Shorter showers or pipeline protests? The personal paradox in teaching Environmental Studies

What would you insist that a student taking an introductory environmental studies course learn? When I teach “Environment and Society,” the foundational course in the University of San Francisco’s Environmental Studies Program, I like to offer a final exam that asks students to read Forget Shorter Showers, a piece by Derrick Jensen that appeared in Orion way back in 2009. Then I ask students to critique Jensen’s argument that individuals taking shorter showers is NOT, ultimately, going to solve the environmental crisis. I also remind them that a critique does not have to reject an idea. Whether they agree with Jensen’s argument or not, the idea is to show depth of understanding and an ability to work one’s way toward a reasoned stance with implications for how we should live our lives. “If not shorter showers,” in other words, “then what?” Or, if “YES! Shorter showers,” then I expect students to connect shorter showers to the institutional, economic and structural changes that will lead to global sustainability.

Sounds good, right? Then why did it take a provocative exchange on an environmental sociology email list before I really understood what I was trying to get out of students in this assignment? The exchange began when someone posted a question about how to handle the despondency that students often express in environmental studies classes where confronting the reality of human impacts on the earth is unavoidable. This despondency also arises from the political economy perspective that many environmental social scientists teach. In highlighting embedded power relationships, this perspective points to structure over agency as the cause of, and therefore also the solution to, environmental problems. The immutability of these structures can seem overwhelming.

I was trying to channel my inner David Orr when I posted to the list advocating for thinking not just in terms of the content that we teach, but also what we “teach” when students learn by observing our own life choices. Students who care enough to be despondent watch their environmental studies professors closely. Speaking to the other environmental sociologists on the list, I wrote “if you drive to work, if you travel by air several times a year for research or professional meetings, then you need to explain to your students your rationale for making personal choices that probably appear to fly in the face of what you have been teaching them.” Then I went on to argue…

Biking to the ivory tower

Biking to the ivory tower

If, like Jensen, you have a political economic critique that places responsibility for driving change on corporations or the government, that’s fine, but be honest and transparent with your students that this is why you choose to go on living a lifestyle that, without corporations or government stepping up to lead the change, ensures suffering for the poorest people of a world that will be perhaps four degrees hotter by end of century. Or, if there are structural barriers preventing you from using public transit or from living close enough to work to walk or ride a bike, be sure that students understand the cognitive strain you experience knowing what you know but being unable to take action. And share with them how you manage or resolve the cognitive strain. Finally, if you travel frequently for research or to meetings, explain to your students your rationale. Is the CO2 that your travel produces offset by the contributions that the sharing of your research at a meeting makes to solving the global climate crisis? Is there another rationale?

These are rather difficult questions to raise in any situation, least of which in the kind of virtual forum we all know is prone to flame wars. But I continued…

I know this may sound snarky and self-righteous, but I am not calling anyone out for their personal choices. Rather, I am simply saying that we need to be honest with our students and explain the internal inconsistencies between what we teach and how we live our own lives (myself included). Most of us have lived the good life. When we were 18-21 yrs old, no one was telling us that our adult years would be radically different than what we were envisioning. Our students, understandably, want the lives that we’ve had. Not only will it be unrealistic for them to have such lives, they’ll also be paying the price for our having chosen to lead such lives.

So how can we continue to live lifestyles that produce 176 times more CO2 per capita annually than the average person in Nepal, for example, and then expect students to respect what we are saying when we point out that the earth’s limits will likely prevent them from achieving, or even aspiring to, the same lifestyles we’ve lived? That would be like the developed nations refusing to commit to GHG reductions and then telling the developed countries that they cannot follow the path of developed nations.

Oh, wait! This is exactly what goes on at international climate negotiations, isn’t it? Most of us probably point out the hypocrisy of it to our students, so why not confront our own hypocrisies head on?

Strangely, my post prompted only a handful of replies, all of them thoughtful. One pointed out my own spatial bias in forgetting that not everyone can afford to live close to where they work. This argument related to the general observation that students need to understand the structural arrangements that produce individual behavior detrimental to the environment in order to avoid the naive notion that a single individual’s actions can change the system. There was one response that engaged with my suggestion that we think more carefully about the consistencies, or lack thereof, between what we teach and how we live our lives:

If I were to go on and on in the classroom about social justice, and taught students ways to help achieve it on a structural level, yet they witness me give me a worse grade to a student on the basis of their race or class, do you not think it would diminish the effectiveness of my message?  Call me a slave to neoliberal thinking if you will, but I think it would, and with all due respect, it should. The oppression of one individual is a raindrop in the ocean compared to the widespread structural inequalities that exist, but this does not justify it.

