Pack It In, Pack It Out
Exploring Resource Use and Sustainability
by Tim Breen
Imagine a world where the food I bring into my house comes from a giant warehouse completely filled with food, and can be driven in a car right to my door; where lights magically turn on and off with the flick of a switch; where human waste disappears down a bowl of water and where magic elves appear regularly to remove my trash.
This is, of course, the experience of many of our students. This lifestyle has served to obscure our patterns of consumption and waste disposal. Because of these daily conveniences, it is difficult to develop an understanding of the impact of our resource use practices on the land, water, and air that we all share.
The first step in learning about sustainable systems is to explore resource use. Before students can make decisions about how to live more sustainably, they need to explore some basic questions:
What resources do I consume?
These are simple, yet profound questions. However, they are also unusual questions in our society. In an economy that worships growth, we are encouraged to use ever more, and not think too deeply about where it all comes from or where it goes.
Sustainability is clearly a global issue, one involving many interconnected, complicated systems. As such, it is difficult to wrap your mind around. For students, it can seem too big or too far away. This is one reason why our students (indeed, most of us) have difficulty building a deep understanding of the topic. To counter this, we must employ good constructivist teaching and learning strategies. We must start with students experiences and with explorations of simple systems. Then, we must build experiences that allow students to expand their developing understandings to encompass more and more complex systems.
Simplifying the system
In the fall of 2000, Lynn Hunt brought her 6th grade class from Gorham, New Hampshire, on an overnight trip to Mizpah Hut, one of the High Huts of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. This trip was facilitated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) through a program called A Mountain Classroom. This program often focuses on forest ecology or watershed studies, and hiking and team building are always important features. Lynns class, however, also focused on resource use and sustainability issues at the hut.
The High Huts are full service lodges that have few links to the world beyond their boundaries. There are no phone lines; rather a 2-way radio is used. Electric cables do not run to the huts. Instead, they use a combination of solar power, wind power, and batteries. There are no access roads, so food and supplies are carried in on the backs of the hut crew members. There is no curbside recycling. Crew members pack out all recyclables. There is no local dump, so crew members pack out all trash as well. There is no sewer system; rather, composting toilets must do the job. The huts are not perfectly closed systems; occasional helicopter drops are made, largely for propane tanks (for cooking purposes). Also, the trash, once packed out, does end up at a dump. However, the huts are closer to closed systems than most buildings our students typically encounter.
In this setting, it is easier to help students see the connections between the choices they make and the resource use embedded in those choices.
Resource use at Mizpah Hut
After a beautiful hike, the students reached Mizpah Hut. The hike itself had students second-guessing themselves about some of the non-essential items they had insisted on carrying in their backpacks they were already thinking in a new way about the "cost" of our societys emphasis on the accumulation of stuff!
Mizpah Hut is near Crawford Notch, along the Appalachian Trail. The AMC built Mizpah Hut in 1964 and has staffed and maintained it ever since. It is open from May through October each year. In its hut operations, the AMC strives to be as environmentally sensitive as possible. The AMCs Hut System Master Development Plan states, "Hut operations are guided by an awareness of and concern for environmental sensitivity, and recycling, composting, and use of alternative energy sources are employed at each of the huts. Guests are encouraged to learn about these operations and to understand their practical applications in the home." There is a strong emphasis on minimizing site impacts, protecting natural resources, conserving energy, and reducing waste.
Energy inputs and outputs
During the visit to Mizpah Hut, students were taken on tours of the energy and waste disposal systems. The hut uses solar and wind power for all electrical needs. Power is stored in batteries for use on demand. Electrical needs at the hut include lights, the two-way radio, hard-wired smoke detectors, water pumping, and fans for the composting toilets. These sources also power the extremely efficient electric refrigerator. Hut staffers are instructed to limit the number of times they open the refrigerator door! A propane stove is used for cooking meals.
Composting toilets are used to dispose of human waste. These toilets filter out water and send it back to the local environment through a sprinkler system. The solid waste turns to soil in about two years. Needless to say, the students were enthralled with this part of the tour!
During dinner, the hut staff made a point of asking everyone to take no more than they would eat. They explained that all food waste must either be composted or packed out by the staff it cant simply be thrown in the trash or sent down an in-sink waste disposal! Additionally, the hut staff explained that leftovers that had not been served are almost always reused in future meals. Weekly menus are planned with this reuse in mind. This approach to eating and food preparation made a huge impact on the students. As one student said, "I had never been to a place where we had to be aware of how hard it was to prepare food. At home, I just throw away food I do not eat at the hut we had to eat everything."
Bringing it home
We believe that these lessons are strengthened when they are linked to the students own place in the world their homes and neighborhoods. In her curriculum, Lynn Hunt has her students explore local resource use in several ways. Students map out the path of water use in their homes, then do the same in the school. Students also learn about their town water by visiting the source (at the town forest), the filtration system, and finally the water treatment plant. Finally, Lynn teaches units on alternative sources of energy: solar, wind, hydroelectric, and the use of batteries.
These links could be extended even further. What if the school cafeteria approached food preparation, consumption, and reuse the same way as in the huts? What if energy use was constantly monitored and alternative sources were used to a greater degree? Our schools should become models of resource use and sustainability.
Links to state frameworks
This introduction to resource use and sustainability fits well with the New Hampshire state frameworks. The following science and social studies curriculum standards are particularly relevant (and may relate to your state standards, as well): New Hampshire Science Standard 4c. Students will demonstrate an increasing ability to understand that the Earth contains a variety of renewable and non-renewable resources.
Science Standard 2e. Students will demonstrate an increasing ability to understand that science and technology can affect individuals, and that individuals in turn can affect science and technology.
Social Studies Standard 14. Students will demonstrate an understanding of the connections between Earths physical and human systems; the consequences of the interaction between human and physical systems; and changes in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources. It is encouraging to know that resource use issues are highlighted in this way by the state, and that schools are exploring ways to accomplish these goals. Success in these areas will certainly lead to a more active and informed citizenry.
"The best thing I have ever done . . ."
One student on this trip wrote, "Going to Mizpah was the best thing I have ever done in my life. I wish we could go again. It made me realize how easy we have our lives."
This students clear, straightforward statement provides a personal vision of some of the issues addressed in Agenda 21 from the Rio Conference. That document reads, "Achieving the goals of environmental quality and sustainable development will require efficiency in production and changes in consumption patterns in order to emphasize optimization of resource use and minimization of waste. In many instances, this will require reorientation of existing production and consumption patterns." This reorientation begins with growing recognition such as that expressed in the student quote about going to Mizpah.
If we hope that the next generation will help us change our consumption patterns, we must help our students learn about the connections between their consumer choices and the associated resource use. This is a monumental task because these connections are both terribly complex and so well disguised in our society. Experiences at the huts have helped these students begin to see the links because the entire experience was presented on a scale that students could understand.
Agenda 21 can be found at this website:
A listing of "residential outdoor schools" prepared by the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education can be found at:http:// www.raincloudpub.com/envEd/ros.html.
©Synergy Learning International, Inc., 2001. All Rights Reserved.
- Timothy BreenPh.D., is an educational consultant working in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. At the time of this article, he was the director of The Mountain Classroom for the Appalachian Mountain Club, based in Gorham, NH.