Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fight with Your Dime - Lifestyle Eco-Activism: Teaching Conservative Family Values

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm.
Dust Bowl, Cimarron County, Oklahoma
By: Shannon Stark Guss

My efforts at sustainability have waxed and waned over the years.  I admit that I have even found myself at times falling ungraciously into habits of super-consumerism that have no part in the lifestyle of someone who claims to be an environmentally-minded citizen of the world.  I have had to forgive myself for these failings and do my best to return to some reasonable habits.  While my habits as a crazy liberal, wannabe hippy, eco-activist have mixed with my habits of a buy-stuff-for-emotional-comfort, drive-like-there’s-no-tomorrow, eat-as-much-as-possible-and-don’t-worry-where-it-came-from kind of American, the fact remains that I continue to value this beautiful planet we call home.  When I had children, it became important to me to consider ways to teach those values to them.  As they have grown older, it has also become increasingly apparent that my husband and I must consistently model actions that match these values.

My parents were polar opposites, politically, by the time I was making adult decisions about my consumer habits.  (My dad’s a lefty who says Obama is too conservative, while my mom leans right like... well, let’s not talk politics at the dinner table.)  Without diverging too far from my point, I will say that I personally believe that the political spectrum serves to create artificial divides, and thereby weakens the power of the people as a whole.  However, I also experience the reality that many of us, including myself, use the spectrum as a conceptual framework within which we house very real disagreements on the nature of the world and the role of governments and citizens.  Based on this experience, I know that both sides of the political spectrum offer philosophies which are important to the teaching of conservative values, that is, values which support environmental conservation.  What did you think I meant?

A powerful idea we can take from the ‘right’ is that of personal responsibility.  My mother’s voice rings in my head to clean up after myself, make a plan and follow through, say what you mean and mean what you say, do what is right even when no one is looking.  These are philosophies normally associated with political conservatism, as they focus on having strong moral character, being self-reliant, and protecting good things about our world.  All these ideas are good soil for planting conservative values, to create good stewards of the earth, and to have high standards of ourselves and others.

My father’s voice doesn’t ring as loudly as his actions.  His parenting practices and left-leaning political philosophy overlapped in his hopes for my potential.  He recognized that the world could not be defined in black-and-white terms.  Rather than lecture, my dad tended to ask a lot of questions in an attempt to provoke self-reflection.  (He underestimated the power of hormone imbalance to render rationality completely useless, but that’s another story.)  He expected me to question.  His manner communicated his faith in me to learn from my mistakes.  He offered his opinions and advice in packages equally filled with trust and love.  The example of this progressive approach is that we all have to keep learning new and better ways to protect the planet, to forgive ourselves when we don’t do what we hoped, and to know that the systems are too complex to make perfect decisions anyway.

The work of love that is parenting eclipses political perspectives, but I write to reflect on this journey and I hope these reflections are helpful to others.  As you teach your own values to your children, regardless of which ‘side’ of the spectrum you are on, consider how they overlap with your ideas about why we should care for the planet.  Another well we can draw on is from a time when (supposedly) our country was not so polarized.

In thinking about my conservative values, I am not attempting to conserve and protect what has become “traditional” over the last fifty years of American life through a TV screen.  In fact, that darn tube has wreaked havoc on our collective consciousness by portraying an unsustainable, and for many, an unattainable lifestyle.  Shiny cars and manicured lawns, new clothes all perfectly pressed, five-course meals every night, and problems like losing the button off of your new jacket.  “Pa is gonna git you fer that Beaver!”  And while we were all passively taking this in to our culture, we seem to have forgotten the hard fought lessons of only two decades past.

I need to teach my children to honor the difficulties of the generations before us.  When I think of what my grandparents endured, I have a real perspective on “waste not, want not.”  They knew that the belongings we may take for granted may not always be around to waste.  I remember the history, and will teach my little ones, of the poor farming practices that contributed to the Dust Bowl and intensified the effects of the Depression.  I will remember the generation who pulled together through two World Wars by giving up conveniences such as panty-hose and new cars, collected scrap metal for the war effort, and were as self-sustaining as possible through Victory Gardens.  Our new World War is a fight for the planet itself, for our own survival and the survival of the diversity of life on earth; we must hold dear the conservative values of the generation before us.

