Casaubon's Book

Teaching Environmentalism to Kids

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.



  1. #1 Jerry
    October 21, 2010

    Very good points. If you want anyone to follow what you say for any significant length of time, you have to tell the truth. Environmentalism has gotten so entangled with politics that we don’t “do the right thing” for the environment (like tell the truth about what is going on and how we do our research), instead, we “spin” our research for political gain. What we end up with is having our efforts thwarted when our thin veils are shredded with truth…

  2. #2 Monkey
    October 21, 2010

    I like your thoughts and those of your quoted section. I would like to add that the most powerful way to teach something to kids, to anybody, is to allow them to come to the conclusion themselves. Being ‘told’ is much less powerful than ‘realizing’.

    In this regard, I have found that ‘teaching environmentalism’ to be a wrong tact – teach nature, science, naturalists, cultural sustainability, new technologies, global issues, then ask the questions of what wrong now, what will happen inthe future, why should you care and what can you do….laying on them a ‘Be like David suzuki’ quote all day for the duration of the unit may lose more than you gain. Im not disagreeing with your post at all – im refreshed to read it. However, I just thought I would add my own classroom thoughts (albeit highschool science classroom experience differs greatly….).

    thats all… 🙂

  3. #3 StephenB
    October 21, 2010

    You have to walk the talk, in as many ways, and as many times as possible. Soon enough, they’ll better understand the difficulties and challenges of the situation.

    One can talk and “tell” kids about environmentalism, but only a little bit, and only while immersed in the experiential learning side of environmentalism as much as possible.

    I should say I’m typing these words from Oregon….yeah, I live in Massachusetts. I got on a plane earlier in the week. It’s my first plane ride in 2 years and I put it off and put it off as much as I could. I have a brother and his family out here that my mom desperately wanted to visit, and with nobody else to escort her out to Oregon, family relations were getting strained after 2 years of saying no. I am not allowed at work to take 2 weeks’ vacation time at once to allow a train trip, (though I have a ton of such time accrued), and even if I did, I’m not sure that a sleeping car arrangement would save all that much fuel over the plane anyhow. My mom just wouldn’t have lasted 3 days out and 3 days back in coach – never mind that sleeping accommodations on a coast to coast, round trip Amtrak ride are on the high side of $1900 for both of us.

    No, when I get back home, I’ll be riding my bike and caboose trailer to work, or walking in the rain, and then snow, for months, to make up for this West Coast trip, and talking about my tough choices with my students.

    The thing is, I was already walking and biking 80%+ of the time. One can only pull against the rest of the world, and against one’s family, so far, at one time. *Sigh*

  4. #4 P.J. Grath
    October 21, 2010

    Even in the “good old days,” people did not very often do what they knew would be best for their environment in the long run. As long as they had options, in terms of more land to move to, they took the easy way out. Now we’ve run out of those options and must do what the wisest always knew was best. I recommend to you and your readers, Sharon, DIRT: THE EROSION OF CIVILIZATIONS, by David R. Montgomery, for the long planetary overview of agricultural history. “Whether catastrophically rapid or drawn out over centuries, accelerated soil erosion devastates human populations…. Everything else–culture, art, and science–depends upon adequate agricultural production.” Even the already committed will learn from this book and have more to say to children from their own increased knowledge.

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    October 21, 2010

    I think it’s all about temperament. My parents had a hard time keeping me out of the woods. More than once my mom freaked ‘cuz I couldn’t be found. I wasn’t lost, just preoccupied with nature. I once asked my dad why he didn’t like hiking, camping, hunting.. and he replied that he’d had his fill of that sort of thing in Korea. Having encouraged my own kids to be outside all the time, as adults they’re not particularly into it. I know the birds, they don’t. I catch snakes, they don’t. On the other hand, I can’t program, they can (well, my sons can, anyway, not so sure about my daughter). Kids turn out how they turn out and I don’t think that adults’ expectations of them make much difference. If anything, adults’ expectations probably have the opposite effect of that intended. Teach environmentalism? I wouldn’t recommend trying it.

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    October 21, 2010

    David Montgomery’s book is fabulous!

