Tuesday, August 15, 2006

EcoKids: Raising Children Who Care for the Earth

Our friend Julie gave us a copy of the book EcoKids, which I just finished reading. The author, Dan Chiras, is an ecologist and father of two boys. He teaches courses on renewable energy, green building, and sustainability at Colorado College. The subtitle really is accurate. Chiras focuses on ways to raise future environmental leaders.

The book starts off with a lovely autobiographical note. Apparently, even though he went to college during the Vietnam War, Chiras was an apolitical pre-med student. He explains that his transformation into a hardcore tree hugger wasn’t because of a single event. A number of early experiences – growing up in the country, hiking through old growth along the Appalachian trail, witnessing a good fishing stream turned to muck by factory effluent – coalesced while he was driving through Gary, Indiana. I’ve driven through Gary and I imagine many people have become die-hard environmentalists that way. I used to call Gary the “armpit of America”, but I think too highly of armpits now to smear them that way. Chiras quit the medical track and devoted himself to environmental studies before it really emerged as a discipline.

Each chapter presents a mix of ecological theory, inspirational stories, and practical advise. His background as an academic often comes through. Sometimes I felt like I was sitting in a college lecture hall, as if an undergrad had transcribed one of his talks. On the other hand, he strongly advocates teaching environmentalism in the field, while hiking or driving past a clear cut or visiting a sewage plant.

I enjoyed the contradictions in his style, which became more and more obvious as I read through the book. For example, in a subsection called “Age-Appropriate Education” he writes, “Avoid the tendency to try to teach young children abstract concepts like I did with my children. Being an environmental scientist, writer, and educator, I found myself lecturing about air pollution long before my boys could understand what I was talking about. (Sorry guys.)” And yet, Chiras doesn’t seem to have internalized his own message. A little later in the book, he writes, “Ask your children what the statement ‘Ecosystems are the life-support systems of the plant’ means.” That’s a very abstract, lecture-like, rhetorical question to pose to a child. I ultimately found these contradictions endearing. My dad is an academic and I’m one too, so I identified with Chiras’s difficulty holding back the lectures. Also, Chiras doesn’t give the impression that he never made mistakes or that he has parenting figured out. You learn indirectly about his divorce and his teenage boy’s desire to own a gas-guzzling, muscle car.

My favorite part of the book was probably the description of his house. It made me want to live off the grid. He has solar panels and a super efficient refrigerator. The bedrooms are partly under ground. Elk sometimes graze above where he sleeps. I also liked how he referenced useful resources and books. Now I have half a dozen books to add to my reading list. The one’s at the top are Household EcoTeam Workbook: A Six-month Program to Bring Your Household into Environmental Balance and Living Simply with Children.

EcoKids is the first parenting guide I’ve read that isn’t strictly oriented to the relationship between the mother and child – the world outside the family is also a consideration. The book was close enough to what I think MaGreen and I are trying to accomplish with this blog that it clarified in my mind what the difference is between ecological parenting and green parenting. For me, green parenting includes social responsibility from the beginning. Race, ethnicity, class, and gender aren’t side notes for me. You can’t just add and stir them in at the end. That said, EcoKids is excellent and you should read it.


Fiddler said...

Sounds like a good book, I'll pass the info on to my daughter and son-in-law as they are making conscious decisions raising my 17 month old grandson in as green a fashion as practically possible!

GreenDaddy said...

That's great. When we started this blog, I didn't know there was a literature about this kind of parenting. Now it seems like there are many.