Baby Steps, Becoming Sustainable, and the Boy Scouts of America

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu famously said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That wisdom certainly applies to sustainability. It’s all but impossible for an individual, a family, or a BSA council to fully embrace sustainability overnight. Instead, we start with baby steps—recycling aluminum cans, perhaps, or trading out incandescent bulbs for LED versions—then gradually deepen our knowledge, our commitment, and our investment in living more sustainably. When we look back over the course of years, we’re perhaps surprised at just how far we’ve come since we took those first tentative steps.

Fortunately, the baby-steps approach is built into Scouting’s advancement program. For the very first Tiger Cub (first grade) adventure, Backyard Jungle, a boy must take a “1-foot hike,” plant a tree, and build and hang a birdhouse. A few years later, for the Arrow of Light (fifth grade) Building a Better World adventure, he must identify an energy problem in his community and encourage people in his community to recycle and conserve resources. To become a Life Scout, a teenaged Boy Scout must spend at least three hours on a conservation-related service project (although he probably will have met that requirement several times over already). Finally, to become an Eagle Scout, he must earn either the Environmental Science or Sustainability merit badge, along with completing a major service project that could well relate to sustainability or the environment.

And those are just a few of the points at which conservation and sustainability crop up in Scouting. From the Outdoor Code to the BSA’s outdoor ethics principles (represented by the Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly! guidelines), sustainability is baked into everything Scouts do.

Since 1976, the BSA has offered an extra award that further encourages engagement in sustainability-related topics. Called the World Conservation Award, it encourages all youth members to think globally and act locally to preserve and improve our environment.

In recent years, the award requirements have changed a bit, both to reflect changes to the Cub Scout advancement program and to ensure that the badge is more than a gimme for Boy Scouts. As of December 2016, the requirements are as follows:

  • Cub Scouts (at the Wolf, Bear, and Webelos levels): Complete a specific set of adventure requirements, based on program level, and participate in an additional den or pack conservation project.
  • Boy Scouts: Earn three specified merit badges—Environmental Science or Sustainability, Soil and Water Conservation or Fish and Wildlife management, and Citizenship in the World—and participate in a conservation project of at least three hours that addresses a conservation need common to more than one country.
  • Venturers and Sea Scouts: Complete the Ecology elective for the Ranger Award and complete certain other requirements, including a conservation project of at least three hours that addresses a conservation need common to more than one country.

Each World Conservation Award is represented by a circular patch on which a panda—which happens to be the symbol of Lao Tzu’s country—is superimposed over the Scout fleur-de-lis, symbolizing the close connection between Scouting and conservation.

Lao Tzu never said anything about Scout badges, of course, but he did say something else that relates to the sustainability journey: “Great acts are made up of small deeds.”

Even deeds as small as taking a 1-foot hike.