    DD, I don’t know, I think what parents say and do often comes back in complicated ways in kids – but that doesn’t change the fact that a kid that doesn’t have the kind of childhood experience you did in the woods as an adult doesn’t have the same choices – or the same likelihood of being able to adapt to shifting realities.

    Also, I think a lot of it depends on time of life – if you’d met me at 20, the last thing anyone would have thought was that I’d be the person I am now – I wanted to live a wholly urban life, a cool one like close family friends who travelled the world, had a boatload of world-travelling friends who sat up talking about art all night. They slept on a futon on the floor, wore funky clothes and had a zillion cats. I wanted nothing to do with the home-renovating, garden growing, jam making, cooking from scratch every day family I grew up with.

    Fast forward a decade, and I spent some time trying to be my family friends, took some pieces of their lives home with me (I still talk art at decent hours, anyway, sleep on a futon and have too many cat and a lot of friends from far away) but I also took back a lot of the do-it-yourself ethic of my parents, their frugality, the gardens of my grandparents… It comes out in complicated ways – I’m not like my parents, but what I got from them gave me choices, and it comes out as it comes out.

    The outcome may not be forseeable, but the value of understanding, and trying and seeing your parents try and change things, that I think is real.

    How is your wife?


  7. #7 Pharmacy Technician
    October 21, 2010

    I almost cried last week when my 9-year-old daughter, after watching several environmental films alerting viewers of the current state of our planet as well as ongoing conservation efforts while at Epcot, innocently asked me whether our world was going to last for a long time. I used to think that each generation would build on the successes of the one previous and that Mother Earth would live…well, forever! I now see what we’ve done to the planet and the growing efforts under way to fix past mistakes. Teaching our kids to have an environmental conscious and to be active participants in recycling and conservation should be a goal of all adults.

    · Now parents aren’t just teaching kids to brush their teeth, they’re teaching them to turn off the faucet while they do it.

    · Eating from the basic food pyramid has been replaced by an emphasis on seasonal, local eating and organic food.

    · Things that used to be about saving money — kids turning off the lights, closing the door when they go outside to play — are now being encouraged from an environmental point of view.

    · Chores include bringing reusable bags when they shop and being in charge of the recycling.

    · R Cubed — reduce, reuse and recycle is not just good for the planet it’s good behavior to teach kids.

    · Conservative or liberal you want your kids to be considerate and care for the world around them in your home and everywhere.

  8. #8 Peter
    October 23, 2010

    I think the first step of teaching kids about environmentalism is teaching them awareness and bringing the severity of the issue so it can relate to them. Kids can easily fall into an environmentally safe routine by their parents until they are old enough and realize why they are doing this. I don’t think children can really understand what the concepts of environmentalism is because they go through life seeing that its the same every year. Until they are old enough to see how environmentalism affects them in the long run no matter if it is passively. Awareness should be the first step in teaching kids about environmentalism

  9. #9 darwinsdog
    October 23, 2010

    I think the first step of teaching kids about environmentalism is teaching them awareness..

    How does one go about teaching awareness, Peter? I would really like to know.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    October 23, 2010

    How is your wife?

    Thanks for asking, Sharon. She’s dying. If she doesn’t receive a kidney & pancreas transplant, from the same donor, pretty soon, she’s a goner. But, then, we’re all dying, some just more rapidly than others. 🙂

    I’m posting from home, perhaps you noticed. After 26 months without the phone or internet at home, I had it reconnected, just so I could keep in touch with her. I really didn’t want the distraction or monthly bill but neither did I want to be incommunicado, with her away & winter coming. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m a social ape, like the rest of us.

  11. #11 Nicole
    October 24, 2010

    I would be really interested in reading the blog by Robyn that you quoted for most of your post. It had some important thoughts that are certainly worth considering.

    This article is particularly interesting because I myself am a teenager, so I think I might have a different insight than some of the adults reading this blog. I have a younger sister, and I see in her that sense of questioning how and why things are the way they are and why can’t they be changed. I even see traces of that in myself, since I haven’t completely grown up yet.

