Avoiding hopeless paralysis


Lisa Gilbert, Ann Bykjerk-Kauffman

In an intro class, I wanted to engage students and show them the importance of field of geology in their lives. So I presented the evidence for an imminent peak in world oil production and explained how oil forms, how long that takes and how difficult it is to find. I followed the bad news with some good news about research into energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. I assigned the students to write minute-papers at the end of class about this lecture. Reading over the papers, I noticed a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Students felt like life as they knew it would soon end. They didn't feel like they could make a difference. And this was on top of other sources of hopelessness like sea level rise, global warming, oil spills, risks from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. I know that, with more time to gather knowledge, the students can gain a sense of mastery over the problem and gain enough perspective to find some hope, which then encourages them to study the problem further. But there isn't much time in this intro class.

  1. How do I introduce relevant problems in class without permanently demoralizing the students?
  2. How do I guide them through the hopelessness stage while they gradually construct an understanding of complex environmental problems?


Eric Pyle, Martina Nieswandt

This phenomenon is called "Learned Helplessness," and has been documented by Martin Seligmann. Only one line of reasoning was presented, without opportunity for comment or discussion of an alternative path. No representation of connection to social, political, and technological domains is provided—only one side of a scientific argument.
  1. Discuss different, but not necessarily controversial or dichotomous, perspectives to the particular issues at hand. Discuss the sources of data for petroleum reserves—what stakeholders provide these data and what are their interests? Discuss the opportunities for alternative sources of energy, what are their potentials and what are their costs.
  2. Hopelessness can be tied to the current conditions and the potential to no longer have those conditions. But is the question raised on the importance of the lifestyle and living conditions that we have currently? Is it so important, for example, that we need bigger or faster versions of the same technology, refined incrementally (a few MPG more, a little less pollution). It does not mean, for example, that we need to return to some previous level of technology (or none!), but it does mean that we need to question the question in the first place and not think harder but smarter—what could we do differently and what would be the impact on our lifestyles? Would these new conditions be acceptable? Comfortable? Instead of looking for the Panacea for the individual, what would be the Hygiea for our collective lifestyle?

Avoiding hopeless paralysis  

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