Buy, Use, Toss? -- A Geography Unit on Consumption

Take a moment and think.

In the last hour how much water have you consumed? Did this drink come out of a tap? Did you pay for the water at a machine or store? Did it come in a plastic bottle? Was the water an ingredient in a beverage you consumed? Was the water you consumed a part of a meal? How much water did it take to process your clothing?

Consumption is something that most folks don't give much thought to. I understand the initial lack of thought. Chances are if you are reading this entry on a computer that you own, you've probably never had to worry about meeting your basic needs in life (food, water, shelter, etc.). Privilege is something that floats in the back of our mind, it's slippery and invisible at times. Beyond privilege consumption can be masked by the fact that it is a daily non-stop occurrence. We consume to live and thrive. How is it that I can't quite put a finger on how much water I've consumed in the last hour? Why haven't I stopped to think about this more? Do you share my struggle dear readers?

I know that I can say that in the last hour I've consumed a lot of water. At least 1000ml. My students like to tease me about the bright orange 1000ml nalgene bottle that I walk around with.

"Mr. Walker, IT MATCHES YOUR SHOES! Did you plan that?"

Yes it does, and sadly no, but I love the idea of color coordination.

The truth be told though I know that I've consumed much more than my usual 1000ml per hour or two. I went home, I made a meal and cleaned up afterwards. Water was in virtually every food product that I used, and the time my tap ran while I scrubbed my dish that's another moment of consumption. If you move away from the obvious usage of water there are other things to take into account. How does my consumption of various materials, the dishes I ate off, the dish soap I used, the containers that my food was packaged in prior to meal preparation. I'm seem to be using quite a lot of stuff without thinking too much about it. (Here's a fun calculator to estimate your water usage.)

Therein lies my challenge as an educator. How can I take this line of inquiry, this curious realization about consumption, and turn it into a teachable moment?

In my Honors Geography class we spend a great deal of time focusing on geographic thinking, the intersection between human and physical geography, and how many of these topics are related to current global issues. Our current global issue is consumption.

Today's lesson was all about introducing the topic.

So how do you approach that, how do you get kids fired up about "material goods" and "material consumption"? I used a bird.

What do you see class?

This is a Gooney Bird of the Midway Atoll. Isn't it cute?

I pushed my kids to consider the issue within the framework of a geographer's question: 
Why and how is something happening, in a certain place, with certain outcomes?
Why are numerous gooney birds of the Midway Atoll dying with stomachs full of plastic?

From here it's pulling back the veil and letting the students to form their own conclusions. I was shocked when I first saw this info graphic. It got me to thinking, What does this image say about the world and its consumption habits?

My students and I are embarking upon a study of global issues regarding consumption and the current world systems that impact our consumption habits. The next step after birds is all about the kids. They are monitoring and recording their consumption habits for the next 24 hours.

I can't wait to see what they will come up and what they'll deem to be a luxury and necessity in their life.

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