Auras and Agency: Sea Level Rise and Disappearing Worldviews in the Pacific
It starts with a strange feeling, always in my right eye. Like I can almost see something that maybe is or maybe isn’t there. This premonitory feeling is followed by the appearance of a multicolored jagged line in the shape of a fishhook that opens up in my vision. Like a ripped movie screen with a disco party happening on the other side. The sensation of a smudged thumbprint expands over my vision and I feel disoriented and sometimes throw up. If you are a fellow sufferer of migraine headaches, then you might recognize aspects of the migraine aura.
I invoke the migraine aura as a metaphor for climate awareness. It starts like that unsettled feeling — something is not right here — and quickly becomes disruptive and nauseating and painful. The jagged tear in once-known reality expands and whatever the migraine sufferer was previously doing has to stop. With my headaches, I’ve been lucky in that I just need to lie down in the dark, maybe take an Advil, drink some water, and breathe. If only climate education could have such a simple intervention.
The question that Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education explores is basically this: how do faculty across all academic disciplines integrate what they know about climate change? How do they teach it, and how does it affect their personal and professional identity? Like migraines, the experiences and symptoms and responses of what makes someone an effective climate educator are unique.
So far, I have interviewed over 50 college educators in three generations: millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers; across departments like math and engineering (8%), humanities (18%), education, business, and law (18%), social sciences (21%) and natural sciences (34%). Most of them are post tenure, most have Ph.D.s, often with undergraduate degrees in environmental fields.
While I hope that there are illuminating patterns in the coding and analysis of the study, in these reflective essays I just consider each teacher’s story and the way that it seems, in hindsight, to have been the perfect path to teaching climate change. It’s always an unexpected path that has nothing to do with institutional learning outcomes or degree requirements or credentialing.
Ralph’s story is no different.
Ralph (a pseudonym) has the intense, almost military bearing of the fighter pilot that he once wanted to be, before he was prescribed the glasses that, along with his bolohead and bow ties, are part of his professorial look. He was raised in a bi-cultural home, he says, meaning Hawaiian and Military, learning a deep form of epistemological code switching and what he calls a Contemporary Hawaiian perspective. Like most of the faculty I have interviewed, he didn’t exactly plan to be a teacher.
Ralph’s undergraduate experience was influenced by the ocean. He participated in a SEA Semester research program looking at lateral progradation of a calcium carbonate bank . “We were looking at beach sand: what’s in it? Where does it come from? How much of it is coral and how much is from shells?” He ran a Super Saturday for high schoolers inspired by this research and said, “It was the first time I ran my own class, and it was fun! That was something the kids’ parents had signed them up for, so it was about less about formal pedagogy and more about gut instinct.”
Around that time, a family elder said to Ralph, “well, I always saw you as being a teacher.” Ralph said, “Culturally, it was one of those moments where, when a kupuna says ‘I see you as a teacher’ then you need to go check out being a teacher. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, but you really have a kuleana to check it out. That stuck in my head.”
After an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree, which also included earning a Marine Option Certificate and nearly enough credits for an oceanography minor,” Ralph turned his attention to how the Pacific Islands and its peoples were being taught in public schools. A 7th grade requirement for Pacific Studies had been added to the Department of Education in 1994, and his Senior thesis in Pacific Islands Studies was an evaluation of the program and professional development resources for teaching Pacific Island Studies.
About those early program requirements and curriculum, he said: “It was a nightmare”. His advisor suggested that “if you want to get a job in public education in this State, don’t let anyone see this thesis.”
Ralph said, “I was peeling back the layers of the onion and laying things bare. The thing about using an onion as a metaphor is that if you peel back all the layers you find it’s all layers and no core.”
“And it makes you cry,” I added. (The onion, like the migraine metaphor I began with, also strikes me as an apt metaphor for climate change curriculum across higher education.)
Thirty years later Ralph is one of the key educators creating curriculum for PACS, but now as a full professor with an Ed.D. His first full-time college teaching semester was as a lecturer in the spring of 2000. That first semester, he experienced a “trial by fire” when the decision in a US Supreme Court case, Rice V. Cayetano, was announced on the radio while he was driving to campus.
The case was about who could vote in and whether non-Hawaiians could run for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “It represented one of the fundamental shifts of our understandings of the relationships of the U.S. and Hawaiians. When I looked at how the case was decided I couldn’t fully disagree with the decision. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t disagree with it.
“And yet, no matter what the logical part of my mind said about the decision, as a Hawaiian I had a visceral reaction. That day I had a class at 8, 9, 11, then again at 3 and 4:30. It was a day. Eight o’clock was me venting, pure rant, working through my own emotions, just no way around it, my humanity as a Hawaiian was dominating everything. By 9 o’clock I was done ranting halfway through class. But as a new teacher I still believed everything had to be in lockstep: what I do in one class I must do in the other, so at 11 I felt compelled to address the issue again. It was like ripping the scab off a newly healed wound. I’ve just gotten past this and I would like to move on, for my life, but my life is teaching these students and helping them cope, deal with, understand these issues. Then I’m done and have to wait three hours and do it again. Twice. By the time that day was done at 5:45, I was raw, because 3 and 4:30 was like rubbing salt in the wound. I remember right after that class, my Department Chair was still in the office. I could see his lights on, I told him, I can’t do this again, find me something else to teach next fall. It was just at that point, that last class was physically painful to talk about it.”
