An Intergenerational Climate Change Conversation
By Julianne Bruggemann
Jan Jelenski is my grandmother’s best friend and like a third grandmother to me. I decided to interview her because she is an avid recycler and I was curious about her awareness regarding climate change. Her career as an elementary school teacher gives an additional insight into how climate change was taught in schools. Over the course of our conversation, I thought about how our experiences compared.
Jan grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City.
“Everyone walked everywhere. Only a certain few would take the bus to school, and even fewer people drove to school,” she recalled.
Despite living less than a mile from my elementary school, I rarely walked to school and neither did many of my peers. My elementary school tried promoting walking to school as a form of environmental action, but it was unsuccessful. The community favored convenience and efficiency.
Jan graduated from Jersey City State in 1966, receiving a bachelors and masters degree in education. She taught 4th graders at a public school between 1966 and 2001.
“It was ridiculous how much paper we would just throw in the trash. We didn’t recycle like we do now,” she said. Schools, she noted, produce a lot of trash. There were no recycling bins until later in her teaching career. In contrast, my elementary school had blue recycling bins in every classroom.
Environmentalism and climate change were not emphasized in the curriculum she taught.
“We didn’t really talk about the environment. We did spend some time learning about plants and animals,” Jan said. She described a tree planting ceremony on Arbor Day, which generated a conversation about the importance of trees in the community.
My elementary school education emphasized personal actions that would be environmentally friendly, such as taking shorter showers or picking up litter in the park. There was a strong emphasis on “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.”
By high school, my climate education became more sophisticated as all of our mandatory science classes––biology, chemistry, and physics––incorporated climate change into some part of the curriculum. Climate change, however, did not exist outside of science class. At Georgetown, climate change is incorporated into humanities classes, such as theology and philosophy.
Jan did not receive nor teach much climate education, but she is certainly aware of local and national issues regarding climate change, thanks to CBS’s 60 Minutes, which she accredits for her climate education. This made me realize how important news reporting is for educating older generations on climate change, since they didn’t receive a formal education in school.
I asked Jan what aspects of the current environmental situation concerned her.
“I worry about our area’s local water supply. Climate change is causing more droughts and they keep building new housing complexes. I don’t know how our community is going to support more people,” Jan said.
Jan lives next to an 18-hole golf course. Half of the golf course was recently sold and will be turned into a housing development, which is a common occurrence here in New Jersey.
As a result of this conversation, I am curious if the town is taking environmental concerns into account as they build these houses, especially in the face of longer and more frequent droughts caused by climate change.
Jan also highlighted the California Central Valley, a fertile area where many of our fruits and vegetables are grown.
“The droughts in California are just awful. But what are we supposed to do? They just keep depleting the groundwater. I hope there aren’t food shortages,” she said.
This issue of groundwater depletion was brought up in my environmental studies class last semester. In short, there is no easy solution.
Jan’s concerns about the environment are short term; she might be alive to see her fears of water shortages come into fruition.
I asked Jan what she thought about the Paris Climate Agreement, since that has been reported in the news recently. She confessed that she doesn’t know enough about it to have much of an opinion.
“Although I don’t know much about it, I am happy that the world seems to be coming together over this issue,” she said.
Immediately, I wanted to disagree––the world isn’t coming together over this issue! Yet as I considered this comment further, I began to think about how this situation looked to Jan. Climate change went from being a fringe issue to one of utmost political importance over the course of her lifetime. While our progress has been infuriatingly slow, it is still progress.
This conversation with Jan highlighted the advancements we have made over the years, particularly in regards to education. Only a short 50 years ago, climate change was not largely discussed in the classroom. Now, there is a whole curriculum at Georgetown centered around interdisciplinary climate change dialogue. We should celebrate this achievement.
For my final question, I asked Jan if she thought about climate change and environmental issues when she was voting.
“Absolutely,” she replied.
While Jan cannot speak for her whole generation, this gave me hope that the older generation is looking out for us.
Julianne is a Core Pathways student and a Global Health major ’23. This piece was written initially for Core Pathways course Climate Justice.