A revolution in sustainability education
Earth School – a program of Something Good in the World – began with me dreaming of a place where nature and the arts and academics could all be integrated for children. Instead of staring out the window wishing they were outdoors (like I did in school!), they could be.
So I created Earth School outdoor education programs in 1998, because I had this vision of children’s education that included creative writing and photography and theatre and science and whole body experiences and teamwork, and everything taking place in nature. And it has been this incredible journey of nature-based and then farm-based education over the past 16 years, with so much growth and support every step of the way. From nature centers to organic gardens to backyard farming to xeriscaping to permaculture – it’s been this amazing learning curve.
But always I had to come back to one essential problem, because the children I work with, for the most part, only learn about how to live sustainably outdoors in nature. Once we would go indoors, we were always in a building that uses lots of water, oil, and electricity, whether for heating or for cooling. Old farmhouses are usually not that well insulated, with single pane glass windows, freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. We were showing children the greenroof chicken coop, with the wind power system, but never enjoying the benefits of alternative energy ourselves (only the chickens got that). We were harvesting rainwater, but only the vegetables got to enjoy it.
But what if it were possible to construct classroom buildings that made you feel like you were in nature, because in a way, you were? Instead of fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, cinderblock walls, and no windows, what if you were sitting in a classroom structure that felt more like a small house, where everything was made of wood, and the windows let in all the natural light you needed? What if it were solar powered, so that you weren’t using any fossil fuels, and so you were not harming the environment in any way, but were actually helping it? What if all the water you used came from the rainwater you caught, and what if that same water you washed your hands with then went into the plants to feed them, and they filtered and cleaned it, and nothing was wasted, and you could see and touch that entire process? What would it feel like to learn inside of a structure like that, where it wasn’t like going backwards in time, but it was futuristic, made for the world we are in now, with the best technologies available, including wireless internet? And what if it were completely affordable?
What about a zero carbon footprint structure like this that makes no impact on the environment, and yet has every impact on the future, not as a vision for the future, but right now? Nothing like this exists yet in Westchester County, but it will – and its existence will affect generations of children and families.
Whenever I meet with engineers and professionals in green technologies, when I talk to electricians and architects, and I tell them about my plan, to build the Earth School EnviraPod Education Center, these completely off-the-grid classroom structures, they always look at me in disbelief. It happens every time. “Why would you want to do that?” they ask me. “We have plenty of water and electricity in the Northeast. Look, you can just tie in over there. You can run a trench. Why can’t you just put a septic tank in the ground?” I remember an oil company salesman who looked at me in horror when I suggested using wood pellets for heating, instead of an oil burner. Like what I was proposing was impossible.
“But it’s not impossible,” I find myself telling everyone, “The whole point is to use solar power and to harvest rainwater and to use gray water, because these technologies are available. We are trying to show people how to do this in their own backyards. The whole idea is to use 12 volt technology for the solar power, so that you are not wasting any energy.” And it takes a long time to explain, because they have to see the photos, the drawings, the 3D models, and the videos to get the whole idea, because they need a whole body experience of what I am describing. Little by little their eyes open wide, and they look like Raven, just like she looked in the woods when she realized that this was Nature. “This is the future now,” said one village engineer, falling back in his chair. “This is the education building of the future,” said the director of the Science Barge, Bob Walters, his eyes twinkling, “You are paving the way for others to be able to do this.”