Another great metaphor for teaching climate change: ripping the scab off of a wound. The human brain uses coping mechanisms to put sort of a scab of denial around the information that is becoming increasingly loud, like in IPCC reports. Normal people’s brains reroute synapses over the severity of climate impacts, making it look like they don’t know or don’t care. They do know, but their daily work doesn’t create opportunities to engage and express how they feel about it. But just like that Rice v. Cayetano decision, teachers like Ralph have spent decades keeping climate information front and center, a nice, freshly salted, wound.
Another job that Ralph applied for but didn’t get would have cast a different life path altogether. The job was as an assistant editor on a film released in 2000 called “Rising Waters: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands.”
“I didn’t get the job, but that film became one of my go-tos in class. It became a special film to me. That film put Sea Level Rise squarely on my radar, and made me aware that was an issue. I’ve used it dozens of times. I don’t know the last time I used it, I only had it on VHS.”
This reminded me of my go-to VHS film. I used to have to reserve a TV and VCR on a metal cart, and check out the video from inter-library loan. I used it every semester in multiple sections and could recite parts of it by heart. There’s an animation of a large oil tanker trying to change course before it hits shore, but if it waits too long it’s too late to change course. The tanker hits, the oil spills. And the filmmaker, Sut Jhally, says, “If we do not change course, then thirty years hence we will be in barbarism and terror” and I still hear his voice in my mind sometimes, especially since here we are, thirty years hence. That film was called Advertising and the End of the World. I’ve seen it at least fifty times. (You may want to pause here for 47 minutes and go watch the original, or the updated 2019 version: Advertising at the End of the World. But then come back.)
“Once that awareness clicks, then climate change is something you teach through whatever assignment or learning outcome you are focused on. If you are teaching about issues in Pacific Islands, then sea level rise has been on your radar for a long time.”
“I wasn’t raised to be an activist,” said Ralph. “That just wasn’t our way. We go out, we do the work. It takes a lot for me to pick up a sign or join a march. For me, I’m in the classroom and that’s where I do it, and my goal is to inspire other people to do it. I think it’s fair to say I’m a bit of a crusader when it comes to sea level rise in particular. When it comes to the whole climate change thing, there’s a lot of things that are tough there, but I live on an island.”
“It gets me livid when I hear governments or corporations talking about doing things by 2050. By 2050 we are dead. Maybe not literally but — pacific islands are already feeling it. We’ve been feeling it. In the first issue of The Contemporary Pacific, (an academic journal of Pacific Island Studies that began in 1989), in that very first issue was an article on SLR. So, you know, it’s there for us. A decade later was that Rising Waters documentary, and then you had There Once was an Island which is now a decade old or more. And Takuu — I mean, it’s done.”
There Once was an Island (2010) describes the relocation of residents of the island of Takuu to nearby Bouganville. What students don’t get, according to Ralph, is that when the people of Takuu relocated, the world also stood to lose the last practitioners of ancestral, polytheistic Polynesian religion.
“That’s it. The world lost a religion because of sea level rise. It’s not just your home and having to relocate, but an entire paradigm of the universe is lost. We might study it, we may know about it, but they were practicing it and never stopped. Gone. And if they didn’t leave, the religion would be gone anyway because king tides were washing over the village itself… when we start to realize impacts beyond physical needs, that gets me going.”
What happens when we lose a worldview? What is lost when a religion is lost? What happens to all those intangible things that are so tangibly lost? I frequently cite the mantra from Donela Meadows that “the most effective place to intervene in a system is to change the worldview that creates the system.” When worldviews are lost, solutions are lost with them.
“I understand an American worldview, because I live in that society. I’ve had to learn the history, but I was also raised Hawaiian. I didn’t study it, and couldn’t see it — I learned more about what a Hawaiian worldview was based on what I didn’t see than what I did. I learned it from how it was lacking in the world.”
“I don’t have the same Hawaiian worldview that my mom does, or her parents, or somebody in 1890. that’s impossible….I have a Contemporary Hawaiian worldview, and my children will have a 21st century epistemology. I see it already, how they think about being Hawaiian let alone the cultural knowledge they may or may not have at the moment and what they might get.
“Can we reclaim that Hawaiian worldview? I don’t believe so, not when we only have a quarter of the language that we understand. Have we lost 3/4 of our worldview? Are we missing key elements of our epistemology because we don’t have the language anymore?”
So many indigenous languages are being lost. As a professor of English composition, I feel like I teach an invasive species with a spreading canopy that chokes out other ways of describing the world.
“But it’s a mistake to think that we could ever truly inhabit that ancestral worldview,” says Ralph. “The true legacy from our ancestors is not our ability to mimic or duplicate what they did; it is our own creative genius.”
When I asked Ralph what he is most trying to impart to his students, he doesn’t mention “hope” or “resilience” or “climate literacy”. He goes to the concepts of paradigm and agency.
“Our students need to understand that there is more than one paradigm in the world and that they have the personal agency to shape the paradigm they want to see. The inertia of the status quo is ready to take away your agency, and you have to be on guard against that. In not voting for A or B, I have opted for C, and that is a choice; I am entitled to that choice, but what is the responsibility now that goes with it. What’s the paradigm you want to see?
“I’m pushing for an island paradigm that values the collectivist mindset and looks at balance, not growth, as a definition of success.”
“For me it’s wanting students to understand intellectual codeswitching. Will they be able to do it on this spiritual and other level? That’s a whole other thing. That takes a lifetime.”