Catherine Masterman considers the middle ground in climate action, and the unsung potential of the school Parent-Staff Association.
Earth Day on Friday was a reminder that many centuries ago (it feels), during COP26, schools and communities around the world were urging corporations and governments to make difficult choices for the sake of the next generation. There is a widespread expectation among activists that planetary wellbeing should come before profit or political advantage at the high level, and that choices at the household level matter (see The Jump).
But what about the middle-layer? What about choices made by organisations like a school PSA, or a youth group whose purpose is raising funds for a different cause, who need to keep activities affordable and meet expectations of what constitutes ‘fun’? The imperative to find materials at greatest convenience, lowest cost and most likely to appeal to children often drives our choices to products that have been shipped half way around the globe, made in coal-powered factories and with poor labour conditions. By doing so we risk perpetuating in the name of ‘benefiting our children’, the cycle of destructive consumption that is jeopardising their future.
It’s not a simple challenge to fix. ‘Eco’ versions of the same products, like coffee cups, ratchet up the prices. Purchasing second hand in the right quantity takes more time. Re-using materials relies on adequate storage, and plastic free options are often not only more expensive but risk being less appealing. Is it even possible to run a fireworks night or a school disco without plastic glow-sticks?
And why bother? Where is the evidence that the collective buying power of voluntary organisations focused on children and young people will significantly shift the dial on unsustainable consumption? To my knowledge, there isn’t any. But that is not the point. The dial these organisations can help to shift is that of the expectations of our children and young people; expectations that change their relationship not only with ‘stuff’ but also with the natural world. The danger with plastic is that it makes real the animated worlds of their recreation time and risks perpetuating the division between the material world they exist in, and the natural one that bears the brunt – whilst ready made plastic craft materials end up de-skilling and de-valuing genuine creativity (a rant for another day).
So what can be done? In terms of reducing impact from fund-raising events, I think some useful pointers are first to simplify the problem – don’t get caught up with complex recycling schemes and recognise that the key impact comes from what you buy (or encourage buying) in the first place. Secondly, think through some ‘nudge’ tactics – for example, free refills for those bringing their own mugs for fairs. Take a ‘library’ approach to craft, where products can be dissembled and there are incentives for materials to be brought back. Thirdly, don’t try to do everything at once – it’s much better to make deliberate, incremental changes that are achieved, than fail to meet lofty ambitions.
But I maintain that the real prize is in transforming the way in which our young people view the natural world – from turning the plants, birds and trees that surround their everyday from wallpaper into something more significant and worthy of notice. I think the wildlife trusts’ call is ‘nature-connectedness’ – really noticing what is going on in nature. Social pressure is a powerful motivation for taking action, but a desire to act that comes from a real connection is so much stronger, and, as has been well documented through the pandemic, a stronger connection with nature has very many benefits.
For our Earth Day on Friday, we ran a session called Earth on the EDGE, recognising that living alongside the natural world better is like any friendship – you have to spend time with it, learn about and understand it in order to value, enjoy and create mutual benefit. Having been told by my children that it sounded SO boring, I found that there was a high level of engagement and the feedback was good, so I’m sharing the framework. This was Earth (day) on the EDGE:
EXPLORE: – sharing ideas of where to go to enjoy woods/forests/coast and favourite activities.
DISCOVER: – choosing some plants from their playground, learning names, their meanings and some folklore and how they benefit and interact with other wildlife. Frankly I had to start from scratch for this but there is a wealth of blogs or articles from a web search on a flower’s meaning. I found the woodland trust a great source of information on trees in particular. Then for the little ones, I read a story from Enid Blyton’s “The Adventures of Pip”. I can’t recommend it enough for under 7s (subject to some language substitutions!).
GROW: – we made 2- 3 biodegradable seed planters each for sunflower seeds from egg boxes and half a toilet roll (cut four equal slits less than half the length and fold in to make a base to hold the compost. By the end of term, we’ll set a date for sending in photos showing the height of the flowers and give a Mud and Bloom activity box as a prize for the tallest sunflower.
ENJOY/ENCOURAGE: We shared the list of favourite places and activities back with the school and encouraged them to keep discovering new things about nature and sharing it with each other.
If nothing else, it’s a start!
- First published on the Grain of Sand blog.