Sunday, January 2, 2011

EcoSchools - This Time It's Personal

"I have not failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."
       - Thomas Edison

I went to a staff Christmas party where there was, quite literally, some jovial pointing and laughing going on because I don't shop at Wal-Mart, don't eat at McDonalds, and have never owned a car.  Of course there are good reasons for these lifestyle choices, but that's besides the point.  If you're the EcoSchool rep, and you live by your convictions when it's not too difficult, then you might be perceived as being a bit of a freak show.  And that just sucks.

However, I was quite impressed by the instinctive social mechanisms that create community through conformity.  People who are different are relegated to the out-group until they start to tow the line.  That's a useful dynamic if we want to train people to be honest and trustworthy, ostracizing those that lie, cheat or steal.  It's just really unfortunate that what we conform to today has been largely determined by industry - consumerist mantras in the form of jingles.  Have you had a break today?

The question is, how do we make living with a conscientious worldview the in thing to do?  

It's easier not to care, and that won't likely change unless we're willing to elect a totalitarian government who will make us live ethically.  So it can't be a matter of making everything environmental easier to do. It has to be cool to be eco-friendly.  We've got celebrity endorsements on our side, but that's not enough. It has to be younger and hipper.  I wonder if a different teacher could get more people on board.  Hmmm...

But back to me.  One time I walked into a room with colleagues finishing their lunch, and one teacher said to the other, "Uh oh, we'll have to recycle today.  Marie's here."  I'm the bad guy, the eco-police.  People feel like they have to be careful around me.  And, truth be told, it never stops surprising me that people don't automatically recycle or compost or walk places.  Some eco-behaviours that were once ingrained in society, have actually been lost.  We were trained not to litter as kids.  Once the indoctrination between cartoons ended, the behaviour ended for the next generation.  It's curious how briefly good ideas stick around before they disappear and have to be re-introduced.

If someone puts recycling in the garbage, I'll question it because it's so baffling to me, or I'll just take it out myself and put it six inches to the left in the recycling bin which makes me a garbage-picker.  Excellent.  If I see people with a single-use cup every day, or even several times a day, I'll suggest they get a travel mug, or even offer to buy them one.  It's no wonder people avoid me.  It's a tricky line to walk:  reminding and encouraging people to get on board without being a thorn in their side or seeming self-righteous.

Maybe I just take being a gold-standard eco-school way too seriously and should just cut corners:  fudge the results, only compost in the staff room for instance (which still counts as composting), not actually try to decrease waste or energy, but just do the bare minimum to continue to qualify for a sticker each year.  Forget about the whole point of the program, and just go for it as a status symbol to attract more students to our school.  

The situation is reminiscent of when I did my Master's degree.  Many students in my class actually bragged about not reading the books we were assigned.  I read them and did the additional reading as well, not because I was told to, but because it makes sense to get the most out of the educational opportunity.  They could recount details of the previous night's Ally McBeal episode, but had to b.s. their way through questions asked in class.  It's the power of the immediate rewards over distant punishers.  Watching TV is more rewarding than reading regardless of the possible pain it will cause the next day in class - apparently even in grad school.   And getting good deals at WalMart is rewarding despite the long-term impact it may have on the uptown core of a city.

I remember one fellow grad student who shook his head at how much work I put into the program.  "You really don't have to do so much.  It's really easy to get the credits without any effort."  But that was never the goal I was going for - the credits.  I wanted to learn something.  And I'm not into Eco-Schools for the status, but because it really will make a difference if we can get over 1,000 people to care about the world - if we can train them to recycle and compost and use travel mugs and re-usable water bottles, and to think a bit about where they shop and what they eat.  I think when that fellow student chastised me it was really in order to alleviate his own guilt.  He had to convince himself that he wasn't doing anything wrong by ignoring the pile of books in the corner; I was the crazy one for making an effort.    

That grad student successfully jumped enough hoops to be a professor - just so you know.  

It's so ridiculously easy to reduce waste and energy use, to decrease car use, to stop supporting stores with a history of social injustices, but people really really really don't care.   And I don't believe people will begin to care until life gets very very bad for us.

In Australia, after a ten year drought, the government requested that people dramatically cut their water use in their homes last year - stop flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary, wash clothes less often, don't wash cars, etc.  It took just two weeks for the public to cut their water use in half.  It's very possible to do, but we won't budge until the ground is parched.  We are just too stupid to live.

I include myself in that last line.  Having access to a car briefly, I found myself using it for little trips where I used to walk.  It's just so easy.  It's hard to walk past the thing and keep on going.  But in just a few months of driving, I have the weight gain to show for it!  We're a lazy lot, and how do we remember the impact of our actions on the whole world when we're just one single person taking just a short trip by car?  It's hard for sure.

A relative recently asked me if it's depressing reading all those books I read on the problems in the world.  I said:  Absolutely not!  It's exciting and inspiring because we know what harms us, we know what's wrong but we also know all the solutions.  We have the ability to solve all these issues.  And we have the power to act on that knowledge by educating others or writing and protesting corporations and governments.

What's depressing isn't the knowledge; it's the apathy.

Ignorance isn't bliss.  It's just plain ignorance.

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