For Life, Work, Politics, and Ecology: Climate Justice and Liberal Education

[1] Over 10,000 youth from 22 countries surveyed by Amnesty International ranked climate change as the most important issue of our time.[1] Teenagers in the United States make the same case.[2] Increasing average temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather, ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, and mass extinction associated with climate change threaten public health, water supply, food security, decent livelihoods, economic opportunities, and international relations. Further, “climate change disproportionately affects members of disadvantaged communities and groups who face socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of color.”[3] Another survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication thus finds what we would expect, that “Hispanics/Latinos (69%) and African Americans (57%) are more likely to be Alarmed or Concerned about global warming than are Whites (49%). In contrast, Whites are more likely to be Doubtful or Dismissive (27%) than are Hispanics/Latinos (11%) or African Americans (12%).”[4] Climate disruption, and the accelerating, devastating, and multiplying ecological and social impacts related to it, is one of the largest looming factors in our present and future.

[2] The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) meanwhile released its guide for liberal education in What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, Who It’s For, and Where It Happens.[5] Its stated purpose is to “clearly describe the learning all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community.”[6] Unfortunately, this learning, according to the 32-page document, while grounded in equity and inclusion in principle, doesn’t involve engaging either anything ecological in general or climate change in particular. Based on this guide, the AAC&U’s view of liberal education appears outmoded, and of limited relevance, upon publication. Climate disruption – its causes and effects, and the responses and transitions desperately called for in the face of its magnitude and consequence – is a major equity matter, and should deeply inform and shape the liberal education of young people today and tomorrow.

[3] In what follows, I urge Lutheran colleges and universities to make climate justice – active “responsibility for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society by critically addressing inequality and promoting transformative approaches to address the root causes of climate change” – central (alongside vocational preparation for life, workplace, and democracy) to the liberal education of their students.[7] Why? Lutheran educational communities understand themselves as places that “equip graduates who are called and empowered to serve their neighbors so that all may flourish;” and climate change is among the most serious threats to our neighbors, both human and non-human, and their flourishing. Liberal education, traditionally understood, is supposed to prepare students for three domains: life, workplace, and politics (i.e., sustaining our democracy). It’s past time to add a fourth domain, namely, ecology (i.e., sustaining our world).

[4] Lutheran colleges and universities can of course deal with any of their own respective blindspots concerning nature’s ecosystems and climate change by simply adding the domain of human-Earth relations to their framings of liberal education. The learned dichotomy between our social and natural worlds, or our society’s general disregard for and ignorance of other living species and the physical world, however, runs deep; we would have a lot to learn. Another challenge is that as Lutheran higher education responds to current demands made by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) activism on campus and beyond for racial justice and equity, potential disconnects (based on the learned dichotomy above) and competitive perceptions (zero-sum-game-views) – that any increase in institutional resources dedicated to engaging climate disruption entails a corresponding decrease in resources dedicated to racial progress – tend to put climate change on the back burner, no pun intended.

[5] Just after the death of George Floyd, persistent protests inspired by Black Lives Matter combined with investigative journalism on the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities across the United States forced many environmental and climate activists (those not necessarily identifying as either environmental or climate justice activists) to reconsider the relation between racial justice and equity work on the one hand, and environmental stewardship and climate action on the other. They questioned themselves, for example, about connections between histories of redlining, pollution levels, heat islands, and public health (e.g. pre-existing respiratory conditions). Many have now concluded that major factors contributing to climate disruption and associated inequalities are rooted in the colonial oppression of Indigenous and Black communities, and the capitalist plundering and destruction of the environment.[8] It’s all of one cloth.[9]

[6] Below I set out some of what a few California Lutheran University (CLU) faculty in Thousand Oaks, California, are doing in relation to BIPOC activism to make climate justice central to CLU’s general education (the core curriculum of its liberal education), informed by Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary’s (PLTS is one of CLU’s graduate schools) climate justice and faith program and comparable climate justice efforts at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Washington. Finally, I show one way the vision of Rooted and Open can guide and support these and broader pursuits on combining racial justice and equity work on the one hand, and climate action and environmental stewardship on the other, to meet the challenges of potential disconnects and competitive perceptions.

