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Urgency without Despair

Several UW-Milwaukee students recently explored the Urban Ecology Center as part of a requirement for their “Environmental Dynamics” class taught by Professor Christina Buffington. Bravo to Christina for developing the most meaningful service-learning project I’ve seen yet! Students are required to choose a topic, observe and volunteer for a related experience in the community, then interview a professional about the issue. One student, Rebecca, was focusing on biodiversity in environmental education. She helped teach our River Connection program and then called me for an interview. Out of our discussion came an intriguing question: “How to we instill a sense of urgency regarding the issue without creating a sense of despair?” In “Transforming Organizations” class at business school we are studying methods of implementing change. Business leaders often realize that strategic changes need to be implemented to ensure a competitive advantage. So what do leaders do to evoke changes throughout their organization? Create a sense of urgency. A good business leader understands both the art and the value of creating a sense of urgency to implement change, especially when that change needs to happen quickly. Implementing change is at the foundation of environmental education. One goal of the Urban Ecology Center is that our students and members will develop a consideration of the environment when they make decisions, both today and in the future. We want to close the perceived crevasse that separates humans from the rocks, worms, air, birds, plants and everything else in nature. To accomplish this, some may need to experience a significant shift in personal dogma. It follows, then, that to make such a drastic change, it would be best to create a sense of urgency. But we need to be careful. There is a delicate balance to be reached so as not to move our constituents in the wrong direction. What is the balance? Urgency without despair. One of the most significant mistakes of the environmental movement in the past was leading change through fear, desperation and despair. For example, teaching children about how sick the earth is, rather than connect them to the wonder found in watching an ant crawl up a blade of grass. As David Sobel point out in Beyond Ecophobia, students become despondent and turned off to learning if they do not make a personal connection to their surroundings. Children need to touch, and in turn be touched by their natural environments. So what is the urgency? The crisis is that citizens are not considering the environment in making personal choices. The root cause is a disconnect between people and the environment upon which we depend. Outdoor play has been replaced by television, computers, malls and overbooked schedules, further disconnecting our community from the environment. So, rather than instill fear, we can build upon our inborn desire get outside to play and explore. When it is cold build a shelter out of fallen sticks and leaves, spend five minutes each morning looking for the most beautiful of Jack Frost’s paintings, breathe in the cold air, let it refresh you, look for snow fleas, or find the perfect word to describe the color of the sky each day. A sense of urgency does not have to be a sense of “doom and gloom.” Positive urgency can instill a need for action as an exciting challenge. As mentors to the upcoming generation, we can create a positive sense of urgency by connecting our proteges to the wonders of the natural world.
by Beth Fetterly