I woke up at 4 am thinking of plastic water bottles. My child’s teacher told me she’d buy some for a class party and at the time I felt myself suppressing a reaction.Then I got sucked in to the busyness of my day so the reaction waited.
This school year I’ve been uncharacteristically disengaged from school functions. I couldn’t stomach the waste. I had to turn away from recycle bins stuffed with trash, empty classrooms with lights on, air conditioning units cooling vacant classrooms all weekend, class parties for every imaginable event where disposable party ware was used and kids went home with pointless plastic crap, I mean party favors. I turned away from my daughter’s teacher who refused to let her use the backsides of paper. I couldn’t stomach Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria and mounds of wasted food. I refused to attend the Earth Day concert because I couldn’t endure hearing children sing about caring for the earth because the system, that in the process of schooling them in the three R’s, is also schooling them to disregard the earth. I turned away from volunteering at events because I knew I would spend the time digging recyclables out of the trash.
The only thing I didn’t turn away from was volunteering in the garden.The simple work of engaging children in planting, watering, weeding and harvesting I could handle. Some had never touched a seed or felt a worm tickle the palm of their hands. Some for the first time experienced the pepper bite of a radish freshly pulled from soil, spinach not from a can, the crunch of snap peas. Planting the idea that their food comes from dirt, this I wouldn't turn from because it is hope filled work, hinged on promise.
Last year, a handful of parents and I worked tirelessly on green initiatives for our school so we started this fall still spent from our efforts. Our impetus and energy could not be the only things driving change. Why didn’t other parents and school staff see this as part of our children’s education? I personally felt dejected; profoundly impotent before these Herculean tasks. How could I possibly change culture? Trying to get my children’s school to embrace sustainability seems impossible. But what is the alternative?
The alternative is to acquiesce to a second rate reality. At church, a pastor talked about the walls of Jerusalem being in ruin for almost a hundred years. The Israelites resigned themselves to a degraded, inferior existence far different than the promise of the covenant. By living within crumbling walls that should have served as a fortress, they exposed themselves to unfathomable dangers, tolerating a second rate reality.
Because we poison what sustains life on earth, we tolerate a second rate reality.
Because we live as though poisoning the earth doesn’t matter, our lives are second rate in terms of our vitality. Diabetes, leukemia, asthma, endocrine disruption, neurobehavorial disorders are just a few of the physical maladies we've become accustomed to living with, not to mention the emotional and spiritual ones.
Because we squander limited resources, we behave as second rate stewards of the future. Because children are capable of stewardship, education established on consumption is second rate, devoid of relevancy for real world engagement.
So what happens to that which is degraded if left unamended? Yes, it is a Herculean task to redress a dire situation, an immense endeavor to provoke change. But again, what is the alternative?
The pastor who spoke on the walls of Jerusalem challenged us to seek the profound potential in second rate reality, to not just resign ourselves to living subpar. As I’ve spent time researching and writing for this blog, I’m learning to despair less. Ironic, since researching environmental issues turns up overwhelmingly depressing information. Instead of turning away because I can’t stomach it, I’m seeing everything as baseline: this is where we are now; this is our starting point; the school buses and cars idling in the parking lot-this is our before picture. Where is the possibility, the opportunity in this rubble?
Getting our small school to use both sides of paper, compost, recycle, put lights on motion sensors, air conditioners on timers, or rely on reusables rather than disposables may seem puny in comparison to industry polluters or corporate farming. But these tasks are worthy of a Herculean effort. And if the school staff cultivates stewardship as a habit practiced along with the three R’s, imagine the influence they’ll have on countless students. Indeed, if students learn as children to consider the impact of their choices, what does that mean for their future as parents, community members and world citizens? Therein lays profound potential. This too is hope filled work, hinged on promise.