Robyn’s Adapting In Place Blog has a really great sermon she gave about teaching kids about the environment. I really like her points both about multiple environmentalisms, and also about the way kids react to empty nonsense like “101 ways you can save the planet.” The whole thing is well worth a read! Robyn is one of the most intelligent and passionate advocates of good education of all kinds I know, and this is her stuff at its best!
I also discovered that I was under a double whammy with kids when teaching conventional environmentalism. First, as I already said, kids can smell a lie, so now you’ve lost their trust.
Second, and more importantly, I was staring in the face exactly the people who would be most harmed by my own complicity in this nonsense. I’m sure everyone’s heard the Native American saying that we should think seven generations in the future when deciding how to act. And anyone who’s tried this also knows that this is really almost impossible to do–I don’t even know how to start that project. It’s a metaphor, designed to encourage us to think about the future of our actions, but it’s really not that helpful from a practical standpoint. Well, I can tell you what IS helpful is to look one of those future generations square in the face while trying to spin a yarn about how being “just mildly less comfortable than we’re used to” is all we have to do to save the world. Once I realized that this is what I was doing, well, how could I continue?
Alright, so what should I do instead? I mean, I didn’t want to abandon the project of teaching environmentalism, it’s too important. But how? I’m not conveying the right message to our kids. What is the right message? Do I even know? Uh oh.
My own discovery here can be summed up nicely by Albert Einstein, who said “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Remember how I talked about teaching lots of religions, but not really having multiple models of environmentalism to teach? That should have been a warning. It’s not that there are no competing models of environmentalism out there; it’s that we adults live very much engrained in one way of life, one way that things are supposed to be. Solutions to our problems, such as our received views on environmentalism and living green, need to conform to our lifestyle. They must fit the way we live, not so that we will be willing to adopt them, but so that we can even SEE them. There are alternative stories for how to live sustainably out there, but they’re so far outside of our ken that we can’t perceive them, or can’t take them seriously when we do. To us, that sort of lifestyle is uninhabitable.
But, not so with children. There isn’t a “way things are supposed to be” for them yet. They can get the real, and in some cases absurd, picture of our lifestyle and what it’s doing to the world much better than I can.
• I try to turn my fridge up as high as is safe; kids wonder why we’re using a fridge when it’s 35 degrees outside, and frankly it’s just silly to use electricity to do what is given for free for over a quarter of the year.
• I wonder about buying a more fuel-efficient car; kids wonder why stuff is so far apart that we need cars for everything, especially if this means there won’t be any oil left for them when they’re adults.
• I wonder how high I’ll set my AC during the summer; kids wonder why I’m turning it on at all when we have Bangladesh refugees due to the effects of climate change, exacerbated by coal-fired electricity.
My own kids have the same effect. I still remember talking to Simon and Isaiah when they were maybe 3 and 5 about making more of our own stuff – I was showing them how to sew scraps into a quilt. Isaiah and Simon said “but we should make our own needles, too!” Mommy is sitting there thinking “but I don’t know how to make bone needles, and…gah!” A friend of mine once observed that the problem with young children is that they believe everything you say, and they expect you to live up to what you say, and that the problem with teenagers is they have figured out that you don’t live up to your words.