Creating a Sustainable Lifestyle

Camille Dieterle's picture

When I set out to create a college course about sustainability from the lens of an occupational therapist, I had no idea if it would create any real impact.  Would students really care about how their daily activities impact our environment?  Would they be interested in seeing the connection between the wellness of their individual body, mind and spirit and that of the planet?

It turns out they did, and their curiosity, enthusiasm and creativity has been so infectious and inspiring that we’re going to start offering the course every semester.

The idea for the course began in 2007, when I was looking at the following questions while completing my clinical doctorate in occupational therapy:  Can engaging in environmentally sustainable behaviors improve personal wellness?  Can occupational therapy, and more specifically the Lifestyle Redesign® process help people to become more engaged in environmental sustainability on a personal level? I created an 8-week Green Lifestyle Redesign® program for university employees and found that the program did increase sustainable behaviors for most participants, though it was unclear if it had an impact on their wellness.  With such a small sample size of 7 (out of 19) who completed the pre and post-tests-- I didn’t really get my answers.  You can download slides here which describe the Green Lifestyle Redesign® program in more detail.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to test this further – though not clinically or through vigorous research.  I had the opportunity to make a course for undergraduates. 

Over a 16-week semester undergraduate students from variety of majors like film, political science, pre-OT, business, environmental studies, psychology and sociology, learned about the threats and opportunities involved in sustainability topics such as the impact of personal contact with nature, water, food, waste, chemicals, transportation, and life pace  - topics where personal choices are involved on a daily basis.   We uncovered the hidden processes behind where our stuff comes from and where it goes, how vulnerable our food and water systems can be and how what is often portrayed as “green” is not always so. 

In several assignments over the course of the semester students were required to present to the class about topics within these larger topics that matter to them.  During the most recent semester that ended in December 2012, the topics presented ranged from GMOs to over-fishing to diapers to vanishing bees to radically simplifying life.

So far I’ve taught the course three times, and each time the enrollment increases and the students’ experiences have been similar.  Here are a few quotes from journaling assignments. 

“We produce so much waste buying all these things for Christmas; it is absurd. This year, I’m going to write great letters/poems for the people I care about and do an activity with them.”

“I try to use less water and plastic, and collect my entire apartment’s recycling. With my reusable water bottle, I don’t have the need at all to buy individual plastic bottles—which is a testament to the effect that proper foundations play (when reusability is designed into a system it is easier to be sustainable). “

“I’ve still been attempting to maintain all of the positive behaviors gained over the first half of the class, like recycling, eating better, and using my time more wisely. I think that my life has changed for the better and I really hope that all of this will stay with me in the future after taking the class.”

“The craziest thing about all of this is how interrelated sustainability and personal achievement/wellness are. I never really thought about it before, but getting in touch with nature and doing my part to protect nature helps me to be healthier both mentally and physically. By biking a little more each week, I burn a few extra calories while using less gas and producing less pollution. By eating less meat and more vegetables, I “vote” with my dollars that vegetables are more valuable while having a healthier diet. I feel that my body is in better condition than it was before and the belief that I am contributing to a sustainable society makes me feel proud and accomplished! “

I continue to be inspired by my students’ inspiration - and am optimistic about growing this class to reach more students at USC.  There are so many offerings here and at other universities regarding sustainability and the physical sciences, life sciences, geography and urban studies, etc..   I’m finding that infusing this selection of sustainability courses with occupational science has exposed occupation/occupational therapy to a broader audience of students that wouldn’t otherwise find out about occupational therapy.  It’s incredibly satisfying, both professionally and personally, to introduce people new to OT to the power of occupation and personal wellness through sustainability. 

At this point, it’s hard for me to imagine a direct and above ground application of this work into the current healthcare system here in America – but I am hopeful anyway.  Increasing consciousness to stewardship – whether it be towards the self or the environment, or both, is critical to our species right now.  The more young adults graduating and going out into the world with the awareness generated in this class, the better.  And just like remembering to bring a bag to the grocery store or to turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth, every tiny bit counts.

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