Sarah Johnson, Carbondale-based environmental educator and owner of Wild Rose Education, discusses climate education and research, local solutions, and adopting new perspectives for a changing world.
A lifelong learner and educator
“I don’t remember learning to hike or learning to camp. It was something we did from the beginning, since I was born,” says Sarah Johnson, an environmental educator based in Carbondale who owns her own educational consulting business, Wild Rose Education.
Johnson was born in Denver but grew up in southwest Missouri where her parents, both science teachers, subtly imparted an appreciation for Aldo Leopold and his land ethic.
“That’s [just] how I grew up. I didn’t necessarily know who Aldo Leopold was until I was in high school,” says Johnson. “But my parents are very connected to the land … [and] it was just part of our existence.”
Raised by science teachers on a farm, holistic education centered around the Earth was an everyday part of life. In her late teens, she remembers designing environmental curriculum for the Girl Scout camp where she was a counselor.
“I was designing nature programs for girl scout camps when I was [like] 17 or 19 years old. Now I’m 40 years old and I’m designing nature programs for people in Canada … I’ve been doing the same thing forever, but in different contexts,” explains Johnson, who continues to volunteer with the Girl Scouts on a global level.
From an early age, Johnson exhibited an insatiable curiosity about all aspects of life. Following that desire to “understand how the world works,” she went on to study geology and biology in college, while leading outdoor excursions for fellow students.
“I’m super curious about place — and how places operate — and [that] involves everything from rocks to politics, and everything in between,” she adds.
Over the past several years, she’s had the opportunity to experience, learn, and exchange ideas about the environment at an international level. Johnson has embarked on a scientific research project to a remote ice sheet of the Arctic Ocean via helicopter, designed climate change and forestry curriculum up in Canada, and attended COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021.
“I thought I knew about climate change and climate justice, and then I went and met people from around the world,” says Johnson of her experience at the international climate change conference, which left her questioning the consumerism and opulence of American life in the context of the ongoing climate crisis.
“All of these [experiences] combined make me have more questions than answers and it makes me realize how much there is to understand … but it’s eye-opening, and expansive, and an unbelievable gift.”
Learning to be still
Wild Rose Education offers a number of different educational workshops around water, climate change, and the environment, including courses on water and climate change as part of Western’s summer Teacher Institute, now in its 19th year.
Many of Johnson’s programs are experiential; all are participatory in nature.
“We teach people ‘how to see’, to become better observers, and how to take action in the world,” reads her consultancy’s website.
But how can we learn to be still in a world of ceaseless, unending noise and distraction competing for our precious time and attention?
“We have to give people of all ages permission to be still enough to notice what they see,” says Johnson. “How many times do people go on hikes and talk to their friends the entire time and then they get to the top of the trail and all they know about is their friend’s date?
Many people only conceive of outdoor recreation through the lens of motion-based activities — hiking, biking, boating, or the like. All of these activities are accompanied by noise, and a host of distractions from a person’s natural surroundings.
Moving into a greater sense of awareness, in Johnson’s view, involves shifting towards stillness, striving to recognize Earth’s natural patterns, and developing a greater inquisitiveness about the natural world.
“Not everybody is wired to know how to ask questions. What kinds of questions does one need to be considering to notice what’s happening around you?” poses Johnson.
In her collaborative workshops, Johnson integrates a variety of research-backed investigative learning tools from organizations like the Library of Congress, UC-Berkeley, and UNESCO, to inspire and guide student learning.
She adds that each student brings their unique lived experiences, reference points, and perspectives to the workshop, which informs their subsequent investigations and then their takeaways at the course’s conclusion.
“Everybody leaves with an experience that is connected to their previous experience, because we know that learning is the process of connecting old information to new information — that’s the neuroscience [behind it],” Johnson says.
Designing courses that grant ample space for student’s individuality and allow the necessary flexibility for the natural meanderings of scientific inquiries naturally means dispensing with many of the traditional modes of modern education, including the oft-dreaded PowerPoint and accompanying lecture.
In that newly vacated space, Johnson tailors a curriculum that centers the student experience, using the allotted time for discussion, experiential learning, and reflection that reinforces the learning cycle, pictured below.
These teaching techniques can be applied to one of the most expansive and difficult to teach topics: Climate change.
The power of place-based climate change education
“More than 80 percent of Americans are aware of and are somewhat concerned about climate change,” explains Johnson, referring to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s Six Americas Survey, which polls Americans about climate change and divvies them up into six groups: Alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive.
“We are still stuck in this 1990’s conversation about ‘Well, is it true? Do they believe it?’,” she notes. “It’s a waste of [everyone’s] time. We don’t have time to talk about if climate change is real. We know it is, so move on.”
In lieu of getting bogged down in never-ending, politically-charged debates about the facts, Johnson starts the conversation by asking: “How are you experiencing climate change in your community?”
“Everybody has stories,” she says, ranging from the increased frequency of tornadoes in Missouri to extreme drought ravaging agricultural communities, or to historic wildfires and the ensuing barrage of smoke inflicted upon wide swaths of Colorado. “It’s eye-opening to listen to those stories.”
“If you just start with: What do you know? What have you been feeling? What have you been seeing? It’s amazing, everybody knows something,” notes Johnson.
She reminds educators, community and political leaders, and members of the media that 80 percent of the U.S. population is attuned to the changing climate, and that giving space to the debate over the validity of climate science is simply fueling the fire for climate skeptics and deniers.
