It’s Earth Week – my favorite secular holiday! For an environmentalist, Earth Day is every day, but it’s still nice to recognize it. This week, my posts are all going to be on how to engage kids on environmental issues, from how to talk about climate change to fun activities that can spark long-term change.
Communicating about environmental sustainability is astonishingly hard; inspiring people to take action is even harder. In fact, I spend a good deal of my professional career contemplating how to do this effectively. Add kids into the mix, with their limited knowledge of science and ability to handle “big issues,” and it seems near-impossible. Kim Payne of Simplicity Parenting actually holds climate change up as topic we simply shouldn’t discuss it with children because it’s too stressful.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree. We have an obligation to teach kids about climate change and other environmental issues, if only because they’ll be ones who have to deal with this crap in the future. Plus, there are plenty of kids who want to know about them and like with sex ed, it’s better to give them good information than misinformation. I’ve been an activist since my elementary school self dog-eared a copy of 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth and I came out okay. (Right?) But Payne is correct that we often discuss climate change in ways that are disempowering and frankly, scary, for kids.
Instead, I recommend using permaculture as way to discuss sustainability. While permaculture has its roots (ha) in agriculture, it’s actually much broader. Essentially, it looks to structure how we live around ecological principles, helping us work with, not against, nature. It is based on three major principles: care for the earth, care for people, and return of surplus back to the system to meet the needs of the earth and people. I’ve been a fan of permaculture since I moved to D.C. and started volunteering with a Transition Towns group, a movement based on the idea of applying permaculture to entire communities. I learned more about how to apply it to teaching children from Jen Mendez from PERMIE KIDs when I attended her Rooting DC workshop last year.
Here are a few reasons why permaculture is an excellent lens through which to talk to kids about environmental sustainability:
Permaculture is grounded in ecological principles, but goes beyond scientific explanations: A lot of climate change and environmental education, particularly in schools, focuses strictly on the science, such as explaining the greenhouse effect. In contrast, permaculture and Transition Towns focus on solutions, but not to the exclusion of the science. In fact, they offer great opportunities for teaching about ecology, from the interactions between plants and pollinators when gardening to the energy cycle when discussing solar energy. By putting ecological principles into practice, kids gain a much better grounding in them than they would only reading about them in a book.
Permaculture has a fundamentally positive outlook: Unlike some of the more gloom and doom environmental philosophies, permaculture is founded on the idea that humans can work with nature in non-destructive ways. In contrast to the Western approach of dominating nature, especially in the Industrial Age of agriculture, permaculture draws from alternative approaches. Similarly, the Transition Towns movement invites communities to imagine what a successful carbon-free future would be like. Along with traditional documents like city master plans, it encourages people to write news articles describing what their community may look like in the future. In fact, an entire SF literary movement has grown out of this work, called solarpunk. While it’s mainly on Tumblr for now, it offers some really fun opportunities for kids and adults alike to envision more sustainable futures.
Permaculture focuses on what we can and should do instead of what we need to avoid doing: Traditionally, environmental communication focused more on what we shouldn’t do (like driving big cars, leaving on the lights and producing garbage) than good things we should do. People react more positively when you can present actions to take and kids in particular are fantastic at tuning out anything that sounds vaguely like nagging. By focusing on “doing” and “doing better,” permaculture is much more likely to motivate action than more negative philosophies.
Permaculture can be used to teach practical life skills: A major part of the Transition Towns movement is “reskilling,” where people learn skills relevant to sustainability. These can include composting, growing food, saving seeds, tuning up your own bicycle, and fixing household items. Learning these type of skills is really empowering, especially for kids, who are often told they aren’t old enough to do things. Beyond these hands-on skills, the communal nature of the movement requires organizational skills, like disagreeing productively, running a meeting, active listening, and brainstorming. I learned an incredible amount about networking, community outreach, strategic planning and coming to consensus in the the time I spent volunteering for the D.C. transition group.
It’s radical while still feeling doable: Environmental tips often aim for low-hanging fruit, like recycling or using reusable bags. Permaculture’s wide purview leads to a much more expansive approach that includes everything from growing fruit trees to harvesting gray water. At the same time, with the support for reskilling and the idea that no one person can do everything, it’s not overwhelming.
It bridges the individual and national: By focusing on neighborhoods and communities, Transition takes some of the pressure off individuals while also making it more intimate than national politics. Using more efficient appliances is important, but sterile and isolated. Writing letters and signing petitions to Congress is great, but abstract. Chipping in with your neighbors at a community garden fulfills .
Transition Towns focus on multi-generational community: Kids are increasingly isolated from the larger community, whether because of concerns about “stranger danger” or overly structured schedules. The Transition Towns movement focuses on bringing disparate groups together in conversation, including both kids and senior citizens. The movement also offers a geographic grounding to community that can complement social media communities.
Permaculture is playful: Permaculture activities can translate to even the youngest children, as PERMIE KIDs shows. Reusing excess waste and ecological cycles are understandable to any kid who knows about the seasons. As a result, you can incorporate permaculture principals into arts and crafts, cooking, and nature exploration. Even for adults, being sustainable is a whole lot easier to do when it’s fun. In my Transition Towns group, our community outreach events were more like parties than anything else. We even made ice cream from coconut milk at one of them!
Permaculture uses technology appropriately: Unlike the more extreme edges of the environmental movement, permaculture doesn’t reject technology. Our Transition Towns group used our website and social media to organize events and communicate our message. Renewable energy technologies, especially small solar and wind, are essential to achieving the movement’s goals. Instead, permaculture reconsiders the appropriate role for technologies in our lives and world. It rejects planned obsolescence, favoring items that are fixable over those that are not. It values high-quality items that can be reused over and over for years, if not generations. It rejects the commercialism that makes us “need” the next new thing. As many parents are concerned about their kids being too materialistic, permaculture provides a valuable alternative.
All of this being said, permaculture and the Transition Towns movement are far from perfect. They tend to look at actions in isolation, without understanding how they relate to systemic problems like racism, sexism and economic injustice. To truly be successful, permaculture needs to learn from recent national-level campaigns that explicitly address intersectionality, such as the Keystone XL pipeline protests with native people and the Sierra Club’s support of the people of Flint, MI.
Nonetheless, permaculture and the Transition Towns movement provide a unique perspective for teaching kids about environmental issues. It’s positive, action-oriented approach is engaging without being overwhelming. If you’re new to all of this, gardening is a great place to start. So grab a kid and dig in!