Award-winning zero waste DeCal reframes sustainability education

Irene Yi | UC Berkeley/Courtesy

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Campus senior Sage Lenier is reframing the way students learn about the environment and sustainability with her award-winning DeCal and soon-to-be book, “Zero Waste: Solutions for a Sustainable Future.”

The one-unit course, which Lenier began teaching two years ago, has grown from 25 students to 160, with 45 students on the waitlist as of press time, according to the course’s website. Teaching assistant and campus sophomore Annie Mitchell — who said she changed her major from political science to society and environment after taking the course herself — described the class as a broad discussion on environmental topics ranging from industrial food processes to the history of waste and plastic, with a focus on the flaws of many U.S. systems. 

For Mitchell, however, it’s the optimistic spin Lenier applies to these issues that makes the class special.  

“There’s a big demand just because I think a lot of people are seeing the news and are scared and don’t know what to do about it,” Lenier said. “I think people are looking for solutions and looking for the positive framing of the narrative.”

Lenier described her past experiences with environmental science courses — such as the ones she took in high school — as “depressing,” because these classes didn’t educate students on possible solutions to environmental challenges. Lenier added that she often left those classes feeling unsure of what to do with the information she had just learned. 

Lenier said as a “very positive and optimistic person,” she has since managed to reframe climate change in a “working way” so that she is no longer scared of it. 

Over 400 students attempted to enroll in the course, which was capped because of room constraints, according to Lenier. Mitchell attributed this success to Lenier’s ability to offer students tangible solutions. 

“It’s hard to be productive if you’re just thinking about all the bad things,” Mitchell said. “I think (Sage) differs because … she presents a positive spin that we can all take action.” 

Lenier has established a curriculum that earned a best practice award during the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference in July. Campus senior and teaching assistant Kira Rodriguez said in an email that the DeCal was changing perceptions of modern-day sustainability, as it is creating a curriculum focused on finding solutions as well as changing students’ perspectives in regards to how they can make a difference in the face of stagnant institutions and industries. 

On Thursday, Lenier spoke with her faculty advisor Kate O’Neill, an author and professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management. Lenier said she decided to convert her lectures into chapters for a publicly accessible book as her senior thesis. Lenier’s lectures are also available to the public on the course website. 

“One of the huge impacts that (the DeCal has had) is it is breaking down those barriers to students who don’t have access to an education about the different problems the environment is going through,” Mitchell said. “This class gives the real truth.”

In an attempt to reframe the way students view climate change, Lenier doesn’t believe saving the environment should be society’s main goal. According to Lenier, Earth has survived changing climates and mass extinctions before. Instead, Lenier said she views sustainability as an instrument to save current and future generations, and she hopes this will help students see it as a priority.   

Though Lenier plans to graduate in the spring, future UC Berkeley students don’t have to worry, as she said she plans to choose three students to take over teaching the DeCal. 

“I hope that everybody who leaves the course, or even a conversation with me, sees resources as limited and valuable and goes about their daily life with that in mind,” Lenier said. “You as a consumer have all the power in your hands, and you just have to leverage it.”

Emily Hom is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hom_emily.