At a small farm in Ossining, NY, kids play in a garden on a wooden seesaw, watching as the movement pumps water into large green barrels. At Something Good in the World (SGITW), a children’s education program that focuses on sustainability and permaculture, kids are taught how to live in ways that value and take care of the earth.
According to a climate report from the United Nations that was released this past October, there are only 12 years left to mitigate climate change, which has already taken a severe toll, most memorably in the U.S. through the recent raging California wildfires. (Paralleled in Sweden and Australia, as well as other regions around the globe.)
In the face of this time-frame, it can be hard to imagine how individuals can make a difference. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 75% of U.S. adults say they are “particularly concerned” with helping the environment in their daily lives, while only one-in-five say they live in environmentally friendly ways all the time. Barbara Sarbin, the Educational Program Director at Something Good in the World, says most people aren’t aware of how they can take care of the planet. “But I mean,” she said, “the list is endless.” (See the Top 80 Game Changers, here.)
Student Matthew Garafalo, President of the Green Team club at SUNY Purchase, helps the environment through multiple practices, including composting, which he has done for the past two years. “When you just throw food waste in a landfill,” he said, “it breaks down and produces methane, which is a harmful greenhouse gas. When you compost it, you’re able to recycle the nutrients and re-incorporate them into the soil to grow new food.”
Garafalo believes composting should be practiced on a wider scale, and be encouraged by municipalities. “I think there should be a compost bin at every local, centralized garbage or recycling dumpster. If our school ever wants to reach a zero waste goal, it’s not enough to just have ten or twelve students—or however many there are—who care about composting. There should actually be administrative effort. I think that should go for local and state governments, too.”
This year, says Garafalo, through his work with Green Team, he’s focusing on removing invasive plants. “The thing with invasive plants is that they are brought from other parts of the world, and when they’re introduced to our environment here, they are released from all the things that keep them in check. A vine might have a particular insect that eats its leaves and keeps it from overgrowing the forest. If that comes here, the insect doesn’t come with it, and it’s able to outgrow all native plant species.”
Garafalo says when he removes invasive plants at school, he replaces them with native ones. “The worst plants here are porcelain berry and multiflora rose. I’ve gone around campus and collected seeds from milkweed and oak trees to replace them.”
Photograph of porcelain berry, by Matthew Beziat on Flickr. Creative Commons license.
At the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI)), the goal is to help individuals take action. Through the Drawdown EcoChallenge project, started in 2008, they create simple strategies for people to get going.
“We started it as this really small fundraiser to get people to take action on things they cared about or were learning about, but weren’t really doing anything about,” said Lacy Cagle, Director of Learning at NWEI. “We call it the say-do gap. People say what they care about, but then they often aren’t doing things to make a difference. We were trying to get some folks to act. It was pretty successful, so we kept doing it each year, and in 2014 we decided to go really big with the EcoChallenge. Now we reach tens of thousands of people each year, around the world.”
The EcoChallenge allows people to take on small goals during the course of a month, which in many cases are continued after the challenge ends. Two EcoChallenges currently take place—a general one in October and the Drawdown EcoChallenge in April, which is based on the book Drawdown, that centers on the idea of drawing down CO2 already in the atmosphere. The organization also does custom EcoChallenges, says Cagle. “We had a plastic-free July challenge recently, and we have a campus EcoChallenge that any universities or colleges can do throughout the year.”
Alongside EcoChallenges, the institute offers discussion courses, their initial project. “There are coursebooks designed to build community and help people learn new things,” said Cagle, “as well as reflect on how things apply to their own lives. People use the books in classrooms, or even for employee engagement or community programs.”
At Something Good in the World, many aspects of sustainability are explored throughout the program. “One of our major projects is the EnviraPod mobile educational trailer,” said Sarbin. “It’s a classroom that demonstrates solar power, and how to live off the grid. It’s a zero-carbon footprint classroom that’s on wheels.” The EnviraPod is solar and DC (direct current) powered, with all solar power redirecting into the appliances, such as the refrigerator, sound system, and DVD player. The EnviraPod uses water catchments, which collects water from the roof and filters it back into the ground and wetlands. “There is also a composting toilet,” said Sarbin, “and a wood pellet stove, which is the most energy-efficient type of heat.”
