Bypassing Students’ Hostility to Discussing Justice: Creating Distance by Using Simulations and Upscaling the Unit of Analysis

How to overcome resistance and mitigate hostility when teaching about environmental justice?

Discussing issues of environmental justice can be difficult for some students as they may be uncomfortable reflecting on the privileges and/or injustices they have experienced. I propose an approach that first uses a classroom simulation to teach theories of environmental justice across countries then ‘downscales’ the concepts to the individual level. I argue that by initially creating distance between the object of study and their experiences, students are more open to considering sensitive material that challenges their preconceived beliefs.

The approach consists of four steps. First, students participate in a classroom simulation, a variation of a ‘public goods game,’ that is designed to foster discussion on how costs and benefits should be distributed. To begin the activity, the instructor sets up an inequity in wealth (e.g., using candy) among the students. Some begin the activity with a lot of ‘wealth,’ others with very little. Then the students make a contribution to a collective ‘pool’. Failure to reach a specified amount leads to penalties, success to rewards. After several rounds, this intentionally creates conflict as some become upset at their ‘freeloading’ colleagues, while others feel exploited. In post-simulation discussion instructor acts as a mediator as the class deliberates on their experience and what they think is just.

The second step is to tie students’ ideas to different countries’ perspectives on who should pay for climate change mitigation. Students examine data on historical, current, and projected carbon emissions and discuss the applicability of their ideas of justice.

The third step is to examine environmental justice issues at the local level. Students examine data from several US cities (Baltimore, Houston, Flint, Eugene), then privately reflect on their own experiences in a journal entry.

The fourth step involves students reflecting on their own personal experiences through the use of journals.