"Did you notice anything special about the way I washed the dishes?" I asked my husband, admiring my cleaning-up handiwork following the dinner he had so thoughtfully prepared. (We had switched roles, since usually I cook and he does the dishes; I know, I'm lucky to have such a helpful husband since there's now more evidence it's not the American norm.)
I waited a beat. The kitchen was sparkling, he admitted. Upon visual inspection, nothing unusual had transpired here. But upon aural examination, he had to have noticed a stark contrast to his own splash-and-dash way of doing dishes, which typically involved 10 minutes of running hot water and a giant puddle on the floor. Save for the sound of silverware clinking on ceramic, there had been only silence as I had loaded every plate and glass into the dishwasher, turning on the sink just once to rinse a pot I had scrubbed.
"Um, you didn't let the water run?" he asked with a sigh, no doubt tired of me trying to point out yet again that his unnecessary habit of pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher could cost our household more than 6,000 extra gallons of water each year.
Ingrained habits die hard.
Yet while it's true that our aging brains are more malleable than previously thought, nothing matches the learning ability of a young mind. A toddler's brain has twice the number of neural connections that we adults have. (And, surprisingly, teenage brains are particularly impressionable and responsive to positive feedback.) Take, for instance, the receptiveness of my 3-year-old daughter, who, unlike her father, has a sponge-like ability to soak up whatever environmental lessons I try to impart. Just last week, she chided me (me!) for letting her bathroom tap run too long while I waited for the water to warm up. "Letting water run is wasteful, Mommy," she declared, echoing back my own words.
And that's when it hit me: 40 percent of this country's emissions come not from airplanes and agriculture, but from our households and their energy consumption. We waste 40 percent of our food supply, tossing leftovers and too-ripe produce from fridge to trash without so much as a second glance. Why isn't there a class in school to teach these types of sustainability skills to every young student in America, before we become close-minded, wattage-wasting adults? Why can't we train an army of 21st-century planet-savers, starting in preschool? This is no Suzy Homemaker return of home economics, this is Home Ecologics, and it would have a far-reaching impact in the fight against climate change.
There has been a start in this direction. Earlier this fall, in The Boston Globe, writer Ruth Graham made an excellent case for bringing back home economics, not in its original starched-apron good-housewife format, but as a remedy for societal ills such as obesity and the crippling debt that have been the result of a generation raised without essential life skills (i.e., how to cook a real meal and balance a checkbook). She describes a curriculum wherein students would learn basic cooking skills, yes, but also learn about food, farm-to-table; create budgets; and take field trips to the grocery store to scrutinize deceptive food advertising (I'm paraphrasing here two of the experts she quotes in her article: nutrition science professor Alice Lichtenstein and "Salt, Sugar, Fat" author Michael Moss.) Sewing and even basic household plumbing and car repair could have their place, too.
The teaching of these skills alone could have a positive effect on the environment (forgoing processed food for cooking at home saves energy and resources, for instance), but why not reach further? Graham notes that the revamped name for home ec -- the rather clunky Family and Consumer Sciences -- is struggling to gain ground, anyway. Change it to Home Ecologics, and you strip away the female bias altogether. Create a course called Home Ecologics, and, importantly, you can teach students how to use water efficiently; rewire a home to reduce vampire power; monitor electricity consumption; install weather stripping; design a green lighting scheme; shop for low-energy appliances; clean a house without harmful chemicals; minimize food waste; trade disposables for reusables; navigate the farmers market; cook meatless meals; build a compost bin and start a vegetable garden.
These aren't choices to be made in the name of "going green;" this is the way a home on a planet with nine billion people and a finite amount of resources will have to be run, especially in a country where we currently consume one-quarter of the world's oil. (As I've started to explore in this column, some efficiency will be achieved through technological innovation, true, but until we all live in Jetsons homes, our wasteful behavior will have to be modified.)
And it doesn't have to stop there. Advanced levels of the course could include lessons on sustainable home design, structural engineering, energy production. What is the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon -- the work of our nation's best and brightest -- after all, but a glorified, "high-scienced" version of Home Ecologics?
Which brings me to my next point: There are those of you who may be thinking that a required course in Home Ecologics is impractical at a time when budget cuts are sending "real" teachers packing; at a time when American students continue to slide down the global ranks in math and science and 90 percent of our college graduates say they aren't interested in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career because they're bored by math. You may say, Who cares about shopping at the farmers market when our students are flunking?
But who says this has to be an either/or? I see this as an opportunity to motivate our students to become excited about math and science, and as a means for teachers to employ practical applications for teaching abstract concepts that can sometimes be difficult for students to absorb. (Something that environmental charter schools have already figured out, not with Home Ecologics per se, but by using experiential learning to prepare them for the green-tech jobs of the future).
I envision Home Ecologics instructors collaborating with the science, math and engineering teachers: chemistry students developing healthier cleaning products in the Home Ecologics lab; precalculus classes crunching the numbers on a home solar panel installation; biology students testing the nutrient levels of the compost they've created from their cooking scraps. This isn't just our chance to instill a generation with greener habits. It's our imperative to set off that spark for the innovators of tomorrow.
Got a great idea for my next Innovation Earth column? Send tips, thoughts and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.