As the Twig is Bent

Country Morning
Image by fred1st via Flickr

What are our schools teaching our children about their individual roles as consumers? Is the durable future and sustainability replacing mindless materialism? If not, why not?

What do they learn from history about societies and civilizations that have failed when they live out of balance with their soil, their water, forest or plains where they once lived and thrived?

In their science classes, do they study the wonderful chemistry of compost and humus, and the high cost of the increasingly rare minerals we extract from third world countries for our i-Pods/Pads/Macs and the exchange we make, sacrificing song bird species for cheap Big Macs from South American rain forests turned to pasture?

Do their teachers explain to them that the world is finite and its ability to rebound from insult is limited and that, while progress is possible without growth, unlimited growth in the usual Chamber of Commerce sense of the word is simply not possible when human numbers, individual usage footprints in “developed countries” and the chemical-and-energy systems of planet earth have reached–or exceeded–their carrying capacity?

Is their education all about ways to do less and have more? Do they learn how they can relearn what their great-grand parents knew of gardening and food preservation, heating with wood, animal husbandry and living with rather than at the expense of their local landscapes?

And from those earlier generations they know of only from scratchy sepia snapshots, do they know how much they read from books, talked face to face, gathered for worship, music and simple conversation and took strength, hope and comfort from what they could do in small, close groups that they could not do distracted inside their own heads, their own rooms and their own counterfeit realities that ignored all but self?

The Lorax is a very short story. It prospered in its devastation for a while. Is that the part of the story they hear?

If we don’t change The Story our children learn before they’re 10, we can’t expect them to live happily ever after at the end of it.

Take a look at YES magazine’s collection of lesson plans, articles and thought experiments on sustainability. This is for real, folks. This is not a drill. Pick up a trowel and go to work. Plant seeds.

Generous is the man who plants the forest, knowing he will not sit in its shade. — Chinese proverb

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Educating our children in more than the three R’s these days is critical. Unfortunately, testing has taken over primary and secondary education and we are developing a generation of students who can take a test but cannot reason or interpret.

    Adding in important life lessons that will help people see the value of “green” living could easily be built into existing curriculum, even its something as simple as making these issues part of their reading lesson.

    Thanks for the reminder that public education (and private education) have a responsibility to teach good citizenship towards our planet. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

  2. Wonderful post. You are a wise man to bring up this matter of what they are teaching children in schools. Unfortunately, from my experience with the school system (as a post-retirement substitute teacher) I would say that schools have dropped the ball. My daughter who has worked in the school system would also say the same.

    Your YES collection was a good addition to your post. read through it all. I was unfamiliar with the Lorax story. Will find it at the library.

    This is a huge issue that you have opened up on your post. I will check back to read comments. I am afraid that schools are not ready to make the changes that they need to in order to save the earth.

    Personally, people shake their heads when they find out that I have taken the steps to consume less. They kid me about it and go on consuming. And these are so-called educated folks. — barbara

  3. Thanks, Barbara…

    I do get discouraged by the low degree of influence our schools have and the huge influence of popular culture, the media and the intentionally-perpetuated consume-for-prosperity attitude that comes from the highest places.

    I tend to expect little response from posts like this, where once it would have been different–not sure if apathy or burn-out or sheer digital distraction is to blame.

  4. I sent the link to the Yes lesson plans to all the currenht science teachers I know. I hope at least one of them is stimulated to use the ideas in some way. When I was teaching 7th grade science I loved having the “bully pulpit.” For several years I did lessons on the harmful of effects of beef production, and on Earth Day all my students created posters of good ideas to help the planet. Eventually, a parent came down on me so hard for putting “bad ideas” in his son’s head that I backed off from my vegetarian teachings. Teachers have such a bully pulpit that I suspect there are many of them out there using them to the fullest to educate their impressionable charges. I am hopeful because of that.

  5. I agree with wanting to preserve our environment and biodiversity. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want anyone indoctrinating my children with feel-good socio-eco-political assertions either.

    For example, during my vacation last week, our rented beach house held a copy of The Cousteau Almanac published in 1981. I found it fascinating and informative, and it reflected the exact same goals you see touted by environmentalists today. But it was also full of examples demonstrating the authors’ failures to grasp fundamental principles of economics and even individual freedoms. In fact, Cousteau, just like many today, showed a blatant disregard for markets and even hinted at advocating the anarchical protest tactics we see today during world economic meetings.

    I do agree with Cousteau in needing to collect more information on earth. How can we construct a resource usage plan unless we know the full extent of that resource and its ability to sustain itself?

  6. I don’t think it is possible to plant seeds in the public school system. Instead, it is much more profitable to plant seeds in community gardens…