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​​​​​​​Environmental Citizenship during COVID-19 
Tanja Srebotnjak, director of environmental citizenship & Aron Walker, assistant director of environmental citizenship

 

When we went into shelter-in-place in mid-March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, our faculty switched into rapid planning mode to quickly and effectively transition to a Remote Learning Program

With both campuses suddenly eerily quiet and empty, dramatic shifts in human activity were also occurring elsewhere. Vehicle miles driven dropped more than 40 percent, while civil aviation declined more than 95 percent. Together with the shutdown of sizable portions of the economy, these changes resulted in significant reductions in air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, fine particulates, and sulfur dioxide

City dwellers across the world witnessed improved visibility and reductions in respiratory impairments. Even residents in California’s Central Valley could suddenly see the Sierra Nevada, normally obscured in haze. Heavily trafficked waterways saw reduced turbidity, and fish and other wildlife could be spotted in places normally buzzing with human activity. The combined effects of reductions in economic output, international trade, and transportation are projected to decrease climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions 5–8 percent for 2020, a magnitude never before recorded. At the same time, however, health-protective measures are increasing the amount of packaging and single-use PPE waste going to landfills.

For environmental educators, the pandemic creates a unique opportunity to engage with students in real time and on multiple fronts. Teachers can bring their disciplinary lens to examining the environmental effects of the pandemic with questions such as “What are the changes, where do they occur, and how do we measure them?” We can also go beyond these simple questions to identify and discuss the links between the economic, social, and environmental systems to unpack manifestations of social inequities and environmental racism, the effects of accelerating material throughput in the economy on ecosystem health and natural resource stocks, and the design of alternative development pathways that respect ecological limits and equitably serve the well-being of current and future generations. The Environmental Citizenship Team at Nueva has explored these topics in several ways.

First, in our own course, we used a unit on the concepts and foundations of sustainability to explore the links between economics, the environment, and social systems. Students read, reflected on, and discussed academic papers by renowned thinkers including Stiglitz, Costanza, Wackernagel, and Nordhaus. They gained a deeper understanding of small but consequential differences in definitions of sustainability. Our students used this understanding to examine a self-selected issue in their dwellings (e.g., water and electricity use, cooking, food waste, clothing), research its environmental impacts, and develop concrete and feasible interventions to reduce those impacts. Finally, they compiled and illustrated their collective findings on two websites to share with their peers.

We also partnered with Hillary Freeman and Jennifer Paull to create the new Fireside Chat series, which shines a light on and connects current issues in the environmental, social, and economic realms. The motivation for the series is to use social distancing and remote learning to our advantage by virtually connecting our school community with experts, advocates, and heroes working on the front line of the pandemic. 

Last but not least, we continue to develop environmental curricula. The first Environmental Citizenship Curriculum Development Summer Institute is planned for June 22–26, and we look forward to working remotely with our three summer interns and our many colleagues on their design ideas, which will create new environmental learning opportunities across divisions and disciplines. We are also seeking to make use of Nueva’s beautiful learning spaces—indoors and outdoors. The construction of the new Environmental Center at the Hillsborough Campus recently resumed and is on track for a late summer/early fall opening. In addition, our outdoor spaces foster environmental learning while providing critical access to fresh air, physical activity, and time in nature. 

 

Tanja recently wrote an article with co-authors from Conservation International and Northern Illinois University, “Global Hotspots for Coastal Ecosystem-based Adaptation,” which was published in PLoS One (Public Library of Science One). She also was part of the UNDP-UNEP Symposium on People and Planet: Sustainable Human Development, a video conference that was held on June 1–4.



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