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Sensible Sustainability

Parsing perception

Have you ever noticed that the older people are, the less likely it is they find it easy to make sense of the whole “green” revolution? But, at the same time, start talking to those people about the need to bring back trades education and to teach people how to “make things” again and they have no problem understanding what you’re talking about and probably will agree with you completely. To me, this speaks volumes about how much the world has changed, or at least people’s perception of it, in just a couple generations.

I’ll never forget something that happened in one of the historic houses, owned by the Preservation Resource Center, in the Holy Cross Historic District in New Orleans during the “Spring Greening” organized by the Historic Green organization. PTN was a partner in the event, and I was working with a group of young volunteers when Jeremy Knoll, one of the lead organizers of the event, came in with the captain of the local Red Cross unit, which was one of Spring Greening's main sponsors. The gentleman had his mother and one of her friends with him on a tour of the project houses, and Jeremy asked me to explain what we were doing with the volunteers.

As I began explaining to them that we were teaching these young people how to carefully remove the historic windows and repair and restore them, the captain's mother began to light up with obvious enjoyment. When her son noticed this, he explained to me that when he was growing up they never threw anything away. If something was broken, you fixed it. His mom joined in and said that it had always been that way in her family, and even today they would rather fix something old that can be fixed than replace it with something new that couldn’t.

It’s important now more than ever to understand just how deeply people’s lives used to be founded in sustainability. When most of what you have has been made by hand, and maybe your own, you don’t automatically throw it away when it needs to be repaired because you know it can be repaired and because you or someone you know knows how. When everything around us is manufactured instead of being created with skilled hands and minds, it becomes easy to forget the days when something’s value was more than just its usefulness.

How its made matters

We can’t forget that the need for skilled tradespeople goes far beyond their value as a resource for preserving the things of the past. The woman who met the volunteers in New Orleans wasn’t pleased because she knew the old windows in that historic double shotgun were going to be saved. She was overjoyed that we might be instilling in those young people the kind of values that existed in the world she had grown up in--a world where sustainability was not something you had to figure out how to create, because it already existed.

Re-creating a place for trades in our society will undoubtedly be a good thing for historic preservation, but it will also help build real foundations for a greener future by enabling people to once again make things that have value and will last because that value is tangible. If that isn’t building sustainably, I don’t know what is.

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