Reforming CLU’s General Education

[7] This summer, CLU president Lori Varlotta charged CLU College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jessica Lavariega Monforti to lead a General Education (GE) Task Force. Varlotta references “the new normal” for higher education as “many students and their families are struggling to discern what type of post-secondary education best prepares 21st century learners for the personal and professional changes, challenges, and opportunities that mark today’s world.”[10] She continues, “Our current core must evolve into a curriculum that is designed to help students find their vocation and their purpose…and live and work as engaged citizens who understand the intricacies and intersections ever-present in today’s global society.” According to the charge, the task force will “craft recommendations to create a new gen ed curriculum.” The GE Task Force currently comprises six representative faculty members, and staff, students, and administrators. Immediately, leading Lutheran theologian and CLU Professor of Religion Lisa Dahill began organizing faculty already working together on other campus environmental and sustainability fronts.

[8] In collaboration with faculty from Religion, English, Sociology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and PLTS, Dahill drafted a letter to the GE Task Force titled, “CLU General Education: Centering in Climate Justice and a Livable Future for All,” making a number of crucial points useful for our purposes. The letter calls on the CLU president and the GE Task Force to develop a general education modeled on PLTS’s teaching and learning at the nexus of race, class, gender, and Earth that “advances students’ adequate understanding and skills/capacities for leadership toward local and global sustainability, resilience, innovation, environmental justice, and human/interspecies survival befitting the urgent crisis we and the larger planetary community are facing.” Selected whereas statements from the letter, quoted at length below, represent the collaborating faculty well, and parallel concerns expressed by BIPOC climate justice leaders.[11]

…WHEREAS climate change is the chief threat to the health, wellbeing, and continued existence of the most vulnerable humans on Earth, to entire forms of human civilization, to countless species facing imminent extinction, and to whole ecosystems and the patterns of climatic, hydrologic, and oceanic stability on which most forms of life on Earth depend; and

WHEREAS Ventura County represents ground zero on numerous interlocking measures of climate change already affecting the university’s functioning – a nexus of wildfire and temperature threats, desertification, economic impacts, and human suffering – while disrupting and destabilizing any lingering naïve conception of what “normal life” might henceforth be, thus also presenting a microcosm of global destabilization conducive to study of these phenomena; and

WHEREAS the global exploitation of carbon resources driving this accelerating climate chaos is the result of historical and ongoing racist and colonial exploitation of people of color and their environments, in which those who have contributed least to climate change are most vulnerable to its effects, while those (largely white North Americans and Europeans) who have contributed most to climate chaos are least vulnerable, with the effect that climate upheavals both mirror and undergird all other forms of white supremacy; and

WHEREAS CLU acknowledges that it is located on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Chumash peoples; recognizes that, as the original stewards of this land, the Chumash understood the interconnectedness of all things and maintained harmony with nature for millennia; and honors the Chumash peoples’ enduring responsibility to care for Mother Earth; and

WHEREAS young people across the world, especially BIPOC youth, recognize the threat these overwhelming and destabilizing upheavals pose to their futures and to the lives of all future generations, and both need and expect their elders, leaders, and institutions of all kinds to take the necessary and sacrificial action these interlocking crises demand; and…

WHEREAS the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recognizes that climate justice is inseparable from social justice, that people of color and marginalized peoples are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and climate change, and has repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to climate justice, care of creation, divestment from fossil fuels, and conversion to forms of life that honor all of God’s creatures and cultures, future generations, and the planet itself; and

WHEREAS CLU, as a university of the ELCA, is obligated to take seriously these climate-justice values which are indivisible from the university’s commitments to racial justice, 21st century educational relevance, and moral leadership, and central to the university’s mission; and…


[10] Related endeavors at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Washington, can also contribute to reforming general education. PLU’s mission “to educate for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care of others, their communities and the earth” clearly includes environmental stewardship in a way that CLU’s current mission “to educate leaders for a global society who are committed to service and justice” doesn’t. PLU’s Associate Vice President for Diversity, Justice, and Sustainability position laudably reflects this environmental stewardship value combined with the values of justice and diversity, together shaping the university’s curriculum and practices according to their planning documents from 2010-2020. These values are also evident in PLU’s environmental studies program, especially in its intersectional environmentalism and environmental justice collaborative online reading list, intended to provide PLU students, staff, and faculty with resources “to engage with and take part in the kind of in-depth critical reflection, dialogue and, ideally, transformation that anti-racism and the climate change crisis call for and that our institutional commitment to diversity, justice, and sustainability, and our mission of care ask of us.”[12]