    Also, I can relate to your last statement, “…the problem with teenagers is they have already figured out that you don’t live up to your words.” I remember thinking my parents were always right, and now that I’m older, I can see that that is not always the case. I think that no matter how old you are, you still have a lot to learn, but it’s important to pass that knowledge on to the younger generations—and it’s up to me and my generation to take action in preserving our environment!

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    October 25, 2010

    Nicole, I’m glad you are reading and commenting! Welcome!

    DD, I think about you and your wife a lot. Pray, too, but I know that’s of varying utility to vary people. I hope things work out for the transplant – hope it very much.


  13. #13 Sue
    October 25, 2010

    Nicole, try

  14. #14 rachel
    October 25, 2010

    ok well this spoke to me but I am on the other end of the spectrum I am 13 Almost 14 and I”m sort of realizing the world isnt as harmonious as was when I was small i.e. I understand things more now . I’ll get that book at the library thanks !!I laughed when you mentioned your son asking why we d use refrigerator not being needed since I actually remember asking my mom a similar question when I was 10 I really appreciate this post thanks

  15. #15 darwinsdog
    October 25, 2010

    Thanks Sharon. I don’t have a problem with prayer. I’m an agnostic, after all, not an atheist. I’d pray, if I knew who or what to pray to. I vaguely intuit that there’s something going on behind the scenes but I have no idea what it’s like or what it’s up to. I kind of feel that guys like Heraclitus & Lao Tzu were onto it, but I don’t think they knew how to describe it, either. I think that it, whatever it is, doesn’t think like a human. I doubt that it’s amenable to appeal. At a fairly young age I concluded that it was futile to waste time pondering over it. It would come in flashes to illuminate existence, or it wouldn’t come at all. It was very elusive, if it even existed in the first place, whereas critters could be caught and were tangible. I was always drawn more to phemeral critters than to ephemeral waifs of moonlight & imagination, and all critters die.

    In her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), in the chapter on “Fecundity,” Annie Dillard writes:

    The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die.. is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.

    Every organism dies & every species goes extinct. It isn’t unthinkable or taboo to expect that a species with a grossly inflated population faced with ongoing environmental catastrophes of its own device, is dancing with extinction. If the rainforests are lungs, wetlands kidneys, rivers & ocean currents the circulatory system.. a biosphere can suffer organ failure, too. It can get chills & fevers. It won’t die, not before the rock that underlies it cracks or melts, but its constituent productions certainly will: entire biomes & phyla cease to be. Humans have been a disruptive influence, not so much as yet in terms of magnitude as in rapidity of onslaught. There’s every reason to expect that this disruption undermines Homo‘s own resource base, as much as it does biotic communities worldwide and a plethora of species endangered, going, and already, extinct. The very overburden of human population exacerbates extinction risk rather than insulates against the prospect, as many assume. To a person familiar with crits & their population dynamics this all seems evident.

  16. #16 Don
    October 26, 2010

    We will be praying, DD; praying and hoping that a donor is found. Thanks for keeping us informed.


  17. #17 Nicole
    October 28, 2010

    Thanks, Sharon! I’m new to blogging, so it meant a lot to me to get such a a quick response!

  18. #18 Sandy
    March 6, 2011

    We are moving soon, and we will have a garden and a few laying hens (starting small, taking advice from yours and Greenpa’s blogs-I have the farm bug, my husband does not). My son is so excited (he has a touch of the farm bug, too). He said we should have sheep and a spinning wheel and looms to make our own clothes, and grow berries for dyes, and on and on…lol…I can sew, but again, I’m starting small at your advice. Food is my first priority, and I don’t know how much help I will get. There are wild boars on the property, and my husband has shown an interest in hunting them, but he’s mostly an inside kind of guy, he has bad allergies and hates bugs (and we are in Florida, in an area with mosquitoes that could carry off a small child lol). Luckily, he has no aversion to housework, and has agreed to help with laundry, cooking, dishes, canning, etc.

  19. #19 HudsonLeonor34
    November 2, 2011

    Every one understands that humen’s life seems to be very expensive, however different people need money for different things and not every person gets big sums money. So to receive some personal loans and credit loan will be a right solution.

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