Environmental Ethics: Program, Facility, and Business Practices

by Grace Reddy and Andrew Boyd-Goodrich

Giving Kids a Natural World of Good — Fifth in a Series of Six Articles


Three groups of middle schoolers from Oakland, California, sat patiently on a downed log near a grove of eucalyptus trees, looking out through a light drizzle towards the Pacific Ocean. Each group of five represented a Generation. They were told that within the grove was a "resource" for each group to use as it saw fit. The expressions on their faces as each generation finished its turn in the grove said it all: Generation 1 had giddy, guilty smiles; Generation 2 displayed stony annoyance; and Generation 3 looked vaguely confused by the whole endeavor.

Jackie from Generation 2 broke the silence: "I didn't get any M & M®s!" This was true — Generation 1 had ripped open the resource, a small bag of the colorful candies, and gobbled them up. Generation 2 found a ripped bag containing three candies — which was difficult to share — and Generation 3 was left with a candy wrapper torn into three pieces.

The ensuing discussion was lively and touched on issues of justice, resource and land management, governmental regulation, and obligations of one generation to the next. Not in so many words, but that's what they were talking about. For the children involved, the issues were visceral, immediate, and personal. Lorenzo from Generation 3 was annoyed that he had to clean up after Generations 1 and 2 without reward, but allowed that the "rules" of the activity didn't require that candy be left for him. Darren from Generation 1 expressed some remorse for not sharing, but admitted that he might do the same thing again. Michelle from Generation 2 insisted that the adults should have made sure that everyone got some candy, saying, "It's just not fair!"

So What Was Learned?

It's hard to say definitively. No consensus, "right answer," or shared view was reached. The situation forced students to look at their own actions as well as reflecting on the actions of others. The ethical and practical ramifications were experienced rather than taught.
Discussions of how to address environmental ethics at camp usually offer programmatic exercises or discussions of ethics like the experiential lesson just described. These exercises raise the issues of understanding, appreciating and acknowledging our active role in the environment, and seeing that our personal choices affect other people, other communities, and other organisms. But maybe environmental ethics is a larger topic.

Integrating Environmental Ethics at Camp

Camps embrace the critical role that they play in the development of social skills and values, such as treating one another honestly and openly. We expect and model respect in interpersonal dealings, from staff to camper, between staff members, from camper to camper, and from staff to the general public and vendors, etc. Environmental ethics should be similarly "universal" in a camp setting. It is not just the program staff that demonstrates environmental ethics or even a bunch of additional activities like "Generations." Shouldn't environmental ethics mean operating a camp that walks its talk rather than relying on our naturalists or counselors to impart our environmental messages? To be truly ethical, we must integrate environmental ethics throughout our camp: in our kitchen, throughout our facilities, in our marketing materials, and in our purchasing decisions.

Obviously, it isn't as simple as saying that environmental ethics should be integrated throughout camp. Obstacles are both practical and philosophical: how much will this philosophy cost us and what exactly do environmental ethics mean for each individual camp? Camps are as diverse as the campers that they serve. How one camp chooses to explore or model environmental ethics will be quite different from the next. Further, different campers (not to mention alumni, staff, parents, and donors) require different messages. Since many camps have 501(c)3 organization status, it is important not to wear our politics or advocacy causes too visibly on our sleeves.

The YMCA Point Bonita Outdoor & Conference Center's main youth program is our Outdoor Education Program, which serves thousands of children each year. With the caveats that we are not perfect and that what works for us may or may not work at other camps, we will relate our experiences as we have committed to becoming a "greener" business, and we have been certified by our county as a green business. Most camps can probably identify with a few of our constraints: a wide range of clients, razor-thin profit margins, and limited staff time.

Conserve Resources, Reduce Waste
As a staff, each of us has consciously committed to evaluating our daily tasks to reduce resource consumption and waste production. And we show as much of this process as possible to our visitors — both children and adults. In our facilities, this often means using what we have rather than going out to buy something new that we think we need. For example, upon learning about our move to replace older coffee cups with newer larger cups, a staffer suggested we offer the older cups to clients who wanted to take their drinks out of our dining hall. We made a sign discussing renewable resources asking clients to use the smaller cups as "to go" cups in order to save paper. If a visitor walked away with the older cups, all the better. They were being used rather than stashed in a cupboard to be thrown away later, and we didn't have to buy more paper "to-go" cups for many months. Plus the visitors who carried our cups off campus might link the cups with the renewable resources message with each use.

