In November 2021, many of the world’s countries met in Glasgow UK to try and agree ambitious targets to reduce the impacts of the climate crisis, at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. Whilst not all targets were agreed, big strides were made in reducing deforestation, phasing down coal, reducing methane emissions and increasing finance to lower income countries to both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of planetary warming (Recap of COP26, 2021). Most importantly, the dream of limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrialised levels was kept alive, and now scientists and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) are pushing to maintain momentum so that COP27, to be held in Egypt in November 2022, can make even more progress in the fight against the climate emergency (Espinosa, 2022). Although national and international policy, big business, and international trade all need to make dramatic changes to emissions and adaptations, it is also clear that as individuals we also need to make the changes possible, with the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, saying: “everyone, across all walks of life, needs to understand the causes and impacts of climate change, and be educated and empowered to contribute to the solutions” (Espinosa, 2022).
Reflecting on this, I think we can say that we as a school definitely meet her first two aims. I know that if you ask any of our students about the climate crisis, they can list many impacts, from increasing forest fires and drought to loss of natural habitats and mass extinctions. As they get older, they can discuss in impressive detail the various causes of climate change, listing countries in order of their emissions, debating the impact of methane as the second most abundant anthropogenic gas with a warming potential 25 times higher than CO2 (EPA: Importance, 2022), and describing what factors have an impact on their own carbon footprints. Most can reel off umpteen actions which could be taken to contribute to solutions, and many take such small actions daily, from reusable lunchboxes and bottles to ethical consumerism when shopping. However, when talking to students about such actions and how they can be empowered to contribute to the solutions, the same responses are repeated again and again: ‘it won’t make a difference if only I do it’ and ‘I don’t get to make that decision’. It is clear to me that, as much as our students are educated and compassionate about our planet, they rarely take many steps to try and minimise their own impacts, and I believe that is largely down to the adults around them.
So how can we, as teachers, parents, and school leaders, encourage our students to actually take the steps necessary to at least minimise their impact, if not make positive improvements to their planet? To me it is clear: we must model the behaviours we want to see in our young people.
It is widely understood that younger children learn by copying those around them, copying skills, language, and mannerisms from the people they interact with most frequently. It is how we learn the fundamental skills we need to survive and thrive, but it has also been shown many times that children also learn even useless or inefficient behaviours by copying, called over imitation (Neilsen and Tomaselli, 2010). In this study, children continued to use techniques demonstrated by their parents, even after being shown far more efficient, easy and simpler methods by adults unknown to them. This continues into older childhood and beyond, with the behaviour of those around us being almost the single biggest influence on the actions we take, as widely studied by Albert Bandura from the 1970s onwards (Bandura, 2007). More recently, it has become clear that, when it comes to sustainable behaviours, the actions of others around us have a huge influence on our choices. A field study of a programme that promotes residential solar panel installation in 58 towns (and 1.4 million residents) in the United States found that community organisers who themselves installed through the programme recruited 62.8% more residents to instal solar panels than community organisers who did not (Gordon et al. 2018). Put simply, people took more notice of the advice and instructions of those demonstrating a choice than those who advocated but did not make the choice for themselves. Another study found that telling online shoppers that other people were buying eco-friendly products led to a 65% increase in their making sustainable purchases (Demarque et al. 2015). Even indirectly, the behaviour and choices of others around us has an enormous impact on the choices we make.
So, what choices could we be making to model more sustainable choices to our young people?
