This student was overwhelmed by ‘alarmist’ environmental education. So she designed her own college course.

February 25, 2023, February 24, 2023, Jessica Kutz

Sage Lenier’s sustainability course at UC Berkeley focuses on solutions. Now she’s launching a nonprofit to equip students with the knowledge to help solve the climate crisis.

Sage Lenier attended her first environmental class as a high schooler in Corona, California in 2015. It was an AP course that addressed some of the urgent problems facing the natural world, issues like biodiversity loss, climate change and the ravages of industrial scale farming.

One lecture stood out to her in particular: The teacher told the class about the crisis of topsoil loss, or the layer of dirt where most plants — including the crops we eat — grow and flourish. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the world is expecting to lose 90 percent of its topsoil by 2050 if countries don’t take action.

She remembers her teacher talking about this fact almost casually, pointing out that once we’ve depleted the topsoil, people will face extreme hunger. Lenier wanted to know what governments were doing about it, but her teacher’s answer was disappointing: World leaders would need to cooperate politically on an international scale that had never before been accomplished. In short, the planet was screwed.

The whole class made her feel helpless.

“I was really, really panicked, obviously,” Lenier said over a Zoom call. “Environmental education as it stands is extremely alarmist, and I was freaking out.”

Her best friend dropped the course because she found it too depressing. Lenier also felt scared by what she was learning about the future of the planet. Instead of ruminating in that fear, Lenier began to wonder what she could do to change things. Her parents and friends weren’t talking about these issues, and this was a few years before the climate youth strikes had raised the profile on the climate crisis.

“I was really confused, really panicked, and wanted to do something,” she said. “What I realized is that maybe our biggest problem is that no one knows any of this stuff.”

After she graduated high school, Lenier began to develop the kind of curriculum she wanted to be taught — one focused on solutions. The University of California, Berkeley, where Lenier attended, offers a unique opportunity for students to teach their own university courses. The classes vary in subject matter from the whimsical — think Harry Potter — to the technical, like computer coding and software engineering, but they all have to meet academic standards to be certified and sponsored by a faculty member.

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