Similarly, when we installed new paper towel dispensers, we chose a more hygienic model that dispensed towels one at a time. Coincidentally, the new dispensers prompted customers to use fewer towels — making them more cost effective and sustainable. Or, outdated conference room chairs that are still presentable migrate to dormitory rooms rather than tossing them into a dumpster to buy newer, flashier chairs for the rooms.

Examples like this tell the story of our gradual move toward green business status. Our site is a historical Nike Missile Base in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the National Park Service must approve any modifications. Neither our lease nor our budget will allow us to raze our buildings to put in showcase-perfect sustainable materials. Instead, our move to ever greater sustainability is much more incremental: we have to look at all of our capital improvements and business practices through the lens of how we impact our site, our community, and our clients.

Play and Learn Outdoors
Part of our environmental ethic is to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Our naturalists take groups of ten to fifteen children on hikes to various spots in the 10,000-acre National Recreation Area that surrounds us. They explore tidepools, beaches, coastal scrub, forests and a fresh-water pond, which spills into a brackish lagoon. Given our location on a little peninsula at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, our weather mimics the weather at sea — highly changeable, from foggy and misty to sunny and windy to rainy. Yet the program always happens outdoors, embracing the sun, rain, wind, and fog. Climbing to the crest of Hawk Hill for a birds-eye view of San Francisco and the bay, trekking through the rain to view emerging newts, or hiking solo with only the light of the moon are all experiences that challenge the body, broaden expectation of "learning," and leave a lasting impact. To us, environmental ethics has always focused on helping students learn about the interactions of living and nonliving things, and how each of us can make more sustainable choices to make the world a better place for both the people and the wild ecosystems upon which the quality of all life depends.

For many children, a full day spent in nature is a new and eye-opening experience. Often the groups are gone from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and eat picnic lunches on the trail. Rather than asking our food service staff to prepare 80-150 lunches, we have each child make his/her own sandwich and lunch before the morning departure, choosing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or, for the more adventurous, hummus and pita bread pocket sandwiches. When the children choose and carry the contents of their own lunches, they tend to eat more and waste less.

Think "Garbology"
Each year, we serve a total of 47,000 meals, and we use that time to teach visiting children to think about where their food comes from and where their waste goes. We call this lesson "Garbology." Students determine the total weight of all scraps left on their group's plates and see which table left the least waste. At some point during their stay, they participate in composting their scraps and then they discuss how ingredients in the meal were grown or produced and what kind of transportation brought them to the table. In such ways, we open children's eyes to the natural but often invisible processes that serve their lives so that they will notice more connections at home. Yet, we still know that even with Garbology, composting, and careful attention, we will never be a waste-free facility.

Certified as Green

Two years ago, we were certified as a Green Business, in a county program that recognizes businesses that exceed established standards for energy and water conservation and waste reduction. We found that many of our cost-saving measures were also Green Business practices. Last year, with the financing of county-sponsored rebates, a local contractor installed compact fluorescent fixtures in our kitchen. Throughout the process, we have been pleasantly surprised by the ease of implementation and level of enthusiasm from guests and our community: being a Certified Green Business has been an effective marketing strategy.

Certainly we have a long way to go. But, we don't expect to be perfect. We would be setting ourselves and our budget up for great disappointment if we did. Rather, we see our efforts to be a green business as a process, where each increment of change is good. And in honestly modeling and discussing the process with visitors, we engage them so they too can learn from our experience. Once the topic arises, they often suggest areas where we can improve, like fixing a leaky faucet in the dormitories. Rather than feeling guilty for what we can't do, we celebrate each step along our green path.

Grace Reddy has worked in newspapers, public relations, and at other nonprofits. She was drawn to work at the YMCA Point Bonita by its stunning location and green philosophy. Three years later, that green ethic inspires her grant proposals and marketing copy. Both authors can be reached by telephone at 415-331-9622 or through the YMCA Point Bonita Web site at www.pointbonitaymca.org.

Andrew Boyd-Goodrich first came to the YMCA Point Bonita in the fifth grade. Fifteen years later, he took a job as a naturalist and has stayed for twelve years. As Associate Executive Director, Andrew oversees both the facilities and programming and manages the process of Green Business Certification for YMCA Point Bonita.

Originally published in the 2005 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.