This post serves as both my review of and my final assignment for Terra.do’s Learning for Action Course. If you’ve heard me refer to “my climate class” - which is highly likely if you’ve spent more than 30 seconds talking to me recently - this is what it was all about!
When I started LFA, I was at a major crossroads in my life. I had just quit my job without having another one lined up. After 15 straight years of work, I planned to take a sabbatical. I wanted to rest and recharge and to research a career transition into climate. I was not expecting to commit to a 12 week course so soon, but LFA seemed so perfectly well suited to my situation that I decided to hold my breath and sign up.
What it is
The class pairs enthusiastic and caring instructors with an absolute avalanche of information. You can tell there are experts in pedagogy behind the course design. It shows both in the structure of the content as well as the constant guidance for students on how to effectively engage with the material.
The course material comes in several different forms:
- 20 “Classes” of self-directed material - This is where the avalanche comes in. These things are densely packed, heavily linked, regularly updated gold mines of information. Students are expected to have these at least skimmed by each week’s lab session, and it’s a bear to keep up. (More on keeping up below.)
- Weekly guest lectures from experts in the field - These were a selling point for me joining the course as I was excited about the opportunity to hear first-hand talks from bona fide climate experts. I’m happy to report that they’re just as valuable as I was hoping they’d be. I wasn’t able to attend all of them live, but they’re all recorded and for the ones I did attend live it was exciting to be able to participate in the Q&A at the end.
- Weekly lab sessions - In these you get together with with a smaller lab group (mine was about 25 students) and an instructor to discuss the week’s course material. These are pitched as the “beating heart” of the course and it’s easy to see why - getting to spend time each week with a group of real human beings going through the same course was a key motivating factor for me. These sessions helped make the experience feel like an actual class and not just a set of resources for consumption.
- Bonus deep dive lab sessions - These are optional extra events giving an opportunity to go deeper on a topic in the course. I wasn’t able to attend many of these but the ones I did attend or watch were solid.
How it went
On joining I felt like the students were disproportionately coming from tech/business/entrepreneurial backgrounds, and I worried that the course would be narrowly focused on that persona. I’m fairly allergic to the aggressively positive inspo/grindset mood that is prevalent in tech, and I knew I would bounce off any class delivered in that style. Luckily the course content proved to be comprehensive and broad and as I got to know my fellow students more I found that none of them actually fit the stereotype I was worried about.
The first guest lecture is called “Climate Science 101,” delivered by Dr. Chip Fletcher. The instructors warn that it’s a gut punch of a talk, and they intentionally program in the subsequent slot a workshop on emotional resilience delivered by Nikyta Palmisani, an eco-psychologist. This combination was like a thesis statement for the course: “We are going to give you the unvarnished facts, and the facts are dire. But we are also going to give you tools for taking care of yourself, because you need to be clear-eyed but also capable of action.”
The other major early message repeated by several voices was that transitioning into climate is less about re-skilling than it is about finding ways to apply your existing talents. The climate emergency requires an economy-wide response, which means that the solution space is big enough to require every different kind of skillset in existence.
So that’s the frame of the course as it moves through the content: we want to help make you useful, so take from the materials what makes you useful and leave the rest. This ethos allowed the class to cover controversial areas and conflicting takes in a sensible way: by presenting the conflict directly, allowing multiple perspectives to shine through. This pluralistic approach meant that we got exposure to a lot of different ideas without getting bogged down in debates.
I hit a doldrums point around the middle of the course where the sheer scale and complexity of the problem space was daunting me, squelching my enthusiasm. I was hit hard by the Climate Justice modules which illuminate how seemingly straightforward solutions can have devastating secondary effects on already disadvantaged communities. How could I ever make a dent in a problem so big? How could I ever know that what I was working on was really advancing environmental justice?
What carried me through this low point was the preparation the class had given me by not shying away from the gravity of the underlying crisis, acknowledging that anxiety and sadness are natural and expected responses, and then asking us to take care of ourselves, because that’s an integral part of responding to the climate crisis too.
In the back half of the course, I found my spirits recovering, but my class progress lagging. In the beginning I was able to get all the way through every slide of the classes before lab sessions, but now I was struggling to keep up. Again here the ethos of the course supported me: it was very clear what I could skip, what I could skim, and what I should focus on. The fact that everything is recorded meant that I could spend a few free hours on a weekend catching up as needed. A mantra of “this is meant to be useful for you” helped me quell my inner honor student and focus on quality of learning over checking boxes.
What I learnt
There’s so much information that it’s difficult to comprehensively summarize, so barring that here are a few highlights that stuck with me:
- We must get to zero carbon emissions by 2050. That’s 50% by 2030. Climate scientists around the world work on thousands of climate modeling projects. The IPCC is a UN body that meets each year and tries to distill the latest science into communications designed for policymakers and the public. There’s a lot of inherent complexity to climate models and aggregating scientific findings is going to involve confidence intervals and error bars. There’s a tension between staying true to the science by exposing the ambiguity and clearly communicating with the public. I’ve found the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report does a good job of summarizing a high level story of what needs to happen (focused on the energy sector).
- Collective action is more important any personal pro-climate changes. The notion of a ‘personal carbon footprint’ was pushed by none other than big oil to atomize people into individually competing virtue chasers. Climate-conscious choices in life are good, but they’re not going to move the needle as far or as fast as it needs to move.
- But paradoxically, fully addressing the challenge will require behavior change in individuals. We need to electrify the entire economy, which will involve people switching to electric stoves, cars, and HVAC. We need buttloads of solar, which will inevitably include a significant chunk of rooftop solar. Animal agriculture accounts for a ridiculously high percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions, beef most of all, so reducing meat consumption on a societal scale will play a significant factor in getting to net zero.
More than any one fact, my biggest takeaway from the class is that pluralistic mindset. We need to recruit literally everybody into this challenge, and in order to do so we need to meet them where they’re at. What’s most exciting to me about climate is its potential to put us all on the same team. The problem threatens all of us, and the solution requires something from all of us.
Where I’m headed
I started the class at a crossroads and I remain at a crossroads. This is okay! I knew going in that I wanted to take more time away from full time work, so I look forward to continuing to explore the space outside the context of a class.
I’ve built up a set of skills and knowledge about building software products and leading software teams. I know that I like complex systems and I’m particularly intrigued by the energy system and its parallels with my expertise in internet infrastructure.
As a first step I’m working on sussing out what form I want my next chapter to take: Start something or join something? Sign up for one full time job or collect part time commitments? I’ve got plenty of experience with full-time gigs, so up next I’m planning to learn more about the world of advising, investing, and consulting.
My overall strategy for the next few months is to continue to be open to lots of different ideas, people, and organizations, on the hunt for a feeling, that spark of intuition that will tell me which paths are worth walking down.
Along the way I’m going to try and continue a practice of sharing what I’m learning. I have found an old adage from surgical medicine bouncing around my head lately “See one, do one, teach one.” I think this is a valuable idea generally applied to both pedagogy and movement building. To truly learn something, you must put it into practice and share it with others. To truly believe in an ideal, you must put it into practice and share it with others.