Meet The Activist Reimagining Climate Education
As a high school student, Sage Lenier remembers being frustrated with the way she was taught about climate change. It left her feeling helpless, contending with the gloomy predictions for a doom-filled future. Despite talking about the problems, she wasn’t learning anything about solutions.
A year later at the University of California, Berkeley, Sage took it upon herself to create the course she wished she had—one focused on solutions and hope. Nearly 2,000 students have taken her course since, and she recently founded Sustainable & Just Future, a youth-led educational non-profit.
Guest host Kathleen Davis talks with Sage about her experiences, why we’ve gotten climate education all wrong, and how we need to be thinking about our future.
@sagelenierpetition to put me in charge of all climate education because these old white dudes is wildin♬ original sound – sage
Sage Lenier is an activist and founder of Sustainable & Just Future in California.
SHAHLA FARZAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Shahla Farzan.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. Our next story takes us into the classrooms where the scientists and the science enthusiasts of tomorrow are learning. Science classes these days aren’t just biology and chemistry and physics. They are also about climate change.
SHAHLA FARZAN: Right. Students these days don’t really have the luxury of not talking about climate change because it’s so much a part of all of our daily lives. But for me, I didn’t learn about climate change in school until at least my sophomore year of college. Kathleen, did your teachers talk about it?
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah. I do remember learning about the greenhouse effect in school. There’s one thing that I do hear a lot, though, from people who are learning about climate change. It’s really depressing. Constantly hearing about how things are changing, and a lot of the time for the worse, it’s really hard.
SHAHLA FARZAN: And that feeling of helplessness can really make people tune out of the conversation much less feel inspired to actually do something about climate change.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Our next guest was fed up with the way that climate change was taught, so she designed her own college course and this one focused on solutions. Sage Lenier, activist and founder of the nonprofit Sustainable and Just Future based in California. Welcome to Science Friday.
SAGE LENIER: Thanks for having me, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So walk me through what your climate education was like. What was this message that you were being told in your classes?
SAGE LENIER: So I feel like most environmental education, and I’ve talked to so many people from different universities who will say the same thing, really was one of two things– Either very abstract, very distant, felt like it had no real-world application even though it obviously totally does, or super, super doomsday. They’re just trying to get you to understand how bad the problem is, but always kind of coming from an angle, whether intentional or not, of like it’s too late to do anything about it, which obviously isn’t working.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So you took it upon yourself to design your own curriculum at UC Berkeley while you were a student. Why did you do that?
SAGE LENIER: Well, because I was really sick of the narrative. And I think I was really overwhelmed by all of the different types of environmental problems I was hearing about– topsoil degradation and climate and plastic pollution. And I was like these all seem so disconnected, but I’m sure they’re connected. So I started the program, and I wanted it to be super solutions focused and super action oriented. So we’re constantly trying to connect students with things going on on our campus, in our community, in our city, in the Bay Area to try to like really get them involved.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: And so just to be clear, are you still talking about things like topsoil erosion but just kind of re-framing the narrative?
SAGE LENIER: Yeah. So instead of like car-centric cities and topsoil degradation, I’m doing regenerative agriculture and urban re-planning. I think people are like, oh my gosh, no. You have to teach it from a doomsday perspective because we are in a crisis. And I’m like, no, you don’t. I explain the problem just enough to establish that there is one. But then we just kind of go, OK, this is how we’ve been doing things. It’s not working. Here’s how we’re going to do things going forward. You and I now co-conspirators in this. You’re part of this. We’re building this better future together.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So you think about climate change action in this context of ecological and social justice. Can you walk me through what you mean by that yeah?
SAGE LENIER: It’s about making sure that the push for ecological wellness and for restoration and climate resilience is human-centric. Because we need to begin to once again see ourselves as living pieces of Earth. And you know animals along with all of our other relatives. And so, yeah, going from that lens. It’s like I’m not here to save trees, even though I am. I do believe that trees have intrinsic value. But ultimately, at the end of the day, this is a human rights fight.
