Environmental Justice and the Classroom: Green Gaslighting

Many of us recall being in elementary school and learning how to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The recycling symbol has long been associated with the classroom and student learning. We learn about the importance of recycling and turning off our faucets and lights as we are growing up. This barely-there “environmental education” has remained largely unchanged for decades. Children are still learning that they must do all they can to reduce their own individual consumption, reuse materials in different ways, and help their parents and caregivers to recycle plastic and paper. They calculate their carbon footprint and adjust their behavior accordingly. But have we ever questioned why this education has been both so limited and so focused on individual responsibility…of children no less?

While we always want to promote practices in our lives that encourage sustainability and introduce children to practices that are good for our shared planet, this type of rhetoric is harmful. Not only do children feel an excessive sense of responsibility and even shame for their own practices needing to be perfect, a critical part of the story is conveniently missing from that classroom narrative: the responsibility of corporations and lack of government oversight and regulation that has led to our ongoing and present environmental health crises. Oil spills, drilling, fracking, and cronyism via lobbying have become normalized just as much as it has become normalized to expect small children to bear the burden of responsibility for decades of industrial pollution and destruction. Ask any child or teenager–or even adult!–what the best solution to climate change and other environmental issues are, and they’ll likely tell you that people need to do more and behave more responsibly. You’ll hear no mention of greater regulation, removal of lobbyists, or enacting massive fines on corporate polluters, and that’s by design. In many states, curriculum is actually written by the fossil fuel industry itself!

While cartoon recycling cans tell children how they can put their used construction paper in the recycling bin, the government repeatedly fails to provide clean water, green space, and clean air to Black and Brown communities.What we rarely learn about is the systemic oppression that continues to place marginalized communities in the most vulnerable positions and spaces facing the highest threats from the repercussions of climate change such as flooding, droughts, and all types of changing precipitation and extreme weather conditions that make living, growing and buying food, and simply surviving impossible for poor communities. While poor families will continue to face extreme difficulty having access to and affording food and water, CEO’s will continue to spread the blatant lie that we are to blame. Forests will fall and rivers and farmland soil will be filled with chemicals having major generational health effects. And the most distressing part is that actual recycling is not even occurring: only about 9% of materials are actually recycled, and products continue to be made from plastics in poorly designed packaging because it is cheaper for CEOs looking to cut costs that do not impact how many vehicles or homes they can purchase. Profit is placed over people, yet again, in a pattern that is very familiar to those operating in Mutual Aid spaces.

That’s why the solution is not to withhold the truth from the children in our classrooms, but to encourage understanding of the real, factual causes of environmental degradation. Helping students to understand that we are part of the environment, not separate from it, and removing capitalist, hierarchical anthropocentrism from the classroom can go a long way toward changing our future by emphasizing unity rather than superiority and the pillaging of that which is not ours to own. Only then can we join together to reject illogical and dangerous capitalist “solutions” and replace the narrative of individual responsibility with a rejection of throwaway culture and a disengagement from false distractions and excess consumption. Nothing short of revolutionary community practices can lead us there. Mutual Morris has regular gatherings where we mend our clothing, prepare for emergencies, share resources, and garden, all while practicing radical empathy and community-building to prepare for all challenges that the ongoing climate crisis presents. Join us, and bring your students, for a real environmental education that removes propaganda and replaces it with people power.