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."


  1. I suspect you exaggerate the lack of alternative models of living, reasonably sustainably, within the local ecosystem. I studied several in grade and middle school. We called it social studies.

    We looked at desert nomad lifestyles, often remarkably similar today from a century ago, from Africa to Mongolia.

    We looked at remote Tibetan villages, likely sharing local resilience with villages in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and remote India.

    We looked at pre-European Plains tribes in the US, the Mayans and Aztecs at the time Europe discovered them, and early Eskimo villages in Alaska and Canada before European contact. We looked at pre-global Japan, and China, and Hawaii. Pre-European Australia.

    Today there are any number of poor peoples living within their environment, some more successfully than others.

    I think that when we go looking for answers, we will likely find that they all have a couple of common factors. 1) As this era of cheap energy ends, we will find that human power will be replacing mechanisms, however powered, except possibly the windmill and water wheel. 2) Civilization more "developed" than the nomad camp or ancient farming village will depend on "cheap energy". As we lose or turn from fossil fuels - the likelihood of slavery, of bond servants, and wage slaves is likely to return. Or, 3) we will have to abandon all the accoutrement of cheap energy, such as an economic “middle class”. There will be rich and poor, for the most part, and fewer rich people.

    I am convinced that the coming devolution of society will have a profound affect on families. At the same time that economic stress will be tearing people and families apart, the wise will be considering whether the mate they contemplate will contribute to or put at risk the economic and physical survival of them and their families. I think that rather than consider "children still living with their parents into their thirties", the discussion will change to "parents keeping claim of their children's efforts and incomes into their thirties". I can easily motivate expecting newly wed couples to live with one of the parents until the first child begins public school.

    How about a commute tax on employers, assessed at one cent per mile each employee lives from work, for each day the employee reports to work? The dollar amount may not be much, but the records and information should get employers thinking about and taking responsibility for how far their employees live from work. Communities can revise building codes to forbid new construction more than a mile from groceries, hardware, and two restaurants. At least slant the accommodations away from a store drawing regular customers from 20 and 40 miles away. Today’s arrogant cities and counties prefer taxes on purchases made by people from outside their community. School systems consolidate at the cost of multiplying commute miles for the community, parents and students.

    Why isn't anyone making an outside, winter time food storage cabinet, keeping internals at air temperature as opposed to sun-warmed temps? Or publishing plans? (Sun shining on the refrigerator or food outside means the effective temp is over forty degrees F, even if the air temperature is below that, encouraging spoilage in food.)

    I think that any discussion of global warming and "what can I do?" must include the issue of the long pole in the tent. That is, when one pole is longer than the others (our waste of resources, energy, political direction, time, and other assets) and we fix that problem, there will still be other poles - and one of them will be the long pole in the tent. There are labor unions and merchants that go out of business if changes are made that others see as necessary. China and other lands are still developing their industries and their use of fossil fuels.

    And we can expect minimal benefits if we shorten a pole that isn't the longest pole in the tent.

    Change, indeed.

  2. I linked your blog to a post of mine. And thank you for the reminder about refrigeration. It came at the perfect timing since I was just complaining about our lack of and "need" of a refrigerator right this minute.

  3. Phenomenal. XOXOXO!

  4. Wow. If I knew I could get sermons like this on a regular basis, I might go to church.

  5. @Kate: just to plug for my religion (cause I like it & all), if you like this, check out your local UU church, if you have one. This service is pretty typical for us.

  6. Here's what gets me - how do you change all the people who think the Earth is here for them to exploit? Those, unfortunately, are the people who head up the conglomerations that are doing the most harm. Stop subsidizing the meat industry and make meat as expensive as it should be and then subsidize the organic farmers. Stop building new housing when you have perfectly livable empty houses everywhere. Stop creating these huge SUVs and pick-up trucks with back seats, and cars with such complex computers that only mechanics can repair them, and go back to basics with auto design.

    Computer-based jobs should be allowed to work from home most days, thereby eliminating a lot of commuting. Cities should be planned so people can have homes close to work. (We drove through Celebration in Florida for the first time in years. What started out as a cute small-town with wonderful houses with nice yards has turned into a crammed small city with townhouses and condos and streets packed with parked cars and too much traffic for kids to play safely. There's a way to build a small town, even with condos, that can still resemble small-town life. Celebration failed.)

