Sunday, September 19, 2010

Teaching Green

I gave a sermon at my Congregation today about teaching environmental values in children's religious education, and the lessons I've learned about doing so. Since it's relevant to this blog, I'm copying it here. Of course, I would probably copy my sermons here even if they aren't relevant, so the relevancy is sort of a bonus in this case. If, for some incomprehensible reason, you'd prefer to listen to me give it rather than just read it, you can go to our podcast blog here, where it's uploaded.

Teaching Green Sermon

(Opening, transitional, and closing words all from Wendell Berry.)

OPENING "The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first."

TRANSITIONAL "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
— Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry)

This sermon actually comes from a presentation I was supposed to give at the Green Congregations Conference earlier this spring. I was asked to do a joint presentation with Candace Minster from the White Violet Center; I would have been representing the UU perspective on teaching environmental values in children's religious education. If you picked up on the past subjunctives in the previous sentence, you already realize that this didn't happen. The conference was cancelled, another in a long string of events sacrificed to the imploding economy. Apparently our service associates got wind of all this, and felt so very badly for me that my presentation was not given, that they wanted to offer me an opportunity to do it here. This will be a fairly modified version of that presentation. I don't have Candace as a partner, and frankly I'm not really trying to instruct you on proper pedagogical techniques for youngsters. I'm interested in talking to you about my own experiences, and discoveries, while teaching environmental values to our kids in RE.

Both the opening and transitional words come from Wendell Berry (as do the closing words), an author I frequently use for my work, mostly because he is one of the very few people with whom I almost entirely agree. Berry asserts, and I think exactly rightly, that most of our assumptions about how to live in this world have been wrong. Understandable, perhaps, but wrong. We have spent a great deal of our human history, and for the past hundred years have also had a great deal of success, at fighting and subverting our worlds own processes, and ignoring its own inherent limits. That this couldn't last really has been lost on us until recently. We've started to hit up against creation's limits, and we've found that they do not give easily.

There are few places where this is clearer than when attempting to teach environmentalism to children, especially teaching it from within the UU tradition.

Teaching children's religious education in our tradition is, well, weird. It's not a lot like what you may have experienced growing up in a more mainstream religious tradition. As UU RE teachers, we aren't trying to bestow belief in crucial truths to our children. We don't think we have the right answers. We aren't trying to imprint our religion on impressionable minds while they're young, so that they will grow up strong in our belief system.

Teaching children's RE in the UU tradition is a lot more like "building your own theology". In keeping with the UU 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the methodology is typically a combination of introducing our kids to a range of religious traditions, beliefs, and paths, while also helping them to articulate their own intuitive sense of the divine (or lack thereof). It's much less about handing out truths as it is handing out TOOLS, which our children can use to begin creating a path that is right for them. There are a lot of ways that this can go wrong, and a lot of ways that it can work beautifully. When done poorly, we hand our children pre-finished wooden sculptures to play with. When done properly, we had our children a block of wood and the best tools we can find, and let them create their own work of art.

So how is this supposed to work for environmentalism, exactly? Can the same basic methodology for religion work for environmentalism? Just like religious education, shouldn't we be giving our children the tools they need to "find their own environmentalism"? How is that supposed to work?

The first problem you hit upon is that in our culture, we don't have many and varied environmental methodologies to teach the kids to give them some background, or framework from which to operate. Sure, we've got some turf wars--used cars versus new Priuses, paper versus plastic versus bring-your-own-bag, vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, conscious omnivore, and so on. But none of these are from a different framework. They all come from the same basic place. And because of that, unlike with religions, we are very willing to be more dogmatic about things. Here's a list, a very typical list, of 10 things you can do to go green:
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
2. Use Less Heat and Air Conditioning
3. Change a Light Bulb
4. Drive Less and Drive Smart
5. Buy Energy-Efficient Products
6. Use Less Hot Water
7. Use the "Off" Switch
8. Plant a Tree
9. Get a Report Card from Your Utility Company
10. Encourage Others to Conserve

Anyone who knows me well can already see how this will go badly for me. I hold lists like this in the utmost contempt. Why I so strongly dislike these lists will become apparent (I hope) as I go. But suffice it to say, this was the core message of most of the available environmental resources.

