New Deal of the 1930s. As Klein writes in the book’s foreword, “the original New Deal was rife with failings and exclusions. But it remains a useful touchstone for showing how every sector of life, from forestry to education to the arts to housing to electrification, can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission.” Works Progress Administration workers built tens of thousands of bridges, and thousands of public buildings and schools, along with parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields. The Civilian Conservation Corps prevented and fought forest fires, worked on flood control, disaster relief, soil conservation, and wildlife aid. Corps workers built hiking trails, amphitheaters, cabins, picnic facilities.

What would a similar effort look like, given our short timeline to break free of fossil fuels? What social needs require urgent attention? How can we do this work in a way that simultaneously addresses the climate crisis and the crisis of inequality?

As climate justice educators, this is our work now: finding ways to seed students’ utopian imaginations about the possible futures cracked open by organizing around the Green New Deal. Without a trace of hyperbole, the toxic stew of racial capitalism, colonialism, and fossil fuels has brought us to the brink of global catastrophe. Strangely, it has also brought us to the brink of alternatives that our planet — and our students — desperately need. It’s our job to engage students in imagining those alternatives and doing everything we can to help them be part of the movements that will bring them to life.

Bill Bigelow (bill@rethinkingschools.org) is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-editor of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Illustrator Adolfo Valle’s work can be seen at adolfovalleillustrations.com.