    Close down all fast-food restaurants. Make dining a pleasurable event, not just a time to shove quick food in your mouth. Teach all children how to prepare and cook healthy meals (do they still have Home-Ec in schools?) Teach children how to sew clothes so they know what is good quality and what has been thrown together and will fall apart in the wash. Teach children how to craft anything the find appealing in the stores (within reason) so they won't want all that cheap stuff from China.

    I do try to do my best and teach my children what I think will make them better stewards of the Earth, but American society is set up to dispose of the old and make new. The way you live your life is so honorable it puts me to shame, but when I see that nothing I do will really make a difference as long as our society continues as it is, I think, "What's the point?" Everyone else is going to screw up the world and I have no control over any of it. How do you encourage children to be good stewards when you know it won't help?

    With the utmost respect,

  7. Oh Laura, I certainly hope it wasn't my lifestyle that is putting yours to shame. Believe me, if you came to my house and saw how far short we fall, you'd feel much better. Especially this year--we've slacked off a LOT with me having a new full-time job and B learning how to take over the household.

    The question of "what's the point" though, now there is a tricky one, and one I take very seriously. If you're at all religious, I like to think of getting to whatever "judgment" you might think is coming and trying to get away with the response "But I just didn't think it would matter!" It won't fly, I'm pretty sure of that. At some level, once one confronts our current situation, then duty and morality and just-the-right-thing-to-do-ness compel us to act, regardless of the outcome. (Of course, I'm a Kantian, and if you have a background in philosophy you'll realize that this pushes me to certain opinions.)

    If that's not useful for you, or if you'd still like more, or a different perspective, I would encourage you to check out my husband's sermon on just this issue. You can find it here,, on my old blog. We write a lot of sermons in our house. I think Brian has some interesting things to say about exactly this issue. I welcome you to come back and discuss his thoughts, my thoughts, your thoughts, or any other thoughts on this topic, too, because as I said, I think it's really, really important. I totally elided it in my own sermon above, mostly because I was trying to side-step it and instead go for a more "straight to the gut" approach. But if someone had confronted me head-on about it, I would've said some of the things that Brian says.

    Sadly, I *was* confronted on this point, but from the "But if EVERYONE did EVERYTHING on those lists, we'd be fine!" I think that's ridiculous, I think there is exactly *zero* evidence to back this claim, but I suspect that many people believe it for whatever reasons they've created (probably variants on the theme of "it just can't be false, though".) *sigh* Ah well.

  8. I just read your husband's essay. His theory is wonderful if you have friends and family and acquaintances who at least follow some of your beliefs or ways of viewing the world. My views are so different from our families' and friends' that I feel isolated. I guess I just need to get some new friends. No matter how often I tote the benefits of not eating meat or of how wonderful my girls are doing in homeschool or how awesome it is to be commune with nature (being Pagan), it doesn't change anyone's thinking at all. Wait, I take that back. My mother and her husband have tried some of my vegetarian meals and do support the homeschooling. But one sister-in-law thinks I'm damaging my girls by homeschooling and one friend says she'll eat meat until the day she dies even if it kills her and let's just say my Christian friends and family think I'm living in the land of Make Believe. Being a vegetarian homeschooling Pagan surrounded by Republican Christians is trying. So, the lesson to take away from this is to make new friends who think more like I do. That will be my goal for next year. Spread the message to those who are at least open to listening.

  9. Wow. If I knew I could get sermons like this on a regular basis, I might go to church.

    I would like to let you know, Tutoring Services LLC. offers opportunity of online teaching jobs with free registration for tutors.

  10. Dear Robyn,

    I live with that five-year-old!

    Your post fit right into what I've been struggling with these last days (years!). I wrote a little personal response to it on my blog:

    I have also, because of your post, decided to go the Sunday service at the UU church in my town. I want to check out their Green (Sanctuary) commitment...


  11. This is great information. I just recently found Newton heating because I was asking around my neighborhood.
    I would say 9 out of 10 people I asked told me about them.
    And after talking to them and a few other heating places. I knew they were the right choice.
    This blog is wonderful and so informative thanks so much for the post.

    air conditionin
    air conditioner
    ac air conditioning