[11] Another PLU demonstration of diversity, justice, and sustainability (DJS) values is the Environmental and Social Justice Floor in DJS Community in Ordal Hall, a community that “seeks to create a safe, supportive, and diverse environment that challenges students to explore social and environmental justice issues and begin the work towards equity as engaged citizens on both local and global levels.”[13] It remains to be seen whether CLU will reform its general education along climate justice lines, and transcend the specific campus and broader cultural disconnects and competitive perceptions that make addressing racial equity on the one hand, and climate change on the other, a zero-sum game. As we put it above, it’s all of one cloth. In the meantime, one key aspect of the vision of Lutheran higher education set out in Rooted and Open can guide and support Lutheran college and university faculty, staff, and students hold the two together.

Social and Ecological Embeddedness

[12] Rooted and Open presents the common calling – “to equip graduates who are called and empowered to serve their neighbors so that all may flourish” – of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU), a calling in which they find their identity.[14] Since “neighbors” is inclusive of both human and non-human species, and “all” means all of life, the vision is comprehensive of the social and ecological. Based on the Lutheran theological root, an ecological metaphor, of God coming into the world as a human animal, Rooted and Open makes such holistic concern an educational priority. In other words, Lutheran higher education understands individuals only in their social and ecological embeddedness. This is the key passage:

The essential relationality of Lutheran theology believes that individuals flourish only as they are embedded in larger communities, families, civic spaces and ecosystems that are also empowered to flourish. Cherishing and protecting healthy communities go hand-in-hand with cherishing and protecting the well-being of individuals. In a dominant culture where goods are increasingly privatized and fought over, graduates of Lutheran institutions can consider the whole, creatively imagine mutual benefit, and work for the health of natural and human communities.

Here we see how Rooted and Open can help Lutheran colleges and universities hold together racial justice and equity work on the one hand, and climate action and environmental stewardship on the other, and support making climate justice central to their general education. We also see why adding the fourth domain of ecology to liberal education’s traditional domains of life, work, and politics is necessary.


[13] To be sure, our democracy is in disrepair, and the AAC&U guide to liberal education rightly emphasizes the importance of its recuperation. A liberal education, according to the AAC&U, is “to form the habits of heart and mind that liberate them and that equip them for, and dispose them to, civic involvement and the creation of a more just and inclusive society.” A more just and inclusive society, though, involves working for climate justice, however daunting both climate realities (sciences and technologies) and social realities (structures and dynamics) might be. A relevant liberal education must prepare students for vocations generative of healthy and just forms of life, work, politics, and ecology – with all of these domains informed by BIPOC climate justice activists calling for the dismantling of white supremacy and implementing of just transitions. Let’s start now by reforming Lutheran college and university general education, the core curriculum of our liberal education. Youth around the world insist we do.





[1] “Climate change ranks highest as vital issue of our time – Generation Z survey,” Amnesty International, December 10, 2019.

[2] Nylah Burton, “Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster,” Vox, October 11, 2019.

[3]  Ballew, M., Maibach, E., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Rosenthal, S., Marlon, J., and Leiserowitz, A. (2020). Which racial/ethnic groups care most about climate change?. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Association of American Colleges & Universities, What Liberal Education Looks Like, May, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mandy Meikle, Jake Wilson, and Tahseen Jafry, “Climate justice: between Mammon and Mother Earth,” International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management 8:4 (2016), p. 497.

[8] Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet,” Sierra Club Magazine, June 8, 2020.

[9] See the interview of Elizabeth Yeampierre in Beth Gardiner, “Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change, “ Yale Environment 360, June 9, 2020.

[10] Email from the CLU Office of the President to all CLU faculty on June 29, 2021. Subject: “Launching our General Education Task Force.”

[11] See Gardiner’s “Unequal Impact” above.

[12] See PLU’s Intersectional Environmentalism and Environmental Justice Collaborative Reading List here:

[13] See PLU’s themed learning communities here:

[14] Rooted and Open: The Common Calling of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2018).

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.