Saving the Planet

Many new parents find that alongside their joy of the new arrival comes a new set of anxieties.  Suddenly your bump has become a person with a gender, a name and a future.  This is frequently a spur to action.  I remember my husband arriving on Day One at the maternity hospital having already fitted a car seat and opened a bank savings account.  This parental protective instinct has many forms.  I joined the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and generally tried to do my bit to prevent the proliferation of weapons.  If I were a new parent now I am sure that my concerns would be focused on the environment. 

There remain a few vociferous doubters but the weight of evidence is now compelling; the activities of human beings on the planet are damaging our ecosystems and without some serious adaptations in the way that we use our resources, the future looks bleak.  There is a great deal that schools can do both to raise awareness and to take practical steps to improve the situation.  There are local and national initiatives to encourage both school managers and school children to think creatively about reducing their carbon footprint by conserving energy.  This makes sense on many levels, not least to bursars and financial managers who have faced staggeringly increased energy bills during the last two years. 

Recent new building regulations mean that modern schools have much improved standards of insulation and energy use but those of us working in more venerable buildings face a real challenge in this area.  While the long term plan may be to introduce more efficient central heating and double glazing for hundreds of windows, there are other things that can be done that will both heighten the awareness of the pupils and save on costs.

The most obvious example is encouraging children to turn off lights and close doors and windows as they leave rooms.  It takes a committed and energetic teacher to be on top of this although if he/she enlists the support of a group of environmentally conscious children then success is more likely.  The energy buying policy may also be an effective cost and carbon footprint buster.

Many households will already have trained their children in the importance of domestic recycling.  Depending on your location, your local authority may recycle glass, metal, plastic, paper and even garden and kitchen waste.  The same processes can take place at school but again they cost money and require commitment from the school community if they are to run effectively.  Paper recycling and cardboard compaction have become part of our recycling effort.  Many children enjoy the responsibility of being the class recycler.

To some extent a number of these recycling activities beg the real question; why is there so much waste that needs recycling?  In a previous article I wrote about computer technology.  There is no doubt that it is a wonderful educational tool but it has created wasteful habits.  Unnecessary printing is the scourge of many schools and businesses.  This year we are undergoing a zealous attempt to reduce the use of paper and cartridges at our School. 

Schools take their commitment to the environment seriously, both in a global sense and in relation to their own budgets.  Our latest school building will have a sedum eco roof i.e. a roof planted with sedum grass which should assist in reducing carbon in its immediate area.  Our School is spread out on a wide site and we are in the process of organising collection and transport of the masses of cardboard which we accrue every week to the newly purchased cardboard compacter.  The Bursar has suggested buying a quad bike and trailer.  I would prefer a bicycle rickshaw to provide healthy exercise for the driver and an eco-friendly solution for the School!  This suggestion has not met with a positive response!

Our School kitchen runs a local produce policy which means that we have cut the food mileage involved in producing three meals a day for boarders and day girls.

  Our chefs display attractive posters showing the orchards from which the apples have come.  We use very little frozen food and make a point of purchasing from local farmers wherever possible.  Again this takes commitment and energy on the part of the school chefs.  It is much more challenging than buying frozen and prepared foods from a conglomerate. 

Allotments at the Junior School have always been popular and it is a pleasure to note the number of schools who are digging up small parts of the playing fields in order to teach children the basics of vegetable production.  It takes me back to my first school in the West Country where rural science was on the curriculum.  In those days children hatched and reared chickens which they also killed (with the help of a teacher), plucked and presented proudly to their mothers to cook.  It was a really effective lesson in what it takes to keep the human population fed and one which most modern children never get.  My young graduate son who has taken over our vegetable plot recently admired a box of perfect supermarket blackberries.  His comment was “How do you grow them that well? I know now how much effort it takes!”  The earlier our children can learn that valuable lesson, the better.

There are all kinds of special initiatives associated with school transport.  In some cities the walking bus is popular; a group of parents escort a whole line of children who walk together to and from school.  There have been government initiatives to encourage parents to leave the car behind and this has met with mixed success.  It is ironic to see a parent transporting a single child to school in an enormous gas guzzling SUV.  The motive is often safety; the parent perceives the child safely encased in tons of metal to be more protected from traffic accidents.  How sad that the additional and unnecessary consumption may actually make that child’s long term existence much more painful or even precarious!

Closing doors and windows to avoid heat loss is admirable but it might be more effective for everyone to wear thermal underwear and turn the heating down substantially. The levels of comfort that are now regarded as a minimum would have been exceptional in my childhood.  Without wishing to imply that the world has gone to the dogs and that the whole of humanity has gone soft, I do have to observe that it was normal and indeed healthy in my childhood to learn to endure occasional discomfort and inconvenience.  We also had winter and summer underwear!  It could be that the high standards which are now expected by many are actually imposing an unreasonable burden on the planet’s resources and at the same time increasing the expectations of the next generation.

Ultimately, the most valuable contribution that schools can make to environmental sustainability is to educate children to be aware of the issues and to take personal responsibility for trying to solve them.  This is only possible if families try to inculcate the same habits in their children and that schools and home work together to create a culture where wastefulness is unacceptable.  Children and adolescents are often idealistic and sensitive to issues that some adults choose to ignore.  Schools have a responsibility to harness these qualities and to help the next generation to develop attitudes that will do less harm to the environment than our own.  New parenthood is a moment when we look ahead and imagine the world as it will be when our newborns are adults.  Our behaviour now and the attitudes that we share and encourage in others will have a decisive influence on the outcome.