We build our children’s understanding of what it actually means to care for the earth through education and support of good habits.  They are good at asking questions, so we have to become good at helping them ask the right ones.  Where does food come from?  How does it get here?  How can we conserve water?  What is energy?  Why do we save it?  One clarification that I have had to make repeatedly with my seven year old is that we are not directly killing polar bears by leaving lights on in the house because the polar bear needs the light, but because the lights use energy powered by burning fossil fuels.  (And… um, here watch this movie with Al Gore.)  It’s not exactly an easy ‘A causes B’ sort of concept, so when I see that her understanding is off, but her intentions are good, that is a place to build. 

We have to look for those teachable moments--moments when our kids are saying or doing something that provides an opportunity to take an idea further.  An example already described includes the scenario where my daughter tries to figure out our effect on polar bears. She understood that there was an effect between what we choose to do and the lives of those majestic creatures.  She understood that her actions could be changed to lessen this impact.  She got a little bit fuzzy at that point, but there is plenty of time to develop a stronger understanding of ecosystems, climate change, and the interdependence of all life on the planet.  If you can begin with what your child already understands, you will be more successful in building that understanding.

Important concepts we can teach our children:

•    What we do effects others, including plants, wildlife, and other humans.
•    We can make changes in what we do to reduce bad effects on others.
•    Sometimes it is hard, but it is important to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
•    Where we get our food and other goods matters (where and how it was produced, whether it is new/used).

Finally, we turn understanding to action by supporting our own sustainability skills and our children’s.  It should not be taken for granted that the lack of effort in our children (or any of our fellow earthlings) is a matter of laziness.  Indeed, it is has been advocated by parent educators that there are important differences between parental discipline and parental punishment rooted in this concept.  One could describe the difference as punishment expecting that children should already know what to do, while discipline is continuously trying to teach, remind, and build deeper understanding of the why and how of good lifelong habits.

Important habits we can teach our children:

•    Reduce:  Turn off the lights, Turn off the water, Close the door, Don’t stand there staring in the fridge all the live long day, let’s walk or ride our bike instead of driving when we can, put your markers back on the lids and your clay back inside the bag so they don’t dry out, use both sides of the paper.
•    Reuse:  Torn shirts become fabric for new doll fashion designs, tiny crayons get melted in muffin pans to become giant crayons, help mommy remember the shopping bags when we go to the grocery store, be grateful for the hand-me-downs from your sister and cousins.
•    Recycle:  If it is recyclable, put in the recycle bin.  If it is compostable, put it in the compost bin.  Our community doesn’t have curbside recycling, so we have to collect and then haul it to the nearest facility every so often.  Let’s play a sorting game!
•    Eat what we have and eat what we have locally.  Find goodies at the Farmer’s Market.  Help mommy choose yummy foods from the coop.  Try this new vegetable that looks like a radish on life support – Yay for locally grown Kohlrabi!  Guess what, I can make ice cream from Kale, cream, and Ovaltine!  Woo hoo!
•    Make your birthday and Christmas wish lists from these made-in-America, sustainable toy websites.  Find the joy in previously loved toys and books.
•    Keep practicing good habits.  It will take time and we will get new and better ideas from our community of like-minded friends and family.

An e-zine such as this one exists in the hopes to support the very kind of information that we need to become more highly skilled activists for the earth.  That can be a sort of lifestyle activism, wherein consumer choice is the centerpiece of action or a more direct kind of activism.  If we are parents, or aunts/uncles/grandparents/etc., we have a duty to this younger generation to take care of this planet and to teach them to do the same. 

My favorite movies and books that teach kids about conservation:

Movies:  Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
 Animals United
 Happy Feet
 Flight of the Draco

Books:  Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau
 The Lorax (Classic Seuss)
 The Wolves Are Back

For more formal ideas book resources, check out this list:

Political spectrum ideas used for this article:

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