By Tony Thomas
We all suspect that educationists are brainwashing kids about fossil fuels and climate doom, but what do we really know?
Hooray! Dr Blanche Verlie has spilled all the beans. Dr Verlie is an uber-doomer at Sydney University’s Environment Institute and previously of Melbourne’s RMIT. She’s been educating students for a decade about climate catastrophism and did her PhD on climate-change education. I’ve now lighted upon her peer-reviewed 38-page paper about what her fellow she-doomists are getting up to in primary, secondary and university education: Educators’ experiences and strategies for responding to ecological distress (paywalled but you might get lucky somewhere). Try this sample: One teacher encouraged
… students to express how they feel in terms of colours, animals, weather, or other forms that can help express emotions in ways beyond the intellectual. This can be opened up to making body shapes or facial expressions. It could also encompass drawing how they feel. Another had run a meditation session which they said ‘was really effective in supporting students to gently become attuned to their bodies and how they FEEL climate and relate to it. Students found this activity to be grounding and supported them to acknowledge their somatic/bodily knowing and emotions.
Another working with primary aged students in a food garden suggested they all write their feelings on a piece of paper and ‘offer it to the compost … It wasn’t much but its affects [sic] were felt two terms later when one child said to me in class, “remember when we wrote love letters to the compost?”’
Some teachers “themselves were struggling with their own ecological distress and had concerns about ‘projecting’ this onto students, as well as being uncomfortable and incapable of being an authority and source on hope — tensions which are similarly identified in the literature. One respondent said that they (sic) felt like a ‘failure’ because they were unable to give students answers or solutions due to their own emotional experiences of climate change, and after one discussion ‘had a long cry on my commute home, and wound up cancelling plans I had to meet friends that evening after class.’
They dished out their climate mayhem in every sort of course from horticulture to creative writing to urban design, science and humanities. Their teaching included what Verlie politely calls “interrogating cultural assumptions”. Perspectives included “social justice, economic and intersectional perspectives, Indigenous knowledges, animal rights, psychological approaches and posthuman/Anthropocene/
Dr Verlie has been gaining serious academic éclat with her survey results. She and her global feminist peers this morning (August 26) launched her book on climate anxiety (free to good homes), Learning to Live with Climate Change: Feminist Perspectives on Embodiment, Emotion and Education. The launch at Sydney University sounds like the pinnacle of the university’s intellectual strivings, although there was a preliminary treat on August 25: “Unravelling the capitalist state: crisis and opportunity”.
I’ve read Verlie’s book several times but to keep things lucid and tidy I’ll focus for now just on her survey, which began in late 2019. I might add that academics of a feather flock together, and Dr Verlie lavishly quotes and defers to work by a Canadian far-leftist education theorist Maria Ojala. Curiously, Ojala was an inspiration for the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia’s infamous handbook on brainwashing primary kids this year.
Verlie correctly concedes that “climate anxiety can intersect with and contribute to clinically diagnosable mental illness” born of “hopelessness, disillusionment or apathy”. But she explains helpfully (if I might paraphrase) that the more kids suffer the better chance they’ll become green activists. In her own words,
climate anxiety is not an illness or disorder, but an appropriate and even valuable source of discomfort that can provide an important lens to help people re-evaluate what is important to them and find meaningful ways to inhabit the world. Education’s remit for cultivating critical thinking and empowerment thus makes it an exciting realm for supporting young people to contribute to what Verlie (2019a) [she is speaking of herself in the third person] terms ‘bearing worlds’: engaging with the pain that the status quo offers in order to transform it.”
Verlie and undergraduate helpers Emily, Tamara and Emma quizzed 32 eastern states educators. Unions, “environmental education networks” and friends helped round them up, so the sample was a green-biased gaggle “extremely concerned” about our globe’s prophesised fiery fate, circa 2050-2100. Both the researchers and all but about five of the respondents were women (or should I say ‘womyn’?), most from academe.
From her results we can discover how they responded to kids’ “ecological distress” from the “overarching existential threat”. Verlie found (surprise!) that kids felt overwhelmed, hopeless, anxious, angry, sad and frustrated. Their teachers, having blighted the kids’ joi de vivre with climate doom, then set about “encouraging students to engage with their emotions, validating those emotions, supporting students to navigate and respond to those emotions, and empowering them to take climate action.” In my interpretation, it means channelling the kids’ angst into anti-conservsative politics.