You see, I just don't believe in those lists, or pretty much any variant of them that I've ever seen. And if you've ever tried to teach children, one thing you realize quickly is, to be blunt, children can smell a lie from 10 miles away. They may not call you on it, especially if they are particularly "well behaved", but you can see when you lose them. And I would be lying if I tried to teach this "shiny happy" environmentalism to our kids--and then they'd hold me in the utmost contempt. Yuck.

But why don't I believe in these lists? That actually has everything to do with teaching children. Is there anything really wrong with telling kids that they should use less air conditioning, or that they should drive less, or change their lightbulbs to CFLs? Well, no... and yes. You see, children actually have a much better grip on environmentalism than any adult I know. Environmentalism is nothing more or less that a justice issue--how can we all play fairly with Earth? We all know that kids just spank us on understanding injustice. They might not be the greatest when it comes to sharing with each other, but they get the clarity of injustice far better than any adult.

So let's say we're talking about global warming with the children in RE, and we're not sugar coating it. We're discussing polar bears, and refugees from Bangladesh. We talk about major seasonal swings making it difficult to farm, and making food too expensive for some people to afford. So they want to know, very reasonably, what can we do to stop this. And then I tell them "turn your AC up to 73*F". Really? THAT is the great message of the ages to save humanity--use less AC and drive less?

I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't do these things, not by a long shot. But saving the planet? Kids can tell this is nonsense. How? Because I think it's nonsense, and kids can tell. I suspect that, deep down, most adults think that this is nonsense. It is very hard to preach this sort of environmentalism to children if you're thinking at all seriously about the situation. I discovered that I had very little to say to the kids in the "conventional environmentalism" model that wasn't a lie, that I simply didn't believe.

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.

I could go through the whole 10-step list, or any other similar list you like, with similar results.

Now, I'm not arguing that children will lead the way here, or that any suggestions they might have are obviously right and should be adopted. But they CAN open our eyes a bit, and introduce us to paradigm-breaking ideas. Perhaps we can't all just ditch our cars, no matter how much we'd like to, due to the overall layout of our country. But maybe now we see a real way to try and change future planning, and choice of housing, so that we CAN ditch our cars in the future. And why do we use refrigerators when it's cold outside? It is almost beyond the pale to suggest that we shouldn't, but go ahead and try to justify it to yourself sometime, given the huge amount of energy--and coal firing and environmental damage--that goes with them. And I assure you, from personal experience, there are few worse feelings than discussing the devastating effects of climate change, only to have a child call you out for being in a room so cooled by AC that I was wearing a cardigan in July. No one had AC at all until the 1970's, but now our own comfort is clearly more important that the lives of people in far off countries, people suffering daily because of our choices, not in the future, but right now. Trust me, that hurts.

I have found, for myself, that when I'm considering lifestyle changes for environmental purposes, I like to put them through the 5-year-old test. I imagine explaining what I think of as the problem to a 5-year-old and trying to imagine what she would reply. If I can't come up with anything good or novel, I try to find a 5-year-old and ask them (okay, maybe a 10 year old, but no older). And failing that, I try explaining to the 5-year-old in my head what my solution is, to see how it fares. I suggest this method for everyone.

Children are the fastest path to learning to live within our limits, but only if we let them. If we listen, if we give them access to real information, and then take their responses to it seriously, we can see through the eyes of someone who hasn't been fully indoctrinated into our culture. They don't know how things "should" be, so they can tell us how things "could" be. If we stop trying to teach them, they can teach us a great deal. I will never teach environmentalism again, I have learned that lesson. But I will take whatever lessons our children will give me, or at least, the 5-year-old in my head.

