We can teach children a lot about environmentalism through the study of history, even using the personal stories of our ancestors. It can be a tricky topic, though. A lot of what our predecessors did in the past hurt the environment, sometimes irreversibly, but there are also a lot ways in which we can look to our ancestors' lifestyles as examples of ways to help lessen our personal impacts on the environment.
It's no secret that some things our ancestors did hurt the Earth's atmosphere, land, and water. Here's the tricky part - there was a time when people didn't know certain actions were harming the overall health of the natural environment. Or, they knew, but needed to put food on the table, so any long-term environmental concerns took a backseat to survival. My great-grandfathers left their agrarian lifestyle in the Old County to work in the ever-polluting steel mills and foundries of early 20th-century America. These mills and factories provided good jobs for unskilled laborers, and I wouldn't be here today if they hadn't made that decision. But those industries made a lot of people sick, and polluted the local water sources, as well.
So, we can teach our kids about these ancestors' lives in a way in which they:
1.) Learn about their ancestors' lifestyles, occupations, and the industries in which they worked.
2.) Learn about how those lifestyles and industries both helped in the progress of civilization and technology, but also hurt the people and natural environment around them.
3.) Learn about how popular movements, legislation, and new technologies were developed to help protect the air, water, land, plants, and animals.
So, don't be afraid to talk with your kids about environmental problems their ancestors may have been a part of. We can all learn from our ancestors' environmental ignorance and mistakes, even if it was done in the spirit of self-preservation. Below is a list of environmental topics to discuss that you might find applicable to your family's history:
-Unregulated burning of wood, peat, and fossil fuels by transportation, manufacturing, mining, and industrial factories and companies.
-Release of human & animal waste and industrial by-products into water resources.
-Destruction of natural habitat resulting in species depletion or extinction.
-Erosion of topsoil due to poor farming, ranching, and landscaping practices.
-Through travel and exploration, introduction of non-native plants, animals, and diseases to new environments, which caused depletion or destruction of native plants and animals.
-Harvesting wild animals for their body parts or by-products, resulting in extreme depletion or extinction of a species. (Whaling, fur/pelt trading, bone/tusk/horn harvesting)
On the flip side of this discussion, how can we model and adopt some of our ancestors' behaviors and actions to help reduce our 'footprint' on today's environment?
-Reuse and Repurpose: We live in a throw-away society, which contributes greatly to landfill waste, and, increasingly, water pollution. Our ancestors, even those living less than a hundred years ago, did not have this mindset. Shoes were repaired, and clothing was mended or the cloth was used for other purposes. (Anyone have an ancestor who used to make rag rugs?) My grandmother reused common household items such as Saran-wrap, aluminum foil, and even wrapping paper. Old newspapers would line household cabinets, and women during the Great Depression kept their families clothed using cloth from flour and feed sacks. Talk to your kids about some of the ways their ancestors may have reused common household items, and challenge them to find old or discarded things around your house that they might be able to use for another purpose.
-Transportation: For most of human history, our ancestors walked or used livestock to get where they needed to go. And even in the early part of the 20th century, when cars weren't affordable to most Americans, walking, biking, and public transportation were the main modes of transport for a large portion of the population. In a journal, my grandmother wrote several short lines about each of the homes she had lived in as a kid, and, in one entry, she remembered disliking a particular address because she and her sister had to take two streetcars to get to school each day.
Discuss with your kids about how their ancestors got from place to place without the automobile, and challenge them to think of ways in which they can use walking, public transportation or biking in their everyday lives, in order to reduce the number of car trips they need to take.
-Gardening and Composting: Many of our rural ancestors grew and raised most of the food they ate, or they traded and bought locally from nearby farmers. Today, most of us get our food from places far from where it is grown and processed, which means lots of fuel is consumed in its packaging and transport. Challenge your family to start a backyard vegetable garden, or get involved in a local community garden project to try to grow some of the produce you typically eat. Support local farms by buying their produce, dairy products, eggs, and meat. Start a compost pile, so you don't have to send organic refuse to the landfill.
-Water: There's no question that most of us in the first-world take for granted the abundance of clean, easily-accessible water. Many of our ancestors may have had to pump their water by hand or carry it from the nearest source to their home. It was a lot of work, so water was not to be wasted. After hearing some of our ancestors' accounts of water retrieval, I think a lot of us, not just kids, would be more conscious of not letting the tap or the shower run too long.
-Renewable Energy: Before the advent of the big wind turbines that can be seen in some of today's open landscapes, for centuries, individual farmers had been using wind power to pump water from the ground or to run gristmills. Likewise, water power had long been used by our ancestors to run sawmills, textile mills, paper mills and gristmills. A neat STEM/history- related project for a teen would be to research, compare, and contrast a small farm windmill design that may have been used by an ancestor (and many of which are still in use around the world today) with a modern wind turbine design. Renewable energy is becoming a larger industry every year, and many of our kids who are interested in science and engineering could find themselves someday employed by one of these companies.
-Entertainment: Challenge your kids to go a whole day (or more) without entertainment requiring electricity or batteries. No TV, computer, video games, phones, or tablets. Learn and play a card game or board game that you know your ancestors enjoyed. Read books, play musical instruments, take a hike, or spend some time at a park. Our ancestors found lots of way to enjoy their free time before the advent of electricity. One of the easiest ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprints is by using less electricity, and cutting the gadgets out of our lives, at least temporarily, can have other benefits for our families as well.
These are just a few of the ideas that you can use to infuse your family's history into an educational discussion surrounding past and present environmental issues. I'd love to hear more ideas, if you have them!
©2018 Emily Kowalski Schroeder