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28 July 2009 by Zac Goldsmith, for The Guardian
How to be a green school
Teachers and students want to do good things for the environment, but sometimes they can't see the wood for the trees.
It's a worrying fact that around 400,000 British children are on behavioural drugs such as Ritalin. Some, no doubt, need the treatment, but the sheer number of children taking these drugs suggests that in our society, childhood itself has come to be seen as a disease.
Children spend an average of 13.9 hours a week in front of their televisions, and six hours in front of their computers. It can't be healthy. According to Unicef, British children are the unhappiest in Europe, despite unprecedented material wealth.
There are many reasons for this, but one, surely, is the fact that children have become increasingly insulated from the natural world. We've all heard of the surveys revealing that teenagers think cows lay eggs, and others where children can identify more brand logos than trees, by a staggering margin.
My view is that children will form a significant part of the green fightback. They instinctively understand the value of the environment. Ask any 10-year-old if Google – at its height – was really worth more than the Amazon rainforest, and they'd laugh.
But if the current crop of children is to emerge as a generation that cherishes the environment, they need to understand it, connect with it and love it. That goal must form part of the school experience. Schools collectively are huge energy consumers, producers of waste, and consumers of resources. What can they do?
1 Good food
One thing we all do is eat and so of all the levers for change, food is the most far reaching. Even a small change in the way we eat has huge implications – in schools, that is particularly so. The government spends approximately £2bn each year on food for schools, hospitals and prisons. Imagine the impact if instead of buying the cheapest junk on the world's markets, that money was invested in local, sustainable produce?
The benefits would be huge. We'd see money flowing into our collapsing rural economy. We'd see a significant reduction in the amount of oil used to ship and fly food around the world. We'd actively reduce our dependence on a global food system that is ravaging the world's breadbaskets. And of course, we'd see the market flooded with good quality sustainable food. With levels of obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease increasing, and with growing evidence linking diet with mental health, crime and antisocial behaviour, that's no bad thing.
We're failing nationally. But there are some exciting local examples, for instance, in Merton, south London, where parents set themselves key goals: to win funding for a working kitchen in every school and to improve the quality of ingredients and cooking standards. It was ambitious, and no one knew if it would work. But it did. Led by the formidable Jackie Schneider, they pressurised the council to put aside £450,000 to refurbish primary school kitchens and allow them to produce fresh food on site. They also set up a twinning scheme with a nearby farm. Inspired by their success, I helped set up a similar campaign for Richmond and Kingston, called School Food Matters. The group is already making huge progress.
2 Cooking and growing
It's not just the quality of the food. Children should also know about preparing it, and growing it. Growing food – as a process – has a clear value. Catherine Sneed, a counsellor in San Francisco's county jail, noticed early on in her career that the same people kept returning to prison. Inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, a novel in which connectedness to the land binds families together, she set up a small prison garden. Inmates loved it, and the project flourished. The food they grow feeds hundreds of low-income families in the area, and inmates who take part in the project are a staggering 25% less likely to return to jail than those who don't.
If growing food is therapeutic for California's prisoners, there is every reason to believe it will be good for all of us. All schools should teach children basic cooking skills. Every school should be able to buy sustainable, good quality food wherever possible from local sources. Every school should include food growing in the curriculum. For some, that will mean twinning with willing farms. For others, it will mean literally building their own small farms.
3 The school run
Anyone driving through London after the school term ends will notice immediately how much easier it is to get around. The school run contributes massively to congestion. There are various schemes set up to combat this, not least the walk to school movement, whose annual walk-to-school month has inspired children and parents to promote healthier living and conserve the environment. But we need more, and parents should add their own pressure to calls for a dedicated school bus scheme.
In the US, yellow school buses represent the largest mass transit system in the country. About 450,000 of them take more than 25 million children to and from school. Each school bus takes between 30 to 60 cars off of the road during rush hour times. The leading US school bus manufacturer, IC Bus, is now producing the nation's only line of hybrid school buses, which improve fuel efficiency by up to 70%. Each hybrid school bus is estimated to save $3,000 (£1,820) and 800 gallons of fuel annually. Our roads and our environment – not to mention commuters – are crying out for such a scheme to be introduced across the UK.
4 Energy savings
If schools successfully implement energy reduction measures, most can save as much as 10% on utility bills – water and heating – which, even for a small primary school, can run to £30,000 a year. With decreasing budgets and increasing costs, this is money they need: UK schools spend approximately £450m on energy each year, three times as much as they do on books, about 3.5% of their budgets.
It's a challenge that needs to be met, and it can be incorporated into the classroom. In many schools, children are already taught about the smaller measures, like turning off the lights at the end of lessons. Beyond that, children can help calculate the school's energy usage, and identify ways to cut it. They can use a school neutral carbon calculator (www.earthteam.net/GWCampaign/calculate.html) to help calculate their "carbon footprint" and understand how their school can reduce its emissions.
Parents, teachers and children can also lobby their local authority to champion the purchase of renewable power through their joint buying consortia. If it refuses, they can opt out of the contract and buy their power independently.
In the UK we generate enough waste every hour to fill the Albert Hall. At a time when pressure on the world's resources has never been greater, we have to find a way to be more efficient. There's a lot that schools can do.
As a start, they can better understand the issue, and following that, they can incorporate waste reduction in the school, and hopefully in their own homes.
Of all the waste we generate, plastic bags are perhaps the greatest symbol of our throwaway society. They are used, then forgotten, and they leave a terrible legacy. The figures are shocking. Each year 13bn bags are used and thrown away in the UK. Each bag will be used for an average of 20 minutes, and, once discarded, will take up to 1,000 years to decompose. About 200m will litter the countryside. Others find their way into the seas, where they are mistaken for food and kill up to 100,000 marine mammals each year, as well as countless birds.
Many countries have taken the initiative to ban or phase out bags, including China, South Africa, India and Kenya. In the UK, we're miles behind, but there are some good local examples. The campaign in Richmond borough is being spearheaded by the schools themselves.
I had the huge pleasure of walking with a class of bright, 11-year-old children – unannounced – to a Tesco store in Kew. The children demanded to see the manager, and despite initial reluctance, were able to pose a series of hard-hitting and brilliant questions about packaging and plastic bags. They now fully intend to take the same questions to the chairman, Sir Terry Leahy, in Tesco headquarters.
None of these ideas is revolutionary, but all will make a difference – and together they will make a real difference. They are just a few ideas on what children and parents can do to green our schools, and help ensure that the next generation has the appetite, understanding and knowledge to deal with the environmental crisis we face.
Zac Goldsmith, former editor of the Ecologist magazine, is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Richmond and North Kingston. His book, The Constant Economy, will be published in September by Atlantic Books