I smirked to discover that the teachers are terrifying even themselves with their climate hobgoblins. They confessed it was “challenging” to soothe the kids because of “their own emotional distress, professional expectations, society-wide climate denial and a lack of guidance on what works.”
Another teacher tries ‘to be real about my own struggles with this. I often end up on the verge of tears in class when we’re watching videos [like grifter Al Gore’s error-riddled Inconvenient Truth or Damon Gameau’s idiotic 2040?] or talking about climate change and I let them see that and try to talk about how I manage the grief and fear.’
Another said: “We went outside and all brought food to share that held some significance to us. This was a way to build community…”
I combed Verlie’s paper looking for signs that kids are getting peed off with teachers’ nagging, ignorant climate cock-and-bull. She reported that teachers did intuit kids getting apathetic, bored and resentful even if kids were dutifully offering up the “right” answers. The teachers reported their classroom charges as “uneasy, restless and low energy” twice as often as kids were “animated”.
Verlie and her squad felt this apathy “can be really dangerous”. One teacher called it “strategic denialism” , saying kids were “not apathetic [but] if it’s so far beyond their sphere of influence, sometimes they just shut down, and don’t engage … [it’s] a way to protect themselves — aligning with literature that suggests climate denial can be a coping mechanism”.
Teachers even felt inklings of a backlash: “Another [teacher] elaborated on this possibility of misdirected emotion, suggesting that ‘the anger/frustration [students feel] can be channelled against the form of authority in the room (i.e. the teacher), representing the system they are angry against.’”
Verlie and the teachers are convinced of the apocalypse is coming, but kids and their parents – and even other teachers – just shrug.
Systemic climate denial was omnipresent in participants’ responses, and identified to be a problem even within students’ educational networks:
I find my students seem confused by the disconnect between the ways they are encouraged to see the future – other teachers and parents encouraging them to aspire to careers as though the world will continue the same, and then my class where I suggest it may be very different. I think they don’t know how to hold the two futures they are being presented with, and mostly try to forget or disbelieve a climate crisis view of the future, but also, they can seem resigned to it.
Dr Verlie agreed youngsters were “especially vulnerable to ecological distress” since these youngsters one day (she imagines) will be challenged with “the wholesale transformation of the world’s economy”. I assume she means rubbing out capitalism as we know it and substituting the socialist nirvana currently demanded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Democrat “squad”. The way things are going, Xi Jinping might beat them all to the punch.
Dr Verlie doesn’t want the teachers to hit their kids so hard with “the catastrophic realities of climate change” that the kids freak out or disengage. But she quotes one of her feminist climate peers, Dr Sarah Jaquette Ray (Humboldt University):
Anguish in response to the material we teach belongs in the classroom, as uncomfortable as it is, and as untrained we might feel to manage it.
This is disgusting. Verlie also quotes approvingly an academic, “Siperstein, J”:
While comfort in the classroom does not necessarily contribute to learning, the pain of disorientation that climate change invokes must be acknowledged to ensure it is not harmful.
This seems to mean that teachers should induce just the right quota of climate-doom suffering that kids can handle. To my surprise, some climate teachers actually felt pangs about brainwashing their charges, ie about “professional norms”.
One stated, ‘I think that they [their students] should get even angrier and take action to fight for their future; but as the teacher, I have to remain ‘neutral and cannot take that stance in front of a class’ and another that ‘I felt a bit constrained by my responsibilities and position – if they were friends of mine … the range of emotional expressions available to me would be broader, as would the ways I could follow things up with them afterwards.’
Verlie writes that “despite educators’ efforts to engage, validate, support and empower students, many acknowledged that sometimes this does not work, and that they are not entirely sure of what they are doing. One example emphasized this:
I gave the space in the class for students to express what they feel and their anger. But it came to a dead-end, with everyone’s hope ending very low. I could feel their frustration and hopelessness, but struggled finding a way to channel it in anything constructive without sounding naive by saying positive messages that don’t mean much given the challenges we face.
Dr Verlie’s ambitions seem limitless. Thanks to Julia Gillard and her then wall-to-wall Labor Premiers in 2008, kids nationally are now drenched in ‘cross-curricula priorities’ of sustainability, Aborigines and Asian Engagement. Dr Verlie wants a fourth horse added to this leftist troika of the apocalypse, namely climate change.