In truth, I don't know the right answers here, and neither do 5 year olds. I've got my pet solutions, ones that have gotten the 5-year-old seal of approval, but I suspect that's not really much of a guarantee . I'm trying to figure things out, and will likely spend the rest of my life doing so. But I want to take these problems as seriously as I can, and I can't think of a better way to do that than to listen to the children on these issues. I invite you to join me. Put your choices past a 5-year-old sometime, see how it goes.

CLOSING WORDS "The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stunning levels of psychic damage.

I must preface this post by explaining that I am writing this almost entirely for its therapeutic and restorative purposes. I hope to expel some of the evil from my soul, and regain a modicum of balance. I put this out there on the blogosphere partially to serve as a warning for others, but mostly because I suspect my readers are more like me than not and will get a sort of voyeuristic pleasure from reading this. Sort of like watching a train wreck (where no one is hurt, of course).


Here's where I spent my day yesterday:

Well, no, not exactly there. This photo was taken at a Career Expo at some university somewhere in 2008. But it doesn't really matter, it was the same one I was at yesterday.

Take a moment to look at that photo. The first thing you need to get past is the fact that this was not taken at a goth club, and that all of the black clothing is actually power suits. What is not being clearly conveyed in this photo (I think mainly because they got a disproportionate number of students staring intently at their notes before talking to the next recruiter) is the heady, pervasive, almost tangible atmosphere of Go-Get-'Em-We-Can-Do-It-ness in the air. Or maybe that just doesn't photograph well, it's hard to say.

The Career Expo I attended yesterday was at one of the most prestigious private universities in our country. In the course of four hours, I saw hundreds of the absolute best, cream-of-the-crop, that this university had to offer, perfectly coiffed and immaculately turned-out, bright-eyed and face-forward, all falling all over themselves for the chance to spread their legs for the nearest corporate master. "Soul crushing" doesn't quite capture it, but I'm stuck for a better metaphor.

I was a recruiter. Or, to put it a different way, I was on the side of the forces of darkness. Now in fairness, I was recruiting interns for an organic farm, so you might imagine that I was a bit out of place there. In truth, I just sort of blended in. I mean, hell, I was between PNC and Deloitte accounting, both vortexes of black suits, tasteful eyeshadow and desperate drool; I'm not sure I was entirely recognizable for what I was. I felt a bit like I was behind enemy lines. Of course, these enemy lines did have a gourmet catered meal and free chair massages, so there is something to be said for it.

And then, about an hour into the pain, it happened. A bright young thing, in line for Deloitte (yes, a line. a long line.) looked at my banner and looked away. And then looked again. And then again, with a look somewhere between confused and hopeful. And then, lo though she had advanced mightily in her line, and was only 3 candidates away from getting her shot at selling herself to the biggest accounting firm in the U.S., she left the line and came over to me. Her first question was an almost pleading "Um... is your table really advertising what it looks like it's advertising?" When I said yes, we really are an organic farm, we really are taking apps for interns, and we really would welcome her application, she looked like she might cry. I think she was as scared of what she was seeing around her as I was. I was actually offering her an out, even just for a little while (maybe a few months, maybe just for the time we got to talk at the fair) of not having to be the person who will eventually get a job at Deloitte. I think in that moment that nothing could have made her happier; and honestly, I'm not sure anything could have made me happier, either.

In sum, I spoke with around twelve kids at the fair. A couple of them had even researched us before they got to the booth, and were looking to pad their resume with some unique experience in environmental service before graduating. Another few were interested, but were graduating seniors and needed to be finding a job (I suspect that once they realize what the job market is like, I'll be hearing back from at least one of them). And some of them were like that first girl, unaware of our existence, and falling all over themselves with happiness when they found us. One student grew up in the mountains of South Carolina, and just wants to come out to our farm and feel like she's at home again. One girl has a dual major in Anthropology and Chinese, and wants to work on environmental issues in China; the possibility of having on-farm experience for her was breathtaking.

