Discussion Starters – Explorers (Modern)

willmap.jpgModern Explorers – Discussion Starters

Teachers: Use the following information to spark discussion in your classroom. Familiarize students with the events, people and organizations in the following paragraphs and then encourage students to discuss their opinions and reactions. There are several example questions and suggested areas for discussion. Remind your students that discussion requires well-supported opinions, respectful listening, and sometimes agreeing to disagree.


Many people feel disempowered by the daunting challenge of slowing climate change. A focus group commissioned by Ted Turner found the following:
“Nightmarish scenarios environmentalists tell about global warming so terrify and repel ordinary Americans that they retreat from engagement. The more you scare people about global warming, the more they want to buy SUVs to protect themselves. Miniature Arks.”

Source: Susan Bales of FrameWorks Institute.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, founders of the Break Through Institute, argue that what truly motivates people is an inspiring vision. They make the case that people might be more willing to work towards slowing global warming if leaders could present a vision for a better world for which it would be worth working, rather than focusing on the potentially catastrophic climate change we might bring upon ourselves through business as usual.
In a 2004 essay [http://www.thebreakthrough.org/writing.shtml] Nordhaus and Shellenberger look to the example of Martin Luther King whose “I have a dream speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an I have a nightmare speech instead.”

In their 2007 book BreakThrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to say:
“What we didn’t know at the time we wrote those words was that King had given an I have a nightmare speech. In fact, he had given it just moments before he gave his I have a dream speech…It was perhaps the darkest and most discouraged speech King ever gave. But then something strange and wonderful happened. A voice rang out from the back…It was Mahalia Jackson, ‘Tell them about your dream, Martin!’…King then seemed to find the words Mahalia Jackson had tossed himm, and he began the new speech. ‘And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.’ From there King led the hot crowd in a rapid climb out of the valley…racial integration suddenly felt inevitable.” (pp. 2 – 3)
Other people realize the importance of an inspiring vision. Adam Werbach, the youngest ever President of Sierra Club (he was 23 years old at the time of his appointment) recounts the following experience.

In 2003, in Erie, Penn., and Akron, Ohio, the Apollo Alliance did focus groups among undecided, working-class, swing voters — the very people who would determine the outcome of the 2004 election. I had the luck to observe the focus groups from the other side of a one-way mirror.

Instead of starting the focus groups by asking people what they thought of global warming, our pollster Ted Nordhaus simply asked them how things were going. This open-ended question led, invariably, to focus group participants describing the collapse of the local economy. They would list, in depressing detail, the shutting of Hoover Vacuum and Timken Ball-bearing factories; gone to Mexico. They explained that the jobs that had been created in their wake — mostly service sector jobs in places like Wal-Mart — paid half as much and offered no health care or retirement benefits. Many said they were working two jobs to make ends meet.

We then asked them what they thought of the idea of a major federal investment program to accelerate America’s transition to the clean energy economy of the future: research and development, manufacturing of wind turbines and solar, energy efficiency. We didn’t have to prove to them that such a program would pay for itself; they knew it would intuitively. Hadn’t a similar program succeeded in the post-war period? Of course it had.

What had been a roomful of tired and semi-depressed working folks transformed itself into a roomful of excited, optimistic Americans in a period of just 20 minutes. The energy emanating from the room was palpable.

And then something extraordinary happened. Nearly every single person in the room started to sound like Sierra Club members. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. They waxed poetic about solar panels. They spoke of their children’s future — their future — and the planet’s future. They remembered episodes from the area’s local history — like when thousands of jobs were created to retrofit smokestacks after the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment — things that James Watt and Rush Limbaugh want them to forget. But more than that, Apollo tells a narrative about American greatness, our history of shared investment and prosperity, of our ingenuity, and how we build a better future.

When our pollster left the room, several of the women participants speculated excitedly about who was sponsoring the focus groups. Was it a corporation seeking to open up a factory? Perhaps a car maker? The more excited they got, the sadder I felt; we were years from getting Congress to pass the kind of legislation that would create these jobs in Akron.

Ted was insistent about his method. “We’re just going to start by listening,” he’d say. “Let’s figure out where they’re at.”

Previous focus groups I had attended got defined upfront by moderators in a hurry to test environmentalist messages and slogans. As a matter of principal, environmentalists don’t hire pollsters to tell them not to talk about the environment.

“Tonight,” these moderators would often say, “we want to hear what you think about a few environmental issues.” You could almost see the air leave the room. Here we were, interviewing people worried about how they could afford to pay an increase in the health care premiums, whether their children were learning anything at school, and how they could go another night on four hours of sleep, and we were asking them about issues that only three to five percent of them would volunteer as the most important issues facing their community.

Invariably, these folks would voice support for environmental laws, for clean air and clean water, and higher fuel economy standards, though hardly ever with much enthusiasm.

What was different in the focus groups we did for Apollo? It wasn’t just that we addressed concerns like jobs and economic development that are of a far higher priority. It was also that we spoke to their aspirations, their families, their communities, and their country. We activated a set of ecological values that, ironically, cannot be activated through environmental rhetoric that is now more than three decades old.

We did a poll and found that more than 70 percent of voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania supported a $30 billion annual investment in energy efficiency and clean energy. Having never seen such high numbers supporting any government program, the pollster to the Steelworkers, an Apollo ally, stressed in a poll question he asked that the $30 billion annual investment would come from taxpayer money. A funny thing happened: support for Apollo went up.

Why? Because Americans see the problems facing their communities and their country as big problems and they want big solutions…

I have come to believe, after a decade’s work on this issue, that saving ourselves depends not on our ability to shock, but rather to inspire….Imagine our strength coming not from our separate movements, but from our interconnections

Source: Adam Werbach speech December 8, 2004 [http://www.grist.org/cgi-bin/printthis.pl?uri=/news/maindish/2005/01/13/werbach-reprint/index.html]


  • How do you think most people tend to react when confronted with information about possibly catastrophic climate change? How do you react?
  • Do you feel empowered to work towards slowing climate change?
    • If so, what makes you feel empowered?
    • If not, what makes you feel disempowered? What could motivate and empower you?
  • What aspects of the future and the possibilities it holds excite you?
  • How do you think people could become empowered to work towards slowing climate change?
  • Some people worry that working to slow climate change will destroy the economy.
    • Do you think that it would be possible to create a vision that would protect people’s financial security while at the same time protecting the climate?
      • How could you make this vision inspiring?
      • How could you communicate this vision to people?
      • How could you motivate people (and yourself) to start working toward this vision?


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