November 8, 1988, I sat in the Hawk ‘n’ Dove bar on Capitol Hill drinking beer with my fellow Clean Water Action canvassers and watching the presidential election returns. I was 23 years old. As the night wore on, and it became apparent that nothing less than a miracle could save Michael Dukakis from losing to George H.W. Bush, a group of loud, big-haired yuppies (it was still the 80’s after all) cheered at the table next to us. One woman in a ruffled dress with big shoulder pads glanced over at our tie-dyed shirts and dismal faces and shouted over the din, “I used to be idealistic like you guys. I voted Democrat and thought I could change the world. But when you get older, you realize that it’s just not practical. You’ll want to keep your money. And then you’ll vote for the conservative guy. You’ll see.”
“Never,” I thought. “I will never become so cynical. I’ll always be an activist and stand up for what I believe.”
Well, I’m still an activist. And I still stand up for what I believe. But these days, I am more easily disheartened. When I allow myself to really see the immensity of the environmental problems we face, I want to crawl into bed and hide. I don’t do that. I keep moving forward. And thankfully, I haven’t grown cynical enough to vote for the guy who will let me keep more of my money at the expense of other people or the environment. But I do sometimes doubt whether my actions are making a difference.
Some would call it maturity and say that with experience come realistic expectations. But is the world changed by realists or by people who remain optimistic despite terrible odds? By people, in fact, who don’t realize there are odds in the first place?
Green Kids to the Rescue
Like my friends and me in the late 80’s, there is a whole new crop of idealistic young people coming up who are committed to solving our environmental problems, from climate change to plastic pollution, and for whom there are no limits. We need them. We need them desperately! And recently, I was able to meet a few of them.
I can’t remember any kids in my high school who were as poised, eloquent, and enthusiastic as Jordan Howard. And yet, she wasn’t always committed to protecting the environment. A student at L.A.’s Environmental Charter High School, Jordan told me that in the beginning, even though she was attending a school whose purpose was environmental education, she wasn’t convinced that she should care about anything more than herself. A typical teenage girl, she was interested in shopping and boys and whatever would benefit her in the short term. She says she was not “anti-sustainable”, but she wasn’t pro-sustainability either.
And then, in her 10th grade year of high school, Jordan was selected to attend the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA, not because she was an environmental activist but because she was seen as a leader. She went reluctantly, telling herself, “I would not let those people brainwash me.” The light bulb moments happened as she learned about all the different environmental solutions that had already been developed. Compostable bags, recycled carpet, solar energy, organic clothing. She learned that living a green lifestyle was not only real, it was realistic, and most of the environmental and economic benefits were measurable!
And that’s when Jordan’s natural leadership ability and her growing interest in green living merged.
Rise Above Plastics
Learning about the devastating consequences of plastics in the environment, Jordan Howard worked with Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics campaign and Green Amabassadors to create the Rise Above Plastics (R.A.P.) student speaker series in order to
not only educate high school teens about the harms of plastics on the environment and to humans, but to empower them to share the message and travel to schools and businesses across Los Angeles, educating people of all ages.
Why her interest in plastic? Jordan says:
Well plastics is the most practical to me! Refusing plastic bags, bringing your own cup, bringing your own fork, using stainless steel canteens. They each have drastic long term effects on the planet but can be done by people of all ages so easily! Plastics are such a huge component of our culture that some people do not realize how much we depend on them. Plastics effect our oceans, our bodies, AND our wallets!
Green My Parents
In the same spirit of practicality, Jordan worked with others to create Green My Parents, a program begun by kids to take charge of greening their homes instead of waiting around for their parents to take action. The Green My Parents book, edited by Adora Svitak and Jordan Howard, will be released on May 31, and includes check lists for ways to save energy, water, and waste, and provides report cards for kids to assess their parents’ progress. Assuming that most adults, like that woman at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove so many years ago, are financially motivated, much of the book focuses on ways that going green can actually save money and provides a contract whereby kids can share in the savings as well as donate a portion to the organization of their choice.
The beauty of Green My Parents is that rather than a program created by adults for kids, it was organized by kids to influence adults. I asked Jordan what qualities she thought young people bring to the environmental movement that adults might lack. Here’s what she said:
Youth bring hope & excitement! Pessimism does not inspire people into action and that is what too may adults have. I guess it’s different because I have only been involved in environmental work for about three years, but you still have to believe. Youth are more open minded and willing to teach and inspire our peers & parents. Old people also lack excitement! Youth are having fun! Tweeting, Facebooking, using music, parties and things we already do to add a socially conscious message to it! It is one of the reasons why the green movement is more mainstream now I think.
Part of me feels defensive. Wait a minute! I’m excited! I’m having fun tweeting and Facebooking and… I’m not like those other old people. And yet seriously? I could use a good dose of teenage energy to get myself pumped up for the next leg of the journey.
Rudy Sanchez is a junior at the Environmental Charter High School; he’s the author of an essay in the Green My Parents book; and he’s the coordinator of the Rise Above Plastics speaker series. So if you’re interested in scheduling a talk and you’re in Southern California, contact Rudy at rudystarr [at] live [dot] com, and he’ll hook you up.