Almost all of the kids I saw that day, not just the ones I spoke with, are good, bright kids with good hearts. And most of them genuinely believe that the best thing they can do with their lives right now is to land a good-paying job with Discover Card (across the aisle from me, next to Proctor & Gamble and Target Corporate). It makes me sad. But the kids that came and spoke with me--they make me happy. They will try to make a difference, even if they're working at Discover. Maybe they will make the world a better place. Maybe they'll end up out at my farm, or on their own. I don't know, but it was odd to feel some hope in such a place of desperate, corporate-black hell.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goodness how one's life can change

For anyone who's followed this blog for while (and for those who haven't--Hi there! Nice to meet you!), you know that our lives have been pretty upended several times over the past year. I'm hoping that now we're settling into some kind of pattern, but I know life well enough to understand that it just waits there in the corner, biding its time until you let your guard down, and then KABLAAMO.

Yes, that's a technical term.

Anyway, I thought I'd spend a post getting everyone more or less up to speed on where we are in our lives these days. First, with respect to this blog and its focus of adapting to a low/no energy lifestyle while in-town, we've doubtlessly backslid. In our defense, it's been a really, really, really, really hard year. And now that things are evening out a bit, my husband and I have gone through a role-reversal. This means that now I'm the full-time breadwinner, and he's the housespouse. But in practical terms, this also means that he's taking over a role that I had 5 years to work at and improve. He has a steep learning curve ahead of him, and he knows it, but he's also tackling things pretty well. So to be perfectly honest, a lot of projects I'd been working on have been pushed to a back burner. And that's okay. At least, I hope it's okay. I've been assured by Sharon Astyk that you've still got at least until Friday before the end of the world. Hm. Oh crap, that post was date-stamped Aug. 3rd. Maybe I'm screwed after all?? But aside from applying personal salve to my wounded deep-green ego, I must recognize that peak oil is no respecter of persons. Our world energy situation doesn't give two craps if we've been unemployed or not. So while I (like everyone else, I suspect) am praying for a nice, slow decline, perhaps it's time to start ramping up again. (Or is that ramping down? What's the appropriate metaphor here?)

Both of our children are now in full-time school, and both seem to be enjoying it. It may surprise some readers here that we do not homeschool, given the sorts of people we are and such. I've got no issues with homeschooling, just like I have no issues with goat ownership--as long as it's someone else doing it. (FYI, I hate goats. And they hate me, so it works out.) But I am grateful to live in a nation that, over a century ago, recognized the critical importance of having an educated populance for running a democracy, and instituted compulsory, universal education. I am further blessed with living in a pretty good school district, with teachers and principals that I very much like. In a more long-term, philosophical sense, I also have some grave concerns about the abandonment of said compulsory, universal system of education as a society, but that's a post for another day (and, just possibly, for a different blog). For now, I will quote my dear friend Kate, who once said, "I like to think of public education as a personal gift to me from my government."

My own life is now quite interesting and different. My full-time job is unlike anything anywhere else. I work for a Motherhouse (yes, the place where nuns live) in their eco-justice ministry (yes, that does make sense. Think it through, creation, god's gift to us, care for each other and the world.... there ya go.) This means I have done all of the following in the past three months: written a draft of a business plan; dehydrated over 40# of tomatoes and 20# of apples; created a new yearly budget; been named head of the Safety Committee; worked the farmer's market; scooped alpaca poop; written check requests; paid bills; planned an invasive species workshop; planned a workshop to introduce peak oil to Sisters; and wrote a proposal for getting chickens. All as a part of my job. My job rocks. A lot. A whole lot.

On a related note, my job has also done wonders for my posture. I must pass at least 5 seriously osteoparetic (is that an adjective?) sisters every day, and nothing says "stand up straight, girl!" like that does.

My garden did well in the early season, but now is in... shambles? No, not shambles, that's unfair. But it is DONE. And I planted out my fall crops too early, so the seeds all fried. Gonna try again, possibly this weekend. At the least I'd like some beets & lettuce, ya know? And, of course, there is the new CHICKEN COOP! But no chickens yet, alas. I will likely need to wait until next spring and get some chicks, which is probably the best way to do things anyway. I am also investigating various chicken + garden alternatives. We shall see what we shall see...

So, onward and upward, right?