Volume XI, Issue 43 ~ October 23-29, 2003

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What’s Sustainable?
by Albert ‘Abby’ Ybarra

As an environmental educator, I spend a lot of time imagining how to explain complicated subjects so that more people will be willing and able to understand them.

At a recent meeting of environmental professionals, much of the discussion centered on sustainable communities. Along with the builders, planners and concerned citizens came my two children, Marina, 12, and Diego, 8.

Having grown up around my conservation and environmental education projects, my kids do pretty well in adult circles. Marina and Diego also get a kick out of watching the adults make all those quotation marks with their fingers. They love to mimic the gesture over and over with their own conversations. I’ve also learned that through children’s eyes, we sometimes see the real picture.

So my questions to them afterward do more than test them on what they’ve learned.

As we drove home, I asked them if they understood the meeting. “Dad, I kept hearing them repeating the word ‘sustainable,’” said my daughter, mimicking those cute quotations. “What did they mean?”

Diego chimed in: “I heard them say that word, too!”

The kids were listening but were not sure about how we create sustainable communities or even what such a thing meant. Of course that’s the one million dollar question for anyone who has any interest in the future of the environment.

So I asked these kids to listen and look as we drove home. “What is it that you see?” I inquired.

“Trees and creeks and waterways,” said Diego.

“That’s right,” I replied. “But Diego,” I asked, “What is all this called?”

“It’s called the watershed,” my son answered.

“That’s partially what some of the people were talking about,” I explained. “But how do we keep the balance of what we see right now, and still make room for spaces for people to live and work? It’s a huge challenge because to save the Bay, for example, means we have to save the watershed, too.”

By now I was warming up to my favorite subject. The kids have heard it before, but I like to think they still listen.

“Sustainable forests evolved over thousands of generations. The things that people want most from the forest have changed over time. This challenges our concept of sustainability. In the past 5,000 years, forests have been a place for worship, a source of fuel and fiber, a reservoir for biodiversity and a big player in global climate.

“In our old ways, we never forgot to say thank you to the creator for giving us these resources. This includes driving in a car that lets us ride over the earth. If we build houses and we drive everywhere, do we take out more trees for cars and stores? Is doing so sustainable? Of course not, so what is the answer?

“We as the people of the Bay need to work together to decide what in our forest and Bay watershed means the most in terms of protection and sustainability.

“In the next 10 years, many forests will be replanted, some will be destroyed, and some will change. Some species will be eradicated, and the subtle changes will be noticeable right here in our own back yards. Human population will continue to grow, and the forest and watersheds as we know them will be different. In the end, what we will truly sustain is change — and our understanding that we have the power to shape our children’s future.”

Not to beat the subject into the ground, as I could see boredom settling in, I got off my soapbox.

“What did you learn most about today’s meeting?” I asked.

“Well, Dad, we learned that it is up to all of us to protect the earth, the forest — and that means the Bay, too!” my daughter proudly answered.

“Great!” I applauded. “Let’s hope everyone can remember this,” I added, “because we all want to live in a ‘sustainable’ environment …”

Almost on queue, we all simultaneously quoted in the air with our fingers. Education doesn’t get much better than this.


© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated October 23, 2003 @ 1:18am