Lately, my social media algorithms are showing me a new theme: college students talking about teachers and classes that transformed their passion for environmental activism into anxiety, fear, and apathy. Many said the same thing: “For the sake of my mental health, I changed my major.”
For easily the first 25 years of my life, climate change was hotly debated — clearly visible to the science community but inconvenient to industry and governments, and thus denied. Those sounding the alarm bells had to mount persuasive arguments and all but shout them for decades to get the attention of the general public. Nowadays, climate denial is fairly fringe; the effects of climate change are too obvious in everyday life to be denied or ignored en masse. But knowing something isn’t the same as doing something.
Today’s students, from grade school to college-aged, have grown up with increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes, wildfires, floods, snow in strange places, drought in others. Rising generations have never known the security mine took for granted: stable seasons, reliable annual cycles for growing food, predictable weather patterns and water where you expected it to be. Unlike their predecessors, they don’t need to be persuaded with unrelenting and overwhelming evidence that climate change is real. They need to know what to do about it.
During Tenderfoot’s Sustainable Spring Break, our primary goal is that students leave feeling more empowered to make sustainable choices. The week-long program just wrapped up, and I spent a lot of time before, during, and after thinking about the right balance of challenge and support. How much science-splaining is necessary to motivate changes in behavior? How much is de-motivating? How many articles, books, and podcasts should we reference? We’ll probably answer those questions differently every year as we hone our curriculum, but the bedrock of the Tenderfoot experience is built on a few guiding principles.
Principle #1: This is a safe, welcoming space for beginners. Sustainability efforts, like democracy, are most successful when everyone participates. We don’t want to just preach to the choir here (and we know the eco crowd can get pretty preachy). We want the newly eco-curious, whether five years old or 50, to get excited, not feel judged. Sustainability education may also raise sensitive topics as it asks us to re-consider elements of our lifestyles. Given all of that, we consider it mission-critical to create a supportive environment here. Questions and mistakes are celebrated.
Principle #2: You [almost] always have a choice. We make hundreds of choices large and small every day, and some we let others make for us. More intentional decisions are how we convert knowledge to action, and we can learn to make sustainable decision-making a habit.
Principle #3: Experience is the best teacher. Experiential learning, our general approach to teaching, can be stressful because we ask students not just to think and discuss, but also to do, and usually things that are new to them. (“You know it in your brain, now learn it in your hands.”) The risk of failure feels higher here than it does in a traditional classroom, but with supportive instruction, students leave with greater confidence in their ability to change their own lives and their communities.
Principle #4: Food is a great starting point for living more sustainably, and it’s central to the Tenderfoot experience. With guidance from our staff, students cook sustainable, locally sourced meals tailored to the dietary restrictions of the group. Experimentation is encouraged, both in kitchen techniques and tasting.
Principle #5: Sustainable living feels good. Students and guests consistently tell us that Tenderfoot feels like a retreat, that they feel rejuvenated after being here, that they hope they can keep their newfound clarity and calm when they’re back to their regular lives. They tell us it comes from a combination of time outdoors, time spent using our hands to create things, nourishing food, less screen time, and purposeful downtime.
In brief, a stay at Tenderfoot is designed to be hopeful, joyful, and empowering. On the last day of Spring Break, the students were gathered in the kitchen, cleaning up after a meal and chatting about their favorite Disney movies. Someone sang a few bars from Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and soon everyone joined in. It was one of many light moments, and it got me thinking. In the movie, not talking about Bruno doesn’t make the problem of Bruno go away. Ignoring Bruno made the consequences bigger as time wore on, much like climate denial. (If you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t recommend it highly enough for people of all ages.)
We’re grateful for the generations of scientists, activists, and elected officials before us who shouted to be heard. As we pick up the baton, we’re aware that we need rising generations to stay invested rather than feel defeated before they begin. We need sustainability education that acknowledges difficult realities but inspires action and unifies us around solutions.
by Lindsey Rudibaugh