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Children, Place and Sustainability

Margaret Somerville

I worry about things a lot. I find it really awful the way that we're treating our environment, a lot of people are just so dismissive of the problems that are in the environment. I mean you look around and they're like 'Oh we're fine, look the sky is still blue, the trees are still green, everything's still functioning', and they don't see that it's only just still functioning, it's on the brink of, it may not be in our lifetime but it's all going to come crumbling down. Do you really want to ruin it for other generations?

(Mirabelle, interview)

It's something that as humans we have the responsibility to be doing more towards preventing climate change from worsening. I feel like we could be doing a lot more than what we are already doing, and it's worrying that the environment that we know today might not be the same for our future generations, so my grandkids or my great grandkids might not experience the environment in the same ways that I have, there might not be the same animals. And that's really sad.

(Kelly, interview)

Mirabelle (15) and Kelly (16) were interviewed for this final chapter of our book in order to begin and end with the views of young people. We started the book with Clayton, who was four, and we finish the book with teenage girls who have a lot to say about children, place and sustainability. Like Clayton, the girls are growing up in the shadow of a 'crumbling' world, with the sense that the world is on the brink of collapse. For Clayton this is manifest in the tension between a world going faster and faster to fling off all the rubbish on Australia and the necessary and inevitable anchors that are holding it in place. For the older children, tension is held in their perception of a world that is only just still functioning and we are not doing enough to forestall its disintegration. Through this apocalyptic storyline they inherit a sense of failed responsibility to future generations of humans and to the animals destined for extinction. These are powerful stories transmitted in language that produce strong emotions. The ways that they negotiate the impact and meaning of these stories is threaded throughout the interview in the play of light and dark, the spoken and the unspoken, and what lies in between.

Mirabelle and Kelly move between the globally distant and intimately personal in their responses to questions of what is the 'environment', what is 'nature', and how they think about 'sustainability'. Even in their definitions of these words their struggles to understand and negotiate a meaningful position for themselves can be heard. Mirabelle defined the environment as 'the world in which we live, like everything, the trees, the plants, the rocks, the cars, the fences, everything is part of the environment and everything contributes to its wellbeing'. When trying to distinguish 'nature' and 'environment' she said, 'I differentiate them by the way that the words make me feel, like nature's sort of happy, beautiful, laughter, love filled, like with life and stuff, and environment is just completely everything, all of the notions mashed into a word, and like anger, but love as well'. Environment is the location of struggle, a powerful word that embodies both human and non-human but also, significantly, the mysterious workings of language and strong emotions like love and anger. Nature on the other hand is potential, it is free of these connotations; as Kelly says, 'Nature is like the substance behind the environment, so it's like the plants and the animals and the living and the non-living and it's more like, nature is the substance and environment is how it all works together.'

Their point of entry into the other of what environment might mean is through their relationships with their dogs. Dogs had been part of the world prior to their coming into it; both girls were born into families with dogs. They said, 'dogs think about their environment as in their territories and your territories and where they should pee and where they should poo, and where they come every morning to get their food, that's part of their environment'. They see dogs as having 'a different sort of access to the environment, how they smell each other's scents and stuff', in their dog world communications. But most of all it was their intimate relation with their dog others that was important to them in figuring their world. The world of dog intermingles with their worlds, they interchange being dog and being human. Their dogs are their 'ultimate friend'. As Mirabelle explained, 'when I was with my dog, spent time with her, I just got the sense of not caring about things in the human world. I used to pretend I was a dog, so I'd curl up in her kennel and I would just, like, wish I was a dog'. And Kelly describes sitting near where her dog is buried in the back garden when she is upset, because her dog was a mother to her: 'like if we went out in the boat or something she'd jump in the water and try and hurry us back in because she's so worried'. Their relationship with their dogs held a deep knowledge of the world of the other, and expressed an inseparable relationship with the more-than-human world through which they can know both life and death.

Sustainability was something both girls learned about in their families but they believed school has an important role because all children need to learn about sustainability. They could identify particular aspects of disciplinary subjects where they learned about things like the warming of the world's oceans in thermal chemistry, global food security and transport systems. More importantly, however, school was the only place where they felt that children's voices about these matters could be heard. They both agreed that in society in general children's voices are dismissed; 'you just aren't acknowledged as a real person'. They thought it could be even more important to listen to children than adults because 'a child's point of view is so fresh and so new, they can see things without opinions on them and they approach everything with an open mind and see it all as a new experience'. The sense of not being able to have a voice was expressed very strongly in the light of the imperatives of environmental issues where they feel themselves to be pivotal in human intergenerational and species equity.

It was through connection and relationship that they learned to voice their concerns and take action. Passionate teachers who connected to their students provided them with an opening to a different world of learning where the emphasis was not only on getting good grades but on meaningful content and the pleasure of learning. A passionate geography teacher inspired Kelly's class to set up a Facebook page where they identify issues that they will take action on, such as the use of palm oil. Actions for sustainability were equally social as well as environmental; there was no separation between them. Kelly described her school's annual Purple Day that started with the death of a child from epilepsy. Now an annual event where they raise funds for good causes, she said, 'it's a really beautiful thing to see students caring about something so much that they're willing to get in and make a change and make a difference and do something that affects and improves the community'. Being able to make a difference by planting trees and caring for people in their community as well as their local environments was the most important source of hope. It was the only way they could direct their strong emotions of anger, love, grief, happiness and worry as to whether they could personally make a difference in the world around them.

Living in a materialistic society, it's really important for children to be heavily influenced by and to develop their own opinions on the environment and what's happening within the world, and to know that they can take action, that it's not that hard to take action, it might be hard to express your opinion and have a voice but there's always opportunities to take action.

(Kelly)

These teenage girls occupy a position between the current generation of adults and young children born in the 21st century. The following section considers how these younger children are differently positioned through the sustainability education that was absent from the older girls' experience of primary school.

 
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