As our students were reminded today, our planet is an amazing place! They also learned that it needs our help to thrive. That’s why each year on April 22nd, more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day to protect the planet from things like pollution and deforestation. In schools across Canada, students learn that by taking part in activities like picking up litter and planting trees, they are making our world a more sustainable and healthier place in which to live.
That said, I have always responded to Earth Day by saying, “every day is Earth Day!” While the concept of a special day to reflect on conservation and global stewardship is worthwhile, we need to help our children understand that their approach to caring for the natural environment is not a one-off event characterized by a “garbage-less” lunch or dress down days.
In the decades leading up to the very first Earth Day in 1970, North Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until the 1970s, mainstream North America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.
By making global citizenship a part of the curriculum from Kindergarten onwards, today’s children are very much more attuned to the role they can play in planning for a sustainable future beginning in their own small world. At Matthews Hall, our annual Red Oak Assembly (founded to honour the memory of former parent, the late Vanessa Doig Leung) offers our students a yearly opportunity to learn about ways they can provide leadership to the challenges we face in the area environmental citizenship. Each human being has a role to play and an understanding of this role begins at a very young age.
As with all worthy endeavours, it is vitally important to help children understand that fidelity must supersede fad when it comes to making a real difference. T-shirts proclaiming our commitment to saving the rainforests ring hollow, if they are manufactured in factories and conditions that abuse human rights and pollute the environment. Jet-setting celebrity activists who leave a carbon footprint equal to that of a small village send a confusing and hypocritical message to youth. If we are truly serious about the waste and impact of humanity’s consumerism on the health of the natural world, it will take a lot more than buttons and posters to tackle the problem.
From our personal approach to transportation to the level of waste we tolerate in our lives, the logical coherence that kids see will be the real “Earth Day curriculum”. I often think of my grandparents on Earth Day and reflect on how they lived. Born in the first years of the twentieth century, they endured a lot, had little, and wasted nothing. They even repaired the same toaster and iron when they stopped functioning (!) and composted vegetable waste long before it was chic.
In some ways, we have learned (…and unlearned!) a lot during the past 100 years. Let’s hope that the next generation of students can see the contradictions laid bare and help to set us all on a new course – one that will harmonize the needs of the whole human family with the needs of its common home.
While the modern lives we lead may make it challenging to return to the simpler patterns of consumption practiced by our grandparents and great-grandparents, we nevertheless have a duty to take action in the small ways we can. These small ways are learned first at home and reinforced at school.
And, as in all things, the children are always taking the lead from us.
Ric Anderson, Head of School