Sustainability - What can you do?

November 1, 2021

‘Sustainability’ is a difficult word to spell, and one that my spellcheck invariably catches me out on when I type too fast. Every letter matters and if one is missing the word loses its meaning. 

It is a difficult concept too; sustainability is made up of multiple component parts, each of which is critical to the whole. At its most simplistic, it means enough, for everyone, forever: Use only what you need, for as long as you need it, to ensure that there remains enough for those who come after you. At its most complex, it is the door behind which myriad different ideas and ways of living are so deeply interwoven that they become impossible to disentangle: climate, population, food security, plastics, energy, consumption...the list is never ending. No wonder the world, and the challenges to its future, are the source of ever-growing anxiety for young people. A September 2021 study of people aged 16 to 25 in ten different countries found that three quarters find the future ‘frightening’ and two thirds feel ‘sad, anxious, and afraid’ (BBC report, 2021) 

When Green Shoots opened its doors a decade ago, listing Sustainability as one of its core values, the concept of ‘sustainable education’ was still relatively new. Thankfully it is becoming more and more mainstream and children around the world are being given the tools they will need to live long and happy lives in a safe and healthy world.

This month the world’s leaders are meeting in Glasgow at the COP 26 climate summit where they are attempting to agree on ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has warned that ‘world conflict and chaos’ could result if this goal is not achieved and wars increase as the resources needed to sustain life become more scarce (Guardian newspaper, Oct 24, 2021). Low lying regions like our own home in coastal Vietnam are at risk of falling below sea level. 

Messages such as these are hard to digest for adults, and there is little wonder that younger people find them even more overwhelming. To cope, it is important to focus on the positives and on what can be done, not only on the risks and dangers of failure. Coinciding with the summit, a 3.5-meter puppet, Amal (meaning ‘Hope’ in Arabic) will arrive in Manchester in northern England at the end of a 3-month walk from Syria. Her walk has raised awareness of the millions of people displaced from their homes by floods, droughts, and other disasters and I was lucky enough to see Amal as she passed through Oxford and was shown around by a puppet of Alice in Wonderful, the fanciful story book character who reminds us what is possible if only we believe. Like Alice, children confronted with threats to their sustainable future must be encouraged to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast.’ and to know that action is possible even when things feel impossible. 

Such action can be large or small, and at Green Shoots we try to prepare our students for both. In the classroom and through everyday interactions we teach them to live sustainably at an individual level, to ‘re-use, reduce, and recycle’. But we also prepare them to act on the global stage by helping them grow in confidence and gain awareness of the issues that must be tackled during their lifetimes. We foster resilience and strength, and build support systems to help children understand how they can alter not only their own choices but those of governments and corporations as well. Greta Thunburg has led the way and millions of children are following in her footsteps, forcing change within the corridors of power where resistance had previously held sway. 

Several Green Shoots graduates are already moving in the direction of change. One, now living in Washington DC, participates in climate action awareness raising activities there. Another hopes to work with sea rescue groups saving refugees who are trying to reach Europe in search of a better life following damage to their homes and livelihoods. Two others have attended specialist workshops in Thailand to develop their sustainability credentials, and another chose to attend a high school that builds leadership qualities to propel its students onto the global stage. To ensure a sustainable future, the world needs more young people like these.

There are so many ways that the next generation, seeking to create change, can channel their energies in ways that interest them. This podcast series discussed how a sustainable future can be built through change in many different sectors. This second series talks to musicians who are using their skills to raise awareness and advocate for a sustainable future. Action is possible across the board and every child can create change if given the tools and confidence to do so.

Ten years ago, I created Green Shoots with my own children’s education and growth in mind. Both have long since outgrown it and a few weeks ago my daughter asked me why I still care so deeply about the school I made for them. ‘What motivates you mum?’ she wanted to know. The answer is simple: the support Green Shoots built around my children and the other early students who like them are now young adults, played a critical role in making them the strong, confident, and aware people they have become. As long as I am able I, and the entire Green Shoots team, will continue to nurture and empower those upon whose shoulders the future of our planet rests.

Catherine McKinley 

Green Shoots’ Founder and Director 

BBC report (Sept 14, 2021): Climate Change: Young People Very Worried - Survey

Guardian report (Oct 24, 2021): Cop26: ‘World conflict and chaos’ could be the result of a summit failure

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