Our respondents noted that a lack of time was a key barrier to them being able to engage appropriately with their students’ ecological emotions. If educators were better supported to teach climate change across the curriculum and in transdisciplinary ways, this could potentially increase the amount of time available for the delicate interpersonal practices that are needed to respectfully and carefully support students to explore, identify and respond to their concerns about their own futures. Professional development to enable teachers to better support student emotional wellbeing in general – for example, mental health first aid courses – may also be useful.
Ultimately, the only ‘cure’ for ecological distress is to prevent ecological destruction happening in the first place. Given our respondents’ suggestions that collective environmental action contributes to active hope and thus emotional wellbeing, and that educational institutions are often community hubs with considerable political and social capital, institution-wide measures that enable students to participate in order to collectively tackle ecological crisis could be effective and achievable win-wins.
The surveyed climate teachers were kind souls “and tried to be approachable so that students would feel comfortable speaking with them when they were not travelling so well.” They tapped into kids’ moods and well-being by watching “facial expressions, body language, energy levels, general signs of restlessness and anxiety, and changing behaviours and interpersonal relations.”
Some respondents noted that they did not want to ‘infantilize’ their students by promoting an overly optimistic view of climate change.
A student asked me if I was hopeful, and if he should have hope. I said that we should have radical hope, which is different to blind optimism. I explained the volunteer activities [Greenpeace? Extinction Rebellion?] I undertook to help me feel like I was contributing to a positive world. I felt overwhelmed by the emotional burden placed on me to be the ‘authority’ on whether we should have hope (especially considering the circumstances). I was also scared for the person’s well-being, especially if I gave the ‘wrong’ response.
Obviously, if teachers tell kids that fossil fuels are tools of the devil, the kids start to wonder about their back-sliding parents’ SUV. One teacher
had to hold a discussion about alternatives that they could undertake to not consume fossil fuels. This seemed to help students know that they could actually do something and all hope wasn’t lost.
Teachers were keen to sign up kids with the likes of school strikers and junior climate fanatic groups.
Verlie: A very strong theme in participant’s [sic] suggested strategies was the importance of empowering people to counteract feelings of hopelessness. Techniques to do so included exploring alternatives to the status quo, connecting them to activist or similar groups,showcasing role models [Greta Thunberg’s philosophies feature in Verlie’s writings], and providing and exploring opportunities.
One educator tries to ‘prompt some reflection on how we might need to think differently’ and another noted that they ‘have started to incorporate “alternatives”’ into their classes: ‘alternative political systems, alternative economies, social movements, social justice, etc.’
An “alternative political system” lasted until 1989, when East Berliners took matters out of their rulers’ hands.
Others [teachers] advocated ‘linking them up with youth groups that are taking action,’ and another more specifically suggested showcasing role models they can look up to and emulate: ‘get young climate activists in to talk to them,’ a strategy also suggested by Ojala (2012b). As this final quotation emphasizes, cultivating active hope requires supporting students to participate in collective action.’
While not seeking a ‘solution’ and conscious that painful emotions are not necessarily problematic, many respondents expressed their trepidation over whether anything they could do would help their students live with the increasingly heavy burden of climate grief and ecological anxiety.
By approaching this from the perspective of educators whose role is not to soothe but to enable action-competence and lifelong learning we have identified some valuable strategies for supporting people to ‘learn to live with climate change’.
Meanwhile a compendium of my other studies of how our young are being “educated” can be found HERE
By the way, I previously wrote about feminist climate-warriors and “Anthropocene hackers” on the Melbourne/RMIT/Sydney University axis in April and June last year. The pieces gathered in outputs including tree humping, honoring concrete paths, “Composting Feminism” (not a misprint), and communicating with termites using Ouija boards.
Dr Verlie — for a doctor she is — in her own words:
 With 51 references to other academic papers
 Emphases mine throughout
 “We invite you to join four environmental scholars as they apply feminist, intersectional and more-than-human perspectives to explore questions of climate anxiety, uncertain futures, and living as a part of rapidly changing ecologies.
 Dr Anna Sturman: “With the ongoing rise of the far-right, we can see that the stakes have never been higher. The time is now to return to a serious consideration of the capitalist state and how progressive forces might navigate it as part of a broader strategy to bring about a safer, democratic future.”
 Climate hope, Ojala quotes, requires a “disruption of the stubborn neoliberal worldview that we live in the best of societies, a society that furthermore has no alternative and thereby can’t be changed.”
 Even the top IPCC climate modellers now concede that their latest models are exaggerating warming even worse than their previous set did.