Viviane Simon-Brown works in a typical office, types away on her computer and networks with colleagues across the country. Not exactly the Earth Mother image. However, the energetic, silver-haired professor of forest resources and Oregon State University Extension Forestry may just be the thoroughly modern version. Inspired by environmental trends and by a 1997, Rotary-funded trip to study community development in India, she has created a national program that emphasizes personal values in sustainability education.
In the Indian state of Kerala, Simon-Brown found a society with an acclaimed health-care system, an exceptionally high rate of education and one of the country’s most effective economic development programs. On top of those signs of success, she found that the average salary was the equivalent of $300 per year. Despite their apparent lack of money, she says, citizens in Kerala are wealthy in many ways. “If money isn’t the answer, then what is?” she wondered.
Simon-Brown had taught programs for community leaders and natural resources professionals, helped to start the High Desert Museum in Bend and led wilderness trips down whitewater rivers. After going to India, she assembled a team and started a national dialogue on sustainable living (a term that she coined). Today, Extension’s National Network for Sustainable Living Education has grown from her work. Starting with 12 colleagues in five states in 2004, it now has more than 80 people at 30 land grant universities. It has also inspired sustainability education efforts in Extension’s 4-H programs for youth.
The emphasis, she says, is on ethics in action, on clarified values that lead to small, simple steps: planting a vegetable garden, driving less by living closer to work, creating a video about kindness, making purchases with a “smart shopping” approach. Simon-Brown created an “Unshopping Card” that reminds us to consider the practical (Can it be recycled? Can it be fixed?) and ethical (Is it “fair trade?” Is it worth the time I worked to pay for it?) aspects of the things we buy.
“We’ve really messed our nest,” she says. “If we don’t turn this around, our kids and our kids’ kids are going to see a world terribly diminished. But it’s too late to be a pessimist. We better get in there and do something.”
Simon-Brown credits Scott Reed, vice provost for University Outreach and Engagement, for supporting her initial efforts in sustainability education. And she regards Alice Elshoff — a friend, science teacher and volunteer at the High Desert Museum — for inspiring her to live life fully. “Alice is an activist. She walks her talk. She gets up in the morning and sings. She’s a marvelous human being,” says Simon-Brown. “I want to be like her when I grow up.”