By the time Janis Bookout began working on environmental issues in 2013, she had successful careers as a business consultant, elementary teacher, and professional writer. She had also trained for many years in transformational work. Now, as executive director of Earth Day Austin, she brings together her wealth of experience to promote ideas for a sustainable future. And, she made an important promise to her kids.
AF: What did you talk to your kids about?
JB: I really started dealing with the realities of climate change in particular when I became a mother. I have two boys who are amazing people. As a mother, I was going to commit to protect them and create a future that works for them. In the face of climate change, I could choose to be completely disempowered about what was happening in the world or I could stake my claim in it. And so, when they were old enough, I sat my boys down and promised them I would help to end to the climate crisis before it’s too late.
AF: That sounds like a major promise.
JB: It sounds kind of crazy and way beyond my personal capacity. And it’s not something I could ever do alone, obviously. But making that promise did put me on the hook for the future I was committed to—not just for my kids, but for everyone’s kids. It’s such a potentially overwhelming topic to regularly engage in. It can be depressing and even scary at times. It’s can feel miniscule in comparison to what’s needed. But coming at it from the perspective of the possibility of actually ending it sort of empowers you to resolve it. It’s why I do everything I do now.
AF: How did your boys react to this bold commitment?
JB: I was surprised about how much they both knew and how little they had shared with me about their concerns. Originally, my concern in making that promise was that I would be adding something to their plates that they couldn’t handle. The truth was, it opened up a conversation that made them feel less alone. Climate change was something they were already concerned about. That kind of shocked me. And that’s been my consistent experience with children over the age of nine. They’re very aware—much more aware than adults realize. And they’re alone in dealing with it because it’s hard to talk about.
AF: Are there other ways you learn about the environment with your family?
JB: Yes. We’ve had a lot of fun experiences based on our family interest in the environment. One day, I scraped a peanut butter jar and got an entire serving out of it. I was teaching them about food waste, and it became a game. I even felt connected to my grandmother because she used to do that all the time. And we recycle, of course. There was a day that, as a family, we celebrated having only one bag of trash for an entire two weeks! So, as a family, we make it fun to see how little trash we can produce or how much food we can save. We’re about to start a garden to see how much of our vegetable intake we can offset by growing our own food— and that’s going to help our budget. And my kids know how to garden better than I do, so they’re going to teach me a lot. All of these experiences are opportunities to discover values as a family, and it’s fun. And it doesn’t require coming from any particular viewpoint or belief. As a family, you can decide how to explore ways to take care of our environment.
AF: The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day is this month, but Earth Day Austin had to be postponed due to concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19). Can you talk a little bit about it, and if there are any future plans?
JB: Earth Day Austin is really about raising the conversation regarding what we are doing to the environment and what we can do to create a path forward that includes everyone. Our mission is reinventing sustainability as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon with equity at the center. We provide a venue that brings thousands of community members together with hundreds of organizations and businesses in the interest of sustainability, innovation, and environmental justice. After reviewing the city’s current policy, as well as doing extensive research into what is happening around the world and in communities across the country, the Board of Directors and I were unanimous in our decision to postpone, even though we knew we could technically meet the requirements for events with attendees over 2500. Think about it this way— right now I would not want my own parents to come to the festival. If that is the case, then I should not produce one at all. We’re working on what we can provide to the community on April 22 and on a possible date for a reschedule, and we’ll be updating the website as we move forward.
AF: In terms of promoting sustainability, what does that mean to you?
JB: It’s simple. If my personal life is sustainable, but yours isn’t, how is that functionally sustainable as a society? Fundamentally we’re all connected in the environment that we all share whether we realize it or not. This applies to families, communities, the world. So, if life doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for me. That’s that how I’ve come to define sustainability. In that sense, sustainability and equity are closely linked. You can’t talk about sustainability without including the concept of equity.
AF: How does that work in a family environment?
JB: If we understand where our resources come from as a family, we can all make better decisions. Then we can make better choices that are not just good for our family, but for all of us. The environment is what’s around you. It includes your family, your neighbors, everyone. Then we ask ourselves, “Are we leaving the world a better, more functional place for everybody to enjoy?” I think it boils down to what makes life worth living. So, if you have someone in your family who loves plants or birds or the ocean, then other family members can learn and share in that. That creates bonds. It’s fundamentally about connecting to life itself and cherishing and honoring the beauty of life together. There’s not one right way to explore the environment and sustainability as a family. There are countless right ways to do that.
AF: What do you say to parents who believe they can’t really accomplish much, and that the younger generation will assume responsibility for the environmental issues that are facing the planet?
JB: I would say I don’t take that approach because I feel like that puts a pretty big burden on our kids. And I think they know that’s kind of a cop out. My perspective is that it’s my job, and my generation’s duty, to do everything we can right now. And if my kids choose to take on that responsibility, then great. I love that because this work been very satisfying for me. But I don’t want the buck to go any further than me. I don’t want to keep kicking the can down the line.
AF: Are you hopeful about the future?
JB: There’s a different kind of hope that comes from being actively engaged and committed to making a difference. It’s an active hope based on a future you’re committed to. Kids really need something more than optimism. They need to be empowered. They need to find hope in the face of reality. They need to participate. And that’s where I think the real joy is. My kids say so, too.
Editor’s Note: Since canceling Earth Day ATX, the organization’s leadership has organized the Community Resilience Trust, a coordinated effort with local area leaders and officials. The group plans to coordinate community response efforts to COVID-19. For more information visit, www.coronavirusaustin.org. For updates on Earth Day Austin, visit www.EarthDayAustin.com.