The research bears this out, and also points to a new climate denialism that has emerged for the current era. The new denialism involves acknowledging that the climate is changing but muddling the waters by questioning if its human-made, arguing it’s simply too expensive to meaningfully address, or even positing that a changing climate will be a net positive.
Fighting an ever-evolving stream of predominantly online disinformation is almost certainly a losing battle, and one that Johnson advises sternly against. In her view, time is far better spent having genuine conversations, and seeking out ways to make a difference at a more local level.
Transforming education into action
So, how does education, including making space for people to share their experiences and perspectives, become action? In her workshops, Johnson likes to utilize Project Drawdown, a collaborative climate research and education project with an expansive scope.
One of the things Project Drawdown does, including in the nonprofit’s book (a summer read for Masters of Environmental Management students at Western), is analyze and prioritize climate solutions based on factors like political feasibility, cost, and overall effectiveness in reducing emissions.
Johnson has her students identify what solutions in Project Drawdown are applicable to their specific place, whether it’s rural Gunnison or Garfield counties or perhaps a more urban setting on the Front Range.
Then, she asks students to tie those solutions into concrete jobs: Electricians, bus drivers, wind turbine technicians, home efficiency consultants, the possibilities are expansive.
The exercise broadens the participants’ vision of what constitutes a “green” career. When she does it with her fellow educators, Johnson sees teachers realize the broad spectrum of career possibilities (many of which are in the trades) for their students to become involved in countering climate change. Making that connection gives people hope for the future.
For a younger audience, Sarah coaches teenagers and people in their early 20s looking to get involved by asking a pair of questions that are quite simple on the surface: “What are you concerned about? What are you noticing?”
“They don’t need to go research, they’re pretty informed and they know what they’re concerned about ” says Johnson, who walks the students through an investigative process to understand the complexities involved.
Next, she has the students identify the decision makers in charge — and follow through via established channels.
“They’re learning how to go from ‘I am really worried about this’ to ‘I have agency to have my voice be heard,”’ explains Johnson.
Ditching climate doomerism for community solutions
Still, for many younger climate and environmental activists, struggling with ecological despair over the state of the natural world, and humans’ role in the crisis, is far from uncommon.
Recent research has found that nearly 60 percent of young people aged 16 to 25 are “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change, with more than 45 percent saying this anxiety impacted their daily lives. Perhaps most shockingly, more than half believe humanity is doomed.
These statistics are harrowing, to say the least.
But Johnson has some advice for those anxious about the environment: Lose the hyper-American individualist streak.
“I think it’s [about] changing our conversations from ‘what can I do’ to ‘what can we do,’” she says, highlighting the power of collective action — from community groups to schools to local governments.
“When we start to operate that way, we’re much more inclusive. The way it has been for so long, environmental work is very exclusive and [has been] very much a rich white man’s activity,” says Johnson.
Many people today who live in vulnerable, disadvantaged communities disproportionately experience environmental harms on the frontlines, while others in positions of social, economic, and political power and privilege have the luxury of discussing climate change and environmental issues in a far more abstract sense.
But there is real, concrete progress being made to slow the climate crisis, including news in recent times that utilizing renewable solar and wind energy has become cheaper than fossil fuel staples natural gas and coal.
“That’s the narrative that needs to be front and center,” says Johnson, who centers the conversation on collective, systemic action. “I do drive an electric car, but is that changing the world? No, it’s not! But when I teach classes and am part of a [larger] movement, that [moves the needle].”
Enacting those broader movements is much easier in theory than in practice, when people’s egos, differences in opinion, competition over funding, and personal comfortability get in the way, as is often seen in the nonprofit space.
“I would say the world does not need more nonprofits,” argues Johnson, speaking directly to budding young environmentalists. “[Instead], what if there was a culture of altruistic collaboration?”
In her own work, Sarah collaborates with a wide-ranging group of nonprofits, schools, and government entities to teach workshops and classes, and to shape curriculum and teaching strategies within the United States and across international borders.
“We need long-term thinkers; we need long-term investment. It’s countercultural to do this work because we need leaders who are not [typical] leaders with titles, but relational leaders who know how to be dedicated and tenacious … humble and creative,” she concludes.
Getting schooled with Wild Rose Education
For those interested in interactive, experiential courses centered on the principles of stillness, observation, humility, and thorough investigation, Wild Rose Education offers a number of courses and workshops, both in-person and online in an asynchronous format.
This July, Johnson will be hosting a Rocky Mountain Region cohort of the Summer Institute for Climate Change Education, a three-day conference built for educators around the central topic of climate change. The event is hosted by the nonprofit Climate Generation and funded and supported by NOAA.
The bulk of the virtual conference takes place July 17 and 18, with the regional workshop organized by Wild Rose Education on July 20. At the workshop, students will engage with the Boulder-based Western Water Assessment and its interactive tools, which focus on the social impacts of the west’s changing water landscape. Prospective students can sign up for the conference and regional workshop now.
Wild Rose Education also offers a climate change literary course in concert with the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education, intended for a broad audience and offered at various times throughout the year. The roughly 10-hour course starts with an outline of the Earth’s changing climate before delving into climate justice and an exploration of climate solutions.
“You’re driving it, [as] the participant,” says Johnson of the climate literacy course. “We dig into your context and your place … it’s my whole teaching strategy applied in an asynchronous, at your own pace course.”
You can learn more about Johnson and Wild Rose Education, keep your eyes peeled for new courses, and relive Sarah’s Arctic research expedition on the company’s website. You can also follow along with Wild Rose Education on Facebook and Instagram.