For nearly four decades we've been telling kids the same story about sustainability while our collective consumption rates continue to skyrocket. Instead of focusing on limited solutions, It's time to ask big picture questions.
What’s wrong with our current definition of sustainability for kids?
Sustainability is defined as: "the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance."
But what does ‘not being harmful to the environment’ actually mean? Where do we draw the line on ‘harmful’? Who draws that line? And how can we inspire kids to ask the kinds of questions that will lead them to viable solutions for the future of our planet?
Many children’s books on environmental issues focus on simple things that kids can do to reduce their ecological impact and to help them feel empowered. Though well intentioned, this is a wasted opportunity to teach kids how to look at our collective consumption problem through wider lenses, at a crucial point in their lives before their consumption habits have become engrained and when they’re most vulnerable to powerful marketing influences. We can do better, and we need to do better.
’’Recycling alone is not a game-changer. It was a good way to start the conversation and raise awareness, but we’ve been talking since the 1970s and in that time 50% of our planet’s biodiversity has been lost.’’
Ecological sustainability is not about adopting solutions that are overly motivated by profit for a select few. Though they may solve a specific targeted problem, these types of solutions are often at the expense of someone or something which is easy to exploit.
Ecological sustainability is also not about making minor changes to our high-consumption lifestyle and ‘hoping for the best’ with solutions that are too limited in scope to make a real difference.
‘Reduce, reuse, recycle' is an example of the latter. At the level of the individual consumer, we’re still overly focused on recycling and recycling alone is not a game-changer. It was a good way to start the conversation and raise awareness, but we’ve been talking since the 1970s and in that time 50% of our planet’s biodiversity has been lost, much of it due to the conversion of rainforests into palm oil plantations to produce things like lipstick, shampoo and instant noodles.
Not more than 100 years ago, even city-dwelling kids had a much better understanding and appreciation for where things come from, where they go, and the people who make them. You didn’t have to make an effort to ‘buy local’, global waste trade was unheard of, and mass production hadn’t yet dominated modern commerce. Kids made do with less, a lot less. They weren’t exposed to the same level of cunning advertising messages telling them what they need to have or who they need to be in order to ‘succeed’. Compound that by the competitive and comparative framework on which our modern education system is founded and it’s clear why kids today need a lot more than reduce-reuse-recycle if we hope to save Mama Earth.
Learning to think beyond ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’
Relative to the span of civilization on our planet, the massive scale of environmental degradation that we’re experiencing today is incredibly recent. The air is polluted by things like the cars we drive and the chemicals in all the plastic we consume, the soil is polluted by the industries that produce our cars and plastic, the water is polluted by the oil that is extracted and transported to fuel the cars we drive and the plastic that we toss... you see where we’re going with this. Everything is connected.
It’s scary when you consider how much damage we’ve done in such a short amount of time, but there is hope in knowing that we can decide to change the course on which we’re headed and reach unprecedented levels of collective awareness and cooperation.
Solving the environmental problems that we face by sticking to the same value system that got us here is impossible. At this point, anything less than a paradigm shift isn‘t going to cut it.
Let’s quickly go back to the late 19th century with a historical reference that illustrates this point. In London of 1894, horses were both the primary mode of transportation and a major source of pollution, generating literal tons of manure and urine on a daily basis. You couldn’t cross the street without side-stepping in it and in 1894 the Times of London predicted that… “In 50 years, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure.”
So, what happened? London didn’t drown in horse poo, of course, because by 1912 horses were replaced by motorized transport. It came to be known as the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ and it’s often cited as an example of how technology will lead us out of seemingly impossible situations, such as the ones created today in our high-consumption culture: plastic pollution, climate change, deforestation…
’’To use the example above as a metaphor, focusing on recycling is like thinking of ways to revolutionize the collection of horse poo when the kinds of solutions we need to be teaching kids to aspire to are at the level of motorized transport.’’
To use the example above as a metaphor, focusing on recycling is like thinking of ways to revolutionize the collection of horse poo when the kinds of solutions we need to be teaching our kids to aspire to are at the level of motorized transport.
