The Colonized Mindset and the Failure of New Mexico Public Education

Photograph Source: Nicolas Henderson – CC BY 2.0

My time in New Mexico public education certainly taught me one thing –  that our public schools are woefully ill-equipped to prepare the next generation with the tools we need to solve the climate crisis.

I remember feeling hopelessly defeated when I first realized how quickly the world was changing due to climate change. I was eight years old, listening to my third grade teacher explain that fossil fuels, the United States main source of energy, would be all used up by the time we were her age. I was sitting next to the people I would spend the next few years with, all of us unprepared for our uncertain futures ahead. We were all shocked when my teacher’s next words were, “And it’s up to your generation to figure out what to do! Good luck!”

Hungry for action, my classmates and I banded together to form an “earth club,” buying beans and paper cups, planting seeds in wet paper towels. We nourished and cared for our little bean seedlings in the weeks that followed, as if we were nourishing our future. And though I can look back fondly at that time, the truth is, I knew even then that well-meaning efforts failed to address the root of the problem.

From kindergarten to high school, everything I’ve learned in class was rooted in the same perspective, a story of infinite entitlement with no consequence. Our history was taught from the exclusive vantage of heroic colonizers, scrubbed clean of actual deaths, their horrendous crimes tucked away into footnotes, if present at all. The exploitation of New Mexico’s land and people was always taught to be a victory. There were no stories offered to challenge this perspective, or to promote a worldview where the extraction of resources and people would be more perilous than celebratory.

I remember my sophomore year, when I took my first class in New Mexico history. We read a romanticized story about a European woman who settled in the New Mexico desert to escape the east coast industrialization. Her diary was rooted in entitlement as she wrote about her annoyances over those city dwellers who followed her out into the desert, occupying ‘her land.’ In class, I expected to discuss the irony of her frustration, especially as a newcomer to New Mexico in the early 20th century after centuries of settlements. But we never did.

Sure, we learned about the skinning, raping, and the stealing of land and people, and of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but we acted as if these historic events and their consequences were safely frozen in time. As if the crimes of our ancestors have no impact on us today. Our education never explored the consequences of colonization, which would have better prepared us to reckon with the trials of climate change and resource colonialism today. We never talked about the fatal flaws of creating an economy based on the extraction of land, lives, and livelihoods and how that practice would ultimately create fossil fuel barrons and climate catastrophes.

Outside of school, I learned about the stranglehold the oil and gas industry has had on almost every aspect of New Mexico policy and way of life. Touting its funding of public education, the oil and gas industry threatens the state with financial collapse if we dare to choose a different path beyond modern-day resource colonialism.

New Mexico has been a resource colony even before it was a state. Now, New Mexico is the second biggest oil producing state in the nation, with little to show for it beyond a legacy of sacrifice zones.  Our state ranks lowest in the nation for public education, with the lowest overall opportunity and quality of life, and the highest rates of childhood poverty and hunger. New Mexican families are losing their homes and their land while their children attend schools funded by the culprits.

From one election year to another, oil and gas companies pour millions of dollars into political campaigns, as we all witness the barrage of attack ads on anyone that would challenge the status quo of colonialism. New Mexico politicians tell us that being a resource colony and extracting oil and gas means improving our state, giving us more to spend on education and on the future of our children.  Rooted in a sense of infinite entitlement with no consequence, they promise endless profit through the destruction of our lands and culture. They promise better education for students while they frack away our future.

Children of the 21st century are the ones forced to reckon with these broken promises. We have learned from a young age that our way of life is not sustainable simply by witnessing the world around us change.

We’ve seen years of drought and forest fires, rising temperatures and destructive oil spills.  We’ve seen firsthand the ecosystems that once thrived in the Rio Grande visibly struggle as countless species face extinction, the river itself drying up for more miles each year than ever before. We’ve watched forest fires shroud our horizons, no longer a seasonal event, but now a season in and of itself.

The world is changing.  Generation Z can’t look to the future with the same hope that previous generations have. We have grown up in the shadow of fear, uncertainty and denial. There is no certainty of a steady career path, no promise that the home our family has built will still be here decades down the road. We have no hope of a vocation that can protect us from the fallout of compounding crises that come with climate change.

Even today, public schools teach little, if anything, about how to move beyond the extractive industries that have bled our state dry. Everything I’ve learned about solutions for a better future, I’ve learned from tidbits in newspapers, from my family, and from activists and advocacy organizations. Certainly not from my public education, from the politicians I watch on TV,  or from the industries that perpetuate the problem.

If our leaders fail to reckon with the colonial mindset and centuries of resource extraction, they will perpetuate the sacrifice of our land and people. By not addressing the need for systemic reform, for true justice and reconciliation, we remain on the path to nowhere, with no tools to face the challenge ahead.

The Biden Administration has promised to finally reconcile the federal oil and gas leasing program with climate realities, accounting for the cumulative impacts of oil and gas on climate, culture, and communities. So far, President Biden has yet to deliver, as the administration just announced its intent to lease more than 700,000 acres of public lands for more fracking across the West. That’s why WildEarth Guardians is asking the public to demand President Biden keep his promise to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.

If promises are kept, we have a chance to turn the page and end an era of extractive colonialism, but the shackles of oil and gas seem to drag our leaders behind.

When the Biden Administration first called for a halt to new oil and gas leases, New Mexico’s own Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham opposed. She echoed the threats of industry—a worse-off New Mexico with less oil and gas, less money towards public education. But we’re already leading the nation in oil and gas pollution, at the bottom of all the best lists and at the top of all the worst ones. If Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to improve the education of students of New Mexico, why is she allowing our future to be fracked away? Why isn’t she demanding Biden keep his promise?

To better prepare students to solve the problems of today, we can no longer follow the culprits and the colonized mindset that brought us here. By holding public education hostage to oil and gas revenue, our politicians are not only sentencing students to a poor education, they are also auctioning off our livelihoods.

My generation has risen up, not by desire but by necessity. Now, our leaders must step up, turning their climate rhetoric into actual policy, abandoning the colonizing mindset for a frame of climate justice. We simply cannot afford the continued sacrifice of our land, lives, and livelihoods to more broken promises.

You can listen to an auto-recording of this piece here.

Elia Vasquez is a WildEarth Guardians intern and a sophomore at New Mexico State University.