Thursday, April 21, 2011

Greening Education

Margot Kane is an Investment Officer working on Calvert Foundation’s domestic portfolio, particularly in the areas of small business, social enterprise, and our Green Strategies to Fight Poverty initiative. This is her account of the 1st Annual Green Schools National Conference in Minneapolis she attended in the fall, and what it means for our future as investors and citizens.

Margot Kane
The conference audience was rapt listening to the young leaders of the Youth Summit – “students for green and sustainable schools” on the stage. They were the last plenary speakers that morning (after other impressive and experienced speakers, such as Philippe Cousteau – Jacques’ grandson) and they got a standing ovation to thunderous applause - which is remarkable on the second day of a packed conference at 9 in the morning. Along with the rest of the audience, I was so impressed with how aware these teenagers were of the world around them and their impact upon it, and how excited they were to reach out to other youth across the country and spark what seems almost like a social movement, focusing on people and values, rather than something that lives in the dry realm of carbon emissions and kilowatt hours. 

It seemed to me that these youth, who were addressing nearly 1,000 in the audience at the first Annual Green School National Conference, felt a very immediate need to address climate change and environmental destruction. I wondered if it’s because those dire projections that scientists predict for years not far away – 2020, 2030 – are about ultimately them and their livelihoods. Those are years when they will be graduating from school, building careers, “growing up,” raising families, and more – likely all in the face of rising sea levels, dying species, increasingly violent weather, and battles over resource depletion. This is a very scary future. It reminds me a little bit of growing up with the Cold War/nuclear holocaust bogeyman, except this one is more likely to happen.

I remember walking out of one session of this conference really envious of the integrated curriculum described by a charter school where every section is taught through the lens of caring for the planet, which seems so sane in hindsight (have you seen the South Park “Captain Hindsight” episode? I highly recommend it), and yet so revolutionary, and such a relevant way to connect kids to the point of it all. Instead of making math a line of numbers on a page and formulas to memorize, separate from the beauty of trees and music and ocean waves, it’s all part of the same planet and patterns and purpose, including humans.

The take-away I had for my role at Calvert Foundation was an inspiration to finance green schools! Also, this conference and other experiences have taught me that “green” is not a discrete topic or asset class. It’s part of the form and function of something. Things like building a school with natural light, using non-toxic materials, providing healthy air and water and physical activity for students, are all things that will improve and serve the true purpose of a school, which is above all else the education of the youth attending it. Every school built otherwise has diminished its potential returns vis-à-vis this function at the outset. There is some data emerging from the green schools movement around attendance rates and teacher retention in green schools and other interesting outcomes that measure the health and professional and education success of all those who spend their daylight hours in a school building. I also learned that green building works best when it is part of the comprehensive vision of an institution, after a few baselines (like recycling, turning off machines, energy efficient appliances, using compact fluorescents, etc).

At Calvert Foundation, we are exploring ways we can weave environmental considerations into all of our investing activities but also into our day-to-day office lives (like reminding each other to turn off computer monitors at night and instituting better recycling practices).

On the investment side, I think there is strong support among our investors and our staff that long-term reduction of poverty among communities requires increased environmental efficiency, resource conservation, reduction of our reliance on petroleum, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, water safety, etc. This is because environmental degradation and resource scarcity often have the greatest immediate impact upon impoverished communities, and it can create, exacerbate, and prolong poverty, displacement, and conflict. All those working towards community development and well being can’t afford to ignore the environmental threats and realities facing communities worldwide.

Lastly, I walked away from this conference with the sense that the potential for individual action is huge. If students can start a recycling program, or build a PV panel on the roof of their school, then we can each do little things to set the bar higher. I’m setting up a compost bin this spring, for starters using vermiculture - with worms! It’s one of the best options for a small urban household. I’m just hoping I can handle all that up-close-and-personal worm time.