Dirty Boots: Reflecting on the National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy

Two weeks ago, I attended Arizona State University’s week-long National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy, which was held on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula, and while the overt lessons presented during the professional-development workshop were about sustainability – obviously – peripheral discussions among the participants also caught my attention. Granting that these attendees were probably more progressive than average, I found two things remarkable as I listened: how behind the times we truly down here in the Deep South, and how many people around the country are humbly and thanklessly working to make it better.

One of the prime lessons of the academy was to underscore that the idea of sustainability is not solely environmental, but must also include an understanding of society and the economy. A sustainable model for living, working, consuming, and disposing of waste must be equitable and just, answering the needs of all people involved. We’re going to consume the food, energy, and other goods that are required in our lives, certainly, but a sustainable approach would take into account the effects of that usage, including an honest assessment of who enjoys the benefits and who bears the burdens. Using a historical example from the South, an economy built on slavery was never a sustainable, because the people who bore the greatest burdens received the fewest benefits. Using another, more recent example from close to home, a shift to renewable energy sources could not only reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it would also alleviate the dumping of coal ash in places like Uniontown, Alabamain part because there would be less (or no) coal ash to dump!

Also close to home, I realized during the academy how ordinary Alabamians are not asked, much less required, to be active participants in sustainability efforts. As teachers from New Jersey and Vermont talked about separating their trash, recycling, and composting, both at home and at school, all I could think about was how my city’s recycling program has crashed twice in recent years, and how I was going back to my school to start a composting program. But that wasn’t all. One teacher from Iowa told us about how he had returned acres upon acres of what had been his family farm to being tallgrass prairie again. Another from Colorado showed us videos of taking students on week-long trips down the rapids on the canyons, where they learned to travel light and not to leave waste behind. Yet another worked for an organization that plants and cares for trees and orchards in urban Philadelphia . . .

(Perhaps the most eye-opening thing was that some people in America use a bidet. I’ve seen these things in movies and in a high-end hotels when I’ve traveled, but I didn’t think anyone actually used one. What I learned is that, even though a bidet uses water in place of toilet paper, the practice actually uses less water overall, since the water used in making toilet paper has to be factored in. I’m still not sure whether I’d want to wash my butt instead of wiping it, but it’s something to be aware of.)

Despite my chagrin at the situation here at home, a brief web search when I returned did reveal that we aren’t devoid of sustainability programs in Alabama. The first page or two of web search results show that the University of Alabama, UA branch campuses in Birmingham and Huntsville, and Auburn University all have programs in place, as do the cities of Birmingham and Huntsville. Likewise, the US Green Building Council’s webpage describes school-based sustainability projects around state. And a number of environmental nonprofits are working hard all the time to encourage and enable better ways of living, farming, eating, breathing, learning, building, making, and doing business.

The missing piece, it seems to me, is the grassroots effort – what organizational folks like to call “stakeholder involvement” – which would mean asking Alabama’s four-plus-million people to change some of our daily habits and, perhaps more importantly, some ingrained albeit unproductive mindsets. To implement more sustainable systems, we have to ask all people to have sustainable daily practices. I know that the challenges are real – how to pay for it, how to enforce new policies – but it’s high time we think about how and try something, instead of just lamenting the difficulties or, worse, giving up before before we even begin.

Despite what people in other parts of the country may call our state, our moniker is “Alabama the Beautiful.” However, the website WalletHub ranks our state 45th in their list of “Greenest States,” and within that, 48th in “Eco-Friendly Behaviors.” We also rank 37th in the US News state pollution rankings. Understanding sustainability as not only environmental, but also social and economic, I can’t help but tie those facts to social-justice issues the state also faces: inadequate schools, a dependence on federal funds, weak public services, a regressive tax system— all of which are unsustainable. Alabama should be beautiful for all of its people, not just the ones leading comfortable lives. As the old adage goes: a rising tide lifts all boats.

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