- Sort your recycling: everyone should have access to a blue bin at home
- Use the recycling bins around school
- Use reusable straws, cups, shopping bags and bottles and carry them with you
- Use a reusable lunchbox in the school dining room
- Eat less meat
- Turn off aircon, lights and appliances when not in use
- Use public transport where possible
- Buy less stuff
- Buy second-hand: there is a thriving second hand market in Singapore
- Plan meals to reduce food waste
- Replace old bulbs with LEDs
- Dry wet clothes on a rack not the dryer
- Start timing your showers
- Go paperless for all bills and bank accounts
- Print double sided, or reduce size to fit more things onto one page if you need to print
- Scan worksheets etc to use devices rather than printing
- Collect scrap paper to reuse
More Demanding Actions
- Research before buying and choose more sustainable options
- Choose a green energy provider (there are several available)
- Buy staple foods at zero-waste stores where you take your own containers
- Compost your food waste (there are several home compost bins available, even for condos)
- Replace single-use items like cotton buds with durable alternatives
- Use a menstrual cup
- Give experiences as gifts, not things
- Switch to a green search engine like Ecosia
- Empty your inbox
- Support sustainable businesses
- Buy locally grown food
- Buy in-season food
- Long-Term Actions
- Consider travelling by train rather than flying in other parts of the world
- Add solar panels or rainwater harvesting to your homes
- If you must have a car, buy an electric vehicle
- Support ethical, sustainable clothing brands
- Learn skills like sewing and mending to repair damaged items
- Grow your own herbs, fruits or even vegetables
It is very difficult to commit to even ten of these choices. Even the most passionate environmentalist does not do all these all the time. What is important though, is that young people see us trying, and thinking about our options. If they observe that their parents choose a local fruit and vegetable supplier who uses no plastic, they will understand the one-off plastic bag of biscuits is just an occasional issue and choose zero-waste options as a matter of course. If they see their teachers walking the extra 25m to a recycling bin rather than dumping their wastepaper in the classroom bin, recycling will become second nature. And they will understand and forgive if, for some journeys, the taxi is just too tempting over the bus, if the bus is the usual expectation!
With this in mind, consider this a call to arms of the whole Dulwich community. Whether you are a parent, a teacher in DUCKS or a college leader, please think about the choices you make every day and think about whether you are modelling sustainable behaviours to the young people, adults, and colleagues around you. The more of us who make these changes, the more we will inspire others to do so as well, meaning businesses, governments and large organisations change to acknowledge that demand. Whatever age we are we learn from each other, and by making small, decisions that are better for our planet, we can affect enough others to eventually make huge changes!
Bandura, Albert. "The Evolution of Social Cognitive Theory." Great Minds in Management, edited by K.J. Smith and M.A. Hitt, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2007, pp. 9-35. UKY, www.uky.edu/~eushe2/BanduraPubs/Bandura2005.pdf. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.
Demarque, Christophe, et al. "Nudging Sustainable Consumption: The Use of Descriptive Norms to Promote a Minority Behavior in a Realistic Online Shopping Environment." Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 43, Sept. 2015, pp. 166-74. ScienceDirect, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494415300219?via%3Dihub. Accessed 10 Dec. 2021.
"EPA: Importance of Methane." United States Environmental Protection Agency, 30 June 2021, www.epa.gov/gmi/importance-methane. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.
Espinosa, Patricia. "More Ambitious Climate Plans Needed Ahead of COP27." UNFCCC, 26 Jan. 2022, unfccc.int/news/more-ambitious-climate-plans-needed-ahead-of-cop27. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.
Gordon, Kraft-Togg T., et al. "Credibility-enhancing Displays Promote the Provision of Non-normative Public Goods." Nature, vol. 563, 24 Oct. 2018, pp. 245-48. Nature, www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0647-4. Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.
Neilsen, Mark, and Keyan Tomaselli. "Overimitation in Kalahari Bushman Children and the Origins of Human Cultural Cognition." Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 5, 5 Jan. 2010. Research Gate, www.researchgate.net/publication/44612673_Overimitation_in_Kalahari_Bushman_Children_and_the_Origins_of_Human_Cultural_Cognition. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.
Recap of COP26: Key Outcomes and What Comes Next. Narrated by Simon Evans, Nicole Montclair-Donaghy, Joanna Depledge, and Anne Kelly, adapted by Isabella Eclipse, 2021. EESI, www.eesi.org/briefings/view/111821cop26. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.