Rudy told me that before taking the Green Ambassadors class, talk of the environment brought to mind depressing images of polar bears dying — not images a high school kid wants to be carrying around. What’s more, he was a big old plastic lover. He loved eating from Styrofoam plates and drinking from Styrofoam cups because he could just throw them away afterward without having to wash dishes. And who wants to spend a few minutes washing dishes when there are video games to play, right?
Like Jordan, it wasn’t until he started learning about solutions, and especially about ways that some environmental solutions could actually help save money, that he became an enthusiastic advocate. Starting with himself, he began carrying reusable bags to the store, filling up a reusable water bottle, and yes, even giving up disposable dishes. He didn’t lecture anyone else, choosing instead to lead by example. Eventually, his mom asked him why he was carrying bags to the store, and after explaining the reasons, he was happy to see his mom carrying her own reusable bags the very next day. And his example had an impact on his sister, who started carrying her own reusable bottle to softball practice and encouraging her teammates to do the same.
Now, Rudy has become a skilled public speaker, giving Rise Above Plastics talks to both students and adults. He says the program has made his own life richer. He’s gained self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment. And he says the knowledge he acquires through the program is different from what he learns in the classroom. Instead of studying facts for a test, he’s learning though interacting in the real world, applying statistics, math, and English vocabulary, as well as developing presentation skills. Through the program, he is both a student and a teacher.
I asked Rudy the same question I asked Jordan: What qualities do young people bring to the environmental movement that adults might lack?
Youth are more motivated because it is our future that will be affected. Older generations will not see the full effects of what they are doing to the environment. We can imagine how bad it will be when we are our parents’ age and we are more motivated because of that. We don’t want our children to have to suffer.
I also asked Rudy if he ever gets overwhelmed when he goes out and sees so much plastic packaging waste, and he said no! Seeing so much plastic just encourages him to present the information to more people and to “rise even more above plastics to inspire others.” I think I need to write that on a sign and stick it to my bathroom mirror.
Think it’s just kids in big environmental programs on the West Coast that are inspired to go green? Think again.
Last month, I received an email from Lindsay Williams, a high school student in Fayetteville, AR, who wanted to know if she could interview me for a piece she was writing for her school newspaper about plastic pollution. After answering Lindsay’s questions, I was inspired by her environmental enthusiasm to ask her a few of my own.
Lindsay told me she learned about the “Garbage Patch” in the North Pacific Ocean in a science class last year and was so intrigued that she followed up. Surfing the web for more information on the “garbage island,” as she called it, she got more and more upset by what she read. “I really remember the shock I felt, I was in awe, almost like ‘how could I not know about this?'”
To think that my trash ends up in the ocean which is then consumed by a little creature is really disturbing, and I’m surprised others aren’t as shocked. I really enjoy researching ocean pollution, whether it be plastic, sewage, etc. Also, the research I did for another article included the fact that NYC continued to dump toxic sewage sludge into the oceans as recent as the 1990s completely blew my mind! How could someone think that trash could simply disappear in the ocean? It’s illogical.
Nowadays, Lindsay carries her lunch in a container instead of using plastic baggies. In fact, she makes no trash at lunchtime at all. She carries drinks in a reusable bottle. And concerned about the impact of disposable contacts, she says she’s been wearing her glasses a lot more often. What’s more, she’s encouraged her family and some friends to carry reusable mesh bags for shopping. And her family has banned plastic water bottles from the house, as well as disposable dishes. These ideas are spreading to her friends as well.
Asked about whether or not personal actions really make a difference, Lindsay insists that they do. In fact, she thinks individual action is key because of how each of our actions influences other people. And one of the greatest strengths of young people is that they can influence their peers:
At my school, a lot of students are environmentally conscious and ideas transfer fast. I’m not saying that only young people can influence other young people, it just seems to catch faster. Many adults lack the patience to advocate the environmental movement. We have a club called The Green Team and they do all the recycling and make posters and started a school garden (although it’s small, it is growing) and they take the time to be creative and do all of these things.
I asked Lindsay what she does to keep from getting overwhelmed by all the bad news out there, and she said instead of looking at the big problem, it’s easier to focus on the small successes.
Well, yes. It is overwhelming to think that I am just one person who cares about what impact I have on the environment and to see that there is so much plastic, paper, and trash out there…. But one person can do a lot of good. If I don’t purchase plastic or use things that are potential trash, then I feel good and feel like I have done my part. It also feels good to have friends and family around you who support you and try to change, too…. Maybe someday a significant amount of people will stop using plastic and those companies who use plastic packaging will lose business? It can help to look to the long term but I like to think of the little things and see the small changes around me.
Lessons from the Students
In Zen, there is a concept of “beginner’s mind,” which is a state of mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices. It’s a way of approaching life with curiosity rather than from a fixed point of view or a prior judgment. And while it’s important for us to learn from our past experiences, it’s also important to keep our minds open to new possibilities, a skill for which young people have an inherent knack.
So what did I learn?
To see environmental issues not as problems but challenges.
To focus on what’s right in front of me rather than tripping on the future.
To believe that my actions matter whether I get to see the tangible results or not.
To keep myself open to possibilities.
To have fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?