SHAHLA FARZAN: We’ve been talking about the importance of solutions. What makes for a good one, in your opinion?
SAGE LENIER: Great question. I love that question, actually. I really try to make the distinction between good for the planet and less bad. And so I don’t consider like electric vehicles good for the planet. They’re not. They’re not. Harm reduction is not the same thing as healing. You know we’ve cut down 70% of the world’s forests at this point. There is nothing you can do to solve that problem except for plant trees, except for restore ecosystems. Even just like using no plastic. People will be like, oh, green! And it’s like, no, no, no. All you’ve done is avoid harm.
And I’m not saying don’t do those things, because harm reduction is half of the pie. But what about healing? So I really try to make that distinction between less bad and good for the planet so that we can actually start to move towards healing.
SHAHLA FARZAN: So in a situation where say electric cars are moving from a gas-guzzling vehicle to something that still does use resources, what do you propose replaces that?
SAGE LENIER: I mean obviously public transit. Obviously, public transit. I think there’s so many issues inherent with a car-centric society. And that’s where we can call in the question of equality again. We can call in the social justice side. So I grew up low income, and we lived in a suburb in Southern California and my family’s only car was totaled when I was 16 years old. And that contributed to me actually having to drop out of high school because my mom could not get to work so we lost her income.
And I could have continued to walk to school, but just the bills were tight and I needed to make some money and take care of– be able to take care of myself. So I was working at Subway and I was not enrolled in high school for a whole semester. And that problem is not solved by electric cars. But public transit is the better environmental solution and the social justice solution. Because having a system of privatized transportation, poor people are inherently going to lose.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: There’s something that happens when we talk about small, individual changes like taking public transit or eating less meat where you always hear this argument of yes, but big corporations are responsible for this problem that we’re in to begin with. Why should I bother with small actions if these big corporations are responsible for the problem? What is your reaction to that?
SAGE LENIER: I think it’s so funny because the realization quite isn’t there that like the big corporations they’re talking about are like Apple and H&M. So what role do we play in propping them up and giving them an audience and financially incentivizing them? But the first thing we can do is that harm reduction is to no longer financially support these unsustainable institutions.
The other thing is I don’t think people realize how privileged people in the West are and how much we have outsized environmental impacts and in so many ways. And we’re talking about oh these big corporations or system change, whatever. The system exists to serve the world’s upper class. And I mean there’s that statistic that’s always floated around, 10% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of the world’s emissions. Do you know what is the income threshold for being in the world’s top 10%?
SHAHLA FARZAN: It’s got to be a whole ton.
SAGE LENIER: No. It’s $112,000 a year.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Really?
SAGE LENIER: Yes. So if you’re a regular American doctor or a lawyer or whatever, you’re in that top 10%. And so people don’t realize that, yes, the system, when we talk about system change, like very much means you.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah. So what do you say to other people or maybe even to yourself, people who are feeling eco anxiety, climate doom.
SAGE LENIER: I love talking about climate anxiety. What I what I always say is like, baby, we got work to do. Come on. We cannot be sitting around. I think climate anxiety is, I mean, if you look at it, it really is the result of feeling hopeless and not feeling like there’s something that you can do to create change. There so is, though, and what I’m so passionate for and been advocating for so much lately is community change. There’s this idea that it’s like we need Joe Biden to pass sweeping and national legislation. And I think that is admirable and I love– I have so much love for everybody who is out there fighting for that sweeping national legislation. But I’m not counting on it.
I think it’s going to be more impactful in the long run and we’re going to get it done a lot faster if we start working on the city, county, state level. If we start working on the school district level if we start working on the neighborhood level. Like that’s how we patchwork together real systemic change. And I don’t have climate anxiety because I’ve just made a point to be all about that action in my life where we’re pushing solutions. We’re going. We don’t we don’t have the best hand of cards here, but at this point it is a race to save all we can save.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Sage Lenier, activist and founder of the nonprofit Sustainable and Just Future based in California. Thank you so much for joining me, Sage
SAGE LENIER: Thank you Kathleen.