When I was a child travelling in my family's car in the 1970s, I knew that if there was rubbish to get rid of, it would be thrown out the window. I saw my parents do it, so I knew it was OK. Of course, tossing something from your car will get you a fine in Canada today - not to mention public scorn - and the country is cleaner and better for it.
Remembering this reminds me of how children are good from the beginning - that they basically learn their bad habits from everyone else. As the American writer Clarence Budington Kelland so aptly summed up: "My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it."
The thing is, schools in the UAE are doing some fantastic work on raising awareness about sustainable living among the country's up-and-comers. I was thrilled recently to read in The National about 83 Grade 5 and 6 pupils at the Ras al Khaimah English Speaking School who performed an eco-minded play, learning about the environment as they rehearsed. Students in 10th and 11th grade at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi have been assigned to create a service project that will spread awareness of select environmental issues. And last year a teacher at a primary school told me about how keen her Emirati students were when she took them on various eco-minded field trips.
The challenge, however, was combating what was going on at home. It is hard to get an environmental message across when children grow up in homes where it is OK to turn the air conditioning up high "just to light a fire in the living room", the teacher said. That is an extreme example, of course, but we all know that children watch their parents like hawks: even something simple, such as tossing a plastic bottle in the bin will leave an imprint. And while many UAE residents may still be getting used to the notion that the earth's resources are not infinite, expatriates, with their tendency to give up on sustainable living when they move here because it takes a bigger effort than in their home countries, remain a major part of the problem.
Abu Dhabi has some great places for concerned and committed parents to start. The Environment Agency's Turn It Off campaign, which launched last month and runs until the end of this month, encourages households in the UAE to take small steps that add up to big savings. One of its best suggestions (and particularly relevant for those indoor fireplace lovers) was for residents to commit to turning their air conditioning just 1°C higher this summer. If everyone in Abu Dhabi did that, the agency estimates it would be the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road for a year. That does not even tackle the bigger benefit: parents showing their children that small changes can make a big difference.