Climate Anxiety? Inject A Note of Grounded Optimism

David Montgomery is a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. He received his B.S. in geology at Stanford University (1984) and his Ph.D. in geomorphology from UC Berkeley (1991). Montgomery studies the evolution of topography and the influence of geomorphological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He is the author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life and a coauthor of  What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, and the recently published textbook for the introductory environmental science course, Environmental Science and Sustainability, Second Edition.

David Montgomery
Image Credit: Cooper Reid

Have you noticed climate anxiety among your students? I sure have. Many college students today are despondent about the state of the world they will be inheriting. And, it’s a challenge to find—and convey—notes of optimism when teaching sustainability and environmental science. This issue helped motivate me to cowrite Environmental Science and Sustainability, as I wanted to help introductory environmental science students feel there are both actions they can take and reasons to feel some optimism about the future of our planet. One topic that has worked well for me to implement in the classroom and discussion sections is regenerative agriculture. I find that it can engage students interested in climate action and food system reform while also adding a positive note to thinking about the future.  

What is regenerative agriculture? The basic idea behind it is that soil-building farming practices are better for the land, farmers, the planet, and human health. Regenerative farmers adopt a combination of unconventional practices—no-till planting, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations—that build up soil organic matter (soil carbon), support diverse communities of soil life, and thereby allow farmers to significantly cut back on diesel, nitrogen fertilizers, and pesticides. Over the past decade I researched these practices and interviewed farmers around the world who successfully adopted these practices and thereby greatly reduced their environmental footprint.

Imagine a Revolution

In revising Environmental Science and Sustainability, Dan Sherman and I integrated more coverage of the connections between farming practices and climate change, particularly focused around our “What Would You Do” questions. These questions present students with scenarios where they are decision makers and consider what choices they would make. In my teaching, I’ve used the material as a springboard for interactive discussion sessions about the promise and challenges of regenerative agriculture, both in terms of the potential for soil-based carbon sequestration and to continue intensive agriculture in a post-oil economy. The idea of a potential win-win-win for farmers, climate, and the environment sparks student interest, ideas, and debate. How much carbon could be restored to the world’s agricultural soils? Could regenerative agriculture feed the world? What would it take to make regenerative practices the new conventional standard across agriculture? 

I’ve found that getting students to engage in discussions around regenerative agriculture adds a note of cautious climate optimism into a sustainability class, giving students a positive option to consider and evaluate. Agricultural reform has a lot of angles to attract student interest, from basic issues like yields and nutritional quality, to social equity and food system resilience. Discussions around regenerative agriculture also open space for creative thinking about issues like whether it’s as simple as cows versus the planet, or whether how we raise our crops, meat, and dairy products are as important as what we choose to eat. 

Talk about It

Whenever I teach, this topic usually gets students talking. In my large lecture course, these issues provide engaging fodder for weekly discussion sections, as well as supporting a popular lecture featuring a local regenerative farmer. In our text, we have included “What Would You Do?” and “What Can I do?” questions in all the chapters, and the online “What Would You Do?” activities are a good starting point for group discussions that build off the textbook content.  

I’ve also found that the connections between soil health, farming, and human health make a great subject for a more in-depth, small-group discussion seminar. I teach a seminar limited to 15 students, open to students at all levels and meeting for two hours once a week. Each week the assigned reading consists of three to five chapters of my soil-themed trade books Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, The Hidden Half of Nature, and Growing a Revolution, and students are required to bring one discussion point for further discussion to the group as a whole. We then go around the room, with each student leading off their discussion point. After I respond to that student’s point, the whole group is invited to weigh in on the topic until I move us along to the next student’s “turn.” Each student is also required to hand in reviews of my three books (I encourage them to be critical!), and the course is graded credit/no credit, with students passing if they hand in all three reviews. As with most classes, at the start of the quarter everybody is pretty quiet, but by the end of the quarter each session turns into a lively discussion.   

I like to get my students thinking for themselves and talking about the positions they take and ideas that arise from the readings. My favorite part of the seminar is when they take issue with something the author wrote—and tell him to his face! This spring I may use my new book, What Your Food Ate, as the seminar’s sole text, with students doing a deeper dive into particular chapters’ source material. Each week the students would pick one of the references to report on and discuss in more detail. 

In short, I’m finding that regenerative agriculture and food system reform are very well suited for engaging students fraught with climate anxiety, as these subjects offer optimistic angles and opportunities for sparking diverse interests. Whether building off the material in Environmental Science and Sustainability for a large course, or in a small seminar format oriented around reading and digesting popular-science books, engaging with and thinking critically about regenerative agriculture helps students overcome climate anxiety by feeling both better informed and more empowered.

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