Auth personnel only

Would you cross this line at a mountain top removal protest site?

By analogy, if I maintain that individual action cannot undo the systemic power that produces environmentally destructive human behavior, but then support my faculty union as it lobbies the administration to maintain subsidized parking for faculty, what am I teaching my students? If I lecture that individual action is inconsequential, then I ought to be modeling the forms of organizing and resistance capable of dismantling the powerful structural forces shaping our behavior, whether supporting a student divestment campaign or protesting the Keystone pipeline. Yet too often we’re dismissive of the collective action potential of such movements. It takes students themselves, like Kate Aronoff in Why a movement is never a farce, to remind us otherwise.

But we’re not all cut out to be frontline activists, which is why we need to be sensitive to other ways in which our actions teach students lessons. It’s understandable that those who teach environmental studies might fear that by making choices in our lives to reduce our personal environmental impact we’re modeling the message that individual action is efficacious and sufficient.

This is why I teach critical perspectives on green consumerism and separate green consumerism from more substantive lifestyle choices. Lifestyle choices can have implications unlikely in the consumption of green products. Living close to where one works, when possible, has all kinds of ramifications for personal health, community health, crime rates, mental health, technological innovation, local economies of scale, and so on.

I advocate for students to consider these kinds of lifestyle choices first and foremost because they will result in a happier, healthier life, and secondarily because they will help to transform built environments and community relationships that currently foster unsustainable lifestyles. This focuses them on considering what actually makes us happy, whereas buying “green” traps them in consumer society’s logic that personal happiness is achieved through the marketplace, the very logic that produces the overconsumption inextricably linked to global climate change.

I make sure that my students see my choice to ride my bike to work not as a manifestation of my belief in the efficacy of a small action, but as a challenge to the logic that reproduces the structural relations locking us into over consumptive and unsustainable lives.

My main concern with the approach that eschews shorter showers for a critique of political and economic power relations is that it allows students to stay detached from the fact that for all our criticisms of the economic order it is still the reality in which we must fashion our lives. Too often detachment becomes the hallmark of critical thinking, a danger explained by Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” in Young Minds in Critical Condition:

Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

It is not enough to hone our students’ critical thinking skills so they can dismiss, with incredulity and disdain even, the latest Senator claiming that climate change is a hoax perpetrated against the American public. It’s not even enough to have them read research on “organized climate change denial,” such as the excellent work carried out by sociologists Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright and covered on Dot Earth, so that they can critique with great clarity and finality the political and economic relations of the energy industry, Congress and media that nurture and sustain climate change denial.

As Roth points out, such critique offers a comfortable and safe place, but one that obscures the promise of liberal learning:

Liberal learning…is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are…not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities.

If our students read their professors as texts, as I’m certain they do, then shouldn’t we be giving them alternatives to the narrative provided by the dominant culture? Will students read my disheveled and sweaty bicycle-assisted arrival in class as a belief that small individual acts will change the world? No, not if I’ve taught them to read critically. Instead they’ll read it as a page in a new narrative. If students learn to read my text carefully, they’ll see my choices, whether shorter showers or pipeline protests, as lessons in how to “activate potential” and “instigate new possibilities.”

So, how do I grade the final exam in which I ask students to comment on Derrick Jensen’s argument in Forget Shorter Showers? My university’s motto is “Change the world from here.” That’s a pretty big “ask.” Sometimes I worry that students, intimidated by this call to action, shrink back into the safety of critical thinking. I like to think that the exam question gives students a chance to explain how the world can be changed from a place as mundane as a shower. I also like to think that in answering the question, in addition to assigned texts like Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons and Cronon’s The Trouble With Wilderness, students draw on their reading of my life choices as text.

My hope is that, in a way not possible in a reading of “Tragedy of the Commons,” their reading of my life choices as text will open students up to “changing who we are” and seeing my life choices, for better or worse, as but one of many “forms of life in which we might actively participate.” This might sound like a low bar, but it’s a bar that must be cleared in some form or another if we hope to “change the world from here,” whether “here” is a shower or a pipeline protest.


  1. Hi Stephen,
    Great article. My wife and I have come around to a similar principal for teaching introductory sustainability courses. Reflecting on ones own individual actions is great way to promote systems thinking etc. while bringing these enormous problems down to a tangible scale. Modeling sustainability as a teacher is definitely so important and I appreciate your strong defense of that- but more importantly using it as a gateway to a reflective conversation about trade-offs and interconnectedness etc.
    These ideas are really important for pedagogy yet drastically under-utilized in academic sustainability/environmental science courses. We are currently working on trying to write up some of our ideas on the use of individual action as an entry point for Sustainability Education and your post has been inspirational 🙂

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