That’s not to say that the 3 Rs don’t have their place in teaching children ecological literacy. In fact, learning to prioritize our efforts is critical, and when we look at more recent interpretations of the 3 Rs inspired by the zero waste movement, we find that they are in fact prioritized and have been expanded to 5 Rs in the following order:
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse Recycle, Rot (composting)
There are many other innovative solutions that are currently being pioneered by talented folks in both the non- and for-profit sectors all around the world. Below is just a partial list of some of our favorites.
Of the 100 solutions presented in Project Drawdown’s list for reducing greenhouse gases by 2050, educating girls in developing countries is ranked number 6. And the most astounding thing about The Ocean CleanUp, an ambitious project which aims to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years, is the fact that its founder, Boyan Slat, conceived his revolutionary idea while still in high school! Slat, who calls himself ‘an inventor since birth’, was able to make such an incredible discovery because he was inspired to look for unconventional solutions instead of conforming to cookie-cutter ones.
How can we encourage more kids to adopt this kind of attitude?
The Big PickSure Book: A wider perspective on our evolving consumption problem
In the words of Aristotle, ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’
That’s why The Big PickSure Book encourages kids to ask feeling-revealing questions about the things they choose to use. The scope of the questions points to where kids’ values lie and leverages positive traits which kids are blessed with in abundance: open-mindedness, justice, compassion and curiosity.
What are the ‘big picture’ questions that frame the story in The Big PickSure Book and why do we think they’ll help kids grow up to become conscious consumers who can help solve our global garbage problem with solutions that go further than recycling?
HOW MUCH GARBAGE ARE WE CREATING?
We begin with questions that put our junk into perspective: How much garbage do we create today? Have we always created this much garbage? How does every little piece of garbage contribute? Many people think that our culture of junk and its catastrophic environmental implications are an inevitable consequence of overpopulation. That mindset disempowers us into believing there is nothing we can do to solve the problem, when in fact the solution is less dependent on population as it is on consumption and production. The notable Jared Diamond explains this beautifully and backs it up with numbers in his New York Times article What’s Your Consumption Factor? Though published in 2008, this article seems even more relevant today.
What really makes us happy?
Does the stuff we buy that eventually turns into junk make us happy? What are better, more meaningful ways to achieve happiness? How do other cultures measure happiness and what can we learn from them? We look at the United Nation’s monumental World Happiness Report as a guide to answering these questions.
How much do we need?
Our consumptive needs are highly subjective. A great way to illustrate this point is by seeing how these needs change over time or through changing cultures. In this section of the book and its related infographics we show examples of consumption rates for common commodities in different parts of the world: sugar, meat, electricity, water, paper and clothing.
How DO THE THINGS WE BUY AND USE AFFECT ANIMALS?
When one side uses way more than they need, the other side directly or indirectly suffers and we all pay a price. Simply knowing that by choosing this classic brand of corn chips or that leading brand of chocolate we’re encroaching on the homes of baby orangutans is enough to make us think twice the next time we grab for some. Nobody wants to be encroaching on no baby orangutans. And kids aren’t cynical. If you give meaning to their choices and explain the wider context early on, you make it easier for them to avoid developing a taste for these products to begin with.
Where do thE THings WE USE come from and who makes them?
Most modern consumers have a sketchy understanding of material life cycles. Whether it’s animal and plant by-products, plastics, manufactured metals, or fossil fuels used for energy, we don’t fully understand how they got from the ocean, the field, or the mine to our plates, cell phones and gasoline tanks. We also don’t understand who these materials affect along their line of production. In this infographic we take a look at the supply and demand for a product that is universally loved by children: chocolate.
Where does our GARBAGE end up?
In the words of Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace and founder of the Story of Stuff, ‘There is no such thing as ‘away’. When you throw something away it must go somewhere’. That somewhere is usually one of two places: the ocean, where it wreaks havoc on aquatic ecosystems; or developing countries in the Global South, where the environmental protection laws are less stringent and the local population has no agency to prevent richer countries from dumping their garbage. Either way it’s a lose-lose situation.
ABOUT THE MAKING OF THE BIG PICKSURE BOOK
In the printing and promotion of this book we've taken extra measures to ensure sustainable practices and avoid the monoculture. This includes selling through independent channels, selecting the highest quality recycled materials, using minimal packaging, and printing locally so we could pay a fair price to our friendly production studio, EcoPrint.