So I was eager to read Break Through, and I was not disappointed. It is an extremely important book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. In particular, we need our leaders to read and heed it. But I have one critique that’s especially relevant to educators in general, and humane educators in particular. Nordhaus and Shellenberger begin their book with a discussion of their original essay’s query: “Imagine how history would have turned out had [Martin Luther King, Jr.] given an ‘I have a nightmare’ speech” instead of his famous “I have a dream speech.” Well, it turns out King did give an “I have a nightmare” speech immediately preceding his “I have a dream speech,” and the shift from the nightmare to the dream came only when jazz singer, Mahalia Jackson, cried out to King during the speech, “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” Nordhaus and Shellenberger discuss this shift, and it forms the foundation for their book’s central thesis: we must focus on the dream we have for a safe, healthy, prosperous world, not on the nightmare that environmentalists so often shout to any and all who will listen.
And so Nordhaus and Shellenberger critique books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Fail and Succeed, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth for their nightmare scenarios that don’t inspire change, but frighten people into reactive self protection. I took this critique very seriously, as currently, all of these books are required reading in IHE’s M.Ed. and Humane Education Certificate Program. Nordhaus and Shellenberger perceive these books as doomsaying, negative scary-mongering that fail to promote vision, hope, and positive solutions; their point is valid, but, I believe, incomplete.
As a humane educator, I struggle with the challenge of sharing the real and frightening problems of our time with youth in a way that is inspiring, motivating, and empowering. How can I teach about escalating worldwide slavery, institutionalized animal cruelty, loss of biodiversity, and other issues without creating potential despair, hopelessness, rage, and sorrow? How can I speak of the problems we face in a manner that excites people to envision solutions and make choices wisely and compassionately? I believe that the answer is another “both/and” (something I’ve written about previously in this blog), not an “either/or.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger begin their book analyzing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, but fail to ask the question whether it’s important that King began with the “nightmare” speech before launching into the “dream” speech. Would there have been enough energy to pursue the dream without diving into the terrible injustices and problems revealed in the nightmare?
After I taught the 8th graders at the Bay School several weeks ago (described in the previous blog posts Responsibility and Responsibility, Part II: Ordinary Heroism), I received some letters from them. Here are excerpts from a few:
“Although some of the experience was sad, you also showed us a lot of the good. To me that was what made the class so awesome. The best thing about the class was that you were able to keep us in high spirits the whole time, always making us see the good side of things and helping us think of ways we can help.”I spent time teaching these 8th graders about the nightmare of the real tragedies and dangers we face. Without that information, would they have known enough, or cared enough to do anything? But I also spent time telling them about what people were doing to create solutions and reminding them that they, too, could make a difference, live their values, and contribute to a better world. This is the “both/and” I believe we need to balance as changemakers. We must focus on the vision, but with an understanding of what needs to change.
“Thank you so much for coming to our class and teaching us about some of the great problems of the world, but most importantly, how we can help. I was really inspired by you, and I really can’t wait to get started on my MOGO plan. It was a shocking week for me, but I think that is an important part of educating people about these problems.”
“After you came into teach, I was opened to a new world of trouble and new ways to solve and diminish the problem.”
“You showed some of the world’s problems, but instead of leaving us in despair, you left us with hope. Much of what you taught us I had no idea of, but the information will definitely influence my choices.”
If someone picked up Break Through, without having read any of the so-called “doomsday” books, would they be as deeply moved to envision and work for the positive, global changes that are so necessary? Without Silent Spring, would a movement to safeguard biodiversity have been born so readily and powerfully? Without An Inconvenient Truth, would global warming be front page news yet? I agree with Nordhaus and Shellenberger that these books do not offer us the vision we need, but books build on the work before them and lead to the work that comes later, and I’m grateful for Carson, Diamond, and Gore for their incredibly important contributions to understanding the problems we face, and especially in the case of Diamond, for giving us viable suggestions and meaningful understanding of how to create shifts.
I’m also deeply grateful for Break Through, and it will join the other required books in our programs. I think, though, that Nordhaus and Shellenberger might not have written it so well, so powerfully, and with such vision, were it not for some of the authors they critique.
~ Zoe, IHE President