To teach children about sustainability, SGITW has multiple devices that kids can power, such as the seesaw pump and a stationary, electricity-generating bicycle. “We attach a blender to it, so that children can make smoothies or salad dressing,” said Sarbin. Children can also learn about efficient temperature control, through a chicken coop that uses a green roof to stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
“The most important thing we teach kids about the environment is respect,” said Sarbin, “and that everything is connected. The earth is a living system, so an effect on one part of that system connects to all the rest, and therefore there’s a necessity to live in harmony with nature, both indoors and outdoors.” Sarbin says this extends from how food waste is handled to how systems are designed. “It’s our responsibility, from the beginning, in how we design our homes and our cars to have them work in balance with natural principles, rather than trying to retrofit, or fix problems later on that we caused by not thinking about effects that one system would have on another.”
When it comes to converting knowledge into action, Garafalo says that the single most effective thing he can recommend to someone is to reduce meat consumption. “It’s hard for some people, but even just cutting out red meat or pork and just eating chicken or fish is better. Ideally no meat at all, but red meat is the worst. You have to think of all of the land that gets used for animal agriculture, and then the actual practices that go into it are major contributors to greenhouse gases. I think that’s one of the more viable solutions, rather than buying a fuel-efficient car, which is expensive, or taking the bus to work every day, which isn’t an option for some people.”
Cagle agrees, saying that many solutions to climate change have to do with food. “Composting and eating a more plant-based diet—having less meat and less dairy—has a huge impact as far as your carbon emissions go, and those are things that are pretty easy to do.”
Sarbin recommends composting as well, along with separating trash from recycling and not littering. “The amount of litter in Westchester is enormous,” she said, “and makes its way into our waterways, and eventually into the oceans, where we know there’s a terrible problem. I think until it affects people directly, they don’t realize that it’s really an issue.”
To those who wish to go farther, Sarbin says getting solar panels and collecting rainwater are good actions to take. “An average roof in Westchester wastes thousands of gallons of water a year, so if people could put a rain barrel with a spout from a rain gutter, they could use that to water their plants. People could also grow more food for themselves, even in containers, to supplement their family’s table.”
Sarbin says the same things go for public schools. “They could have school gardens that grow vegetables to be used in the cafeterias, so the kids could get a sense of the whole cycle of their food. I think if they were growing their own food, they wouldn’t be so quick to throw it in the garbage just because they don’t like it, or don’t feel like eating it. I think the statistic is that about half of all food waste comes from schools.” In addition to this, Sarbin wishes cafeterias could separate out their garbage so the food waste could go to farms.
“I think it would be really great,” Sarbin added, “if more schools, especially colleges and universities, would visit projects like ours to see that this is real and sustainable. You can actually live a very comfortable, beautiful life, completely off-grid, living in harmony with nature, and have all the amenities.”
As well as incorporating environmentally-friendly actions into their lives and organizations, Cagle says people have to go farther. “The EcoChallenge really focuses on the collective impact of thousands of people making lifestyle changes. It’s pretty amazing, and there’s significant impact there, but you can’t stop there. There are a lot of reasons why doing what’s best for the environment is really difficult, less convenient or more expensive, and that’s because of the systems we have in place.”
Garafalo points out a similar issue. “You have a whole section of government that ignores sustainability and environmental stewardship. You have to take a side at some point, and you have to look for the candidates that are trying to represent a sustainable future and support them. You have to contact local representatives, and speak out against policies that are harmful to the environment. It’s a responsibility. It’s something we have to do.”
Although drawing people to sustainable actions can seem a daunting task, Cagle says the best way to start is by beginning with yourself. “When you’re passionate about it and you’re making changes, people can’t help but notice, and a lot of times they’ll ask questions. Just being able to model that in your own life can help normalize behaviors to others. When you see people doing things you’re more likely to do them.”
Cagle also notes that connecting the environment to our personal values is extremely important. For instance, if you value the plight of girls worldwide, then you might prefer to focus on that sector in Drawdown’s list of solutions; Cagle points out that—when combined—empowering girls, family planning, and educating girls form the number one solution to reversing climate change. “There are so many values that people have, that caring about the natural environment can connect to. People feel really good when they live in alignment with their values, so giving them opportunities to do that is something they can be excited for.”