Sustainability and Children

This was published in Juno Magazine (A British parenting magazine) in Spring 2012  

We live in an age where everything is becoming standardised and measured.   Consequently our lives risk losing richness and authenticity.   How does this affect our children?  Can the trend be changed? My family and I have wrestled with these questions.  Here I share how we used sustainability to develop a more balanced life.  It started by moving half way around the world. 

I was motivated to move by a birth, a death, and a revelation.  The birth was my eldest son.  Children make us look at the world differently.  The death was my father, who died from a rare form of cancer.  I suspected his exposure to DDT, while growing up on farm, played a role in his illness. This made me reflect on the various impacts of modern life.   I realised, I wanted to live and work in a more meaningful way.  This revelation led me to do a PhD in sustainable business at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. 

Previously my family and I lived in Silicon Valley.  This is the part of California from San Francisco to San Jose.  Silicon Valley gets its name from multitude of IT companies located in the area.  Apple, HP, Intel, and Google are just a few.  I worked in the IT industry.   Why leave great weather and a budding career?  First, I felt studying sustainability offered the chance to develop values in myself and my children other than consumerism (particularly dominant in the US).   Second, the UK was one of the few places, at the time, offering a chance to study sustainable business.   

People become uncomfortable with the word  “sustainability ” because it has many meanings.  In our age of measurement we want definitions we can count and touch.    Sustainability is a choice about how we live.  It is driven by two factors.  On a practical level, sustainability is a response to the various environmental and social crises facing us.  On a philosophical level, I believe it reflects people’s search for meaning which religion, consumerism and science have failed to deliver.     

There are two core principles of sustainability – environmental stewardship and social justice.  Environmentally, we must live within the natural limits of our planet.  Socially, people need an equitable voice and fair share in resources and opportunities.    

Sustainability seeks to reconnect philosophy to science.  In simple terms, science measures our experience, and philosophy gives our experience meaning.  Our children are being taught the science of consumerism.  They are encouraged to relate to the world through what they own and how much it costs.     Children are learning to measure things, but not value them.   As a parent, the job of teaching children about sustainability starts with us.   

To begin, I had to learn about sustainability before teaching my children.  If I am honest, I thought acquiring the expertise of a PhD would give me certainty.   In fact, I discovered the opposite.  What I acquired is expressed in Malcolm Margolin’s description of Native Americans’ philosophy:  

“a sense that the world is far bigger more complex and more mysterious than the human mind can ever encompass, and that to be a full human we need to learn to live with ambiguity and a tolerance for the unknown.”

As it turned out, my best teacher was the walk to university.  In some ways, it taught me more than my degree.  During the PhD, we lived two miles from campus.  I walked to school.  I could never imagine doing this in Silicon Valley.  No one, including myself, had the patience to walk if driving was possible.  Something unexpected happened. 

My path took me through a field and followed a river.  This was not an act of green heroism.   At the time we did not have a car or a bicycle and public transportation was painfully slow.  Serendipitously, had I travelled differently I would have missed the experience completely.  The land had patience for me to develop.  It was cathartic.   I realised to learn about sustainability people need to experience it.  

I shared the field with my children in the form of family walks.  This was not always an idealised “On Walden Pond” adventure.   At times, we encountered the skeletons of burnt out cars.  The field appeared to be a popular destination for abandoning stolen vehicles.  Then there were the shopping carts, from a nearby supermarket, dispersed across the area like an art project.  But, by looking at the whole we discovered its beauty.    

During our walks we found a multitude of natural treasures.  Wildflowers were in abundance – including vibrant water lilies in summer.    As the seasons changed, different types of flowers came and went.   Surprisingly, the field was packed with animals – foxes, horses, pheasants, swans, herons, ducks, and coots.   We were amazed to learn how much wildlife lived near us.  Then there was the chalk pit.  After reading “Stig of the Dump,” we imagined Stig lived in the bottom. This made the pit forever special.   As parents, my wife and I exposed points of interest and let our children develop their own ideas.   

The walks led us to discover new activities like gathering wild food.   My wife’s intrepid nature and knowledge helped initiate this fun hobby.  Richard Mabey’s now classic “Food for Free” offers an excellent guide for those wanting to learn.   We found food was a unique way for our children to see sustainability in action.   It appeals to all their senses.   There is a special feeling they get from gathering, preparing and eating wild food.  It gives a sense of empowerment and confidence.  We felt attuned to the natural rhythms of the world.   

Over time, we discovered the field offered crab apples, rose hips, elderflowers / berries, sloes, blackberries, nettles, plums, cherries, chestnuts and even asparagus.  The food told us of the seasons – elderflowers spring, blackberries summer and chestnuts fall.  Some of our favourite “dishes” included nettle soup [See Recipe] , elderberry and Crab apple pie [pictured], elderflower cordial and  rosehip jam.   We save a bottle of elderflower cordial for Christmas, which helps reminds us of the flowers and warmth of spring.   

Foraging taught our children that food does not come from a supermarket, but the earth.  We also found similar experiences growing food at home and going to “Pick Your Own” farms.  As a result, our youngest child lost a number of his aversions to vegetables.  Our experiences changed his relationship to food. 

Our walks in the field became important family times.  During these periods the children played and explored.   They were not thinking about sustainability, but experience was teaching them.  The field was neutral, letting them get in touch with their authentic selves.  The smells, sights, textures, and above all tastes made lasting impressions.    Our children were developing new ways to experience the world, not involving a screen or a shopping mall.     That said, it is important not to demonise shopping or playing video games.   Doing so there is a danger one makes sustainability abstract or dogmatic.    Children still need to live in the present world.   But by minimising impacts of consumerism and giving them other alternatives, we hope they will develop more balanced views of the world.    

Sustainability is not a thing or a measurement.  It is an attitude, by which we choose to live.    Measures and efficiency must not dominate our vision of the future.  Rather, these tools serve living balanced, rich and authentic lives.     Sustainability offers our children a way to develop values centred on environmental stewardship and social justice.   As parents we must show them the possibilities while letting them have fun at it! 

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