The youngest eco-activists
Learning to save the Earth since preschool, they push their parents to do more.
The Associated Press
March 2, 2008
Marika Martin is a vegetarian. So is her husband, Charles Gonzalez, who rides his bicycle to work every day in New York City traffic, rain or shine.
The couple cares deeply about the environment, but if you ask their kids, 12-year-old Sinika and 8-year-old Soren, it's sometimes not deeply enough.
"My hopeless mother is obsessed with plastic bags," says Soren, a third-grader and huge fan of Al Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
"A lot of plastic can't be recycled," chimes in his sister, who's in the seventh grade. "The turtles can get suffocated and it can go into the water. My dad gave her a cloth bag but she doesn't use it. Plastic drives me nuts!"
Say hello to Generation Green. They're young, well-researched and mad as heck -- inspired by an outpouring of movies, TV shows, books, Web sites and "green classes" at school. They've been learning how to save the planet since toddlerhood, and they're taking on their parents to do more, do better.
While some parents fret that the pop-culture tidal wave amounts to environmental indoctrination, others are looking for ways to accommodate their kids -- and compromise when the price tag or the convenience factor come into play.
"I get it, I get it, I'm a bag lady," Martin says of her plastic-wrapped groceries. "But I'm always doing spontaneous shopping so it's hard. It isn't always feasible. Of course it's making me feel guilty. I know I shouldn't use them, but in everyday living it's hard."
Tiffany Bluemle in Burlington, Vt., knows exactly how she feels. She and her partner, Elizabeth Shayne, drive an environmentally friendly hybrid and live a generally green lifestyle. When their 8-year-old son, Will, wanted a "global warming" birthday party last year, they treated him to a cake decorated as Earth, a bike-repair workshop for his guests and a pi�ata in the shape of a gas-guzzling Hummer that partygoers beat to the ground.
"He's adamant that I drive 55, but I'm naturally a speedster," Bluemle says. "We have a bumper sticker on the car saying '55 slows down global warming.' It's killing me."
Will has begged his parents to buy a new dishwasher to cut down on energy use. He imagines redesigning their house with solar and wind power and a pass through of used kitchen-sink water to flush toilets. Earth, he says, "is a lot of animals' home. If a lot of animals become extinct, it would be hard for us to live."
Bluemle shares her young eco-warrior's passion but says she's careful not to over-promise while encouraging him to dream big.
"I want to make good on any pledges that I make," she says. "At this point, it's pretty doable, yet we don't use a renewable form of energy to power the house. Very frankly, we don't have the money."
Compromise is key, says Julie Ross, a parent and family therapist in New York who has written three books on child-rearing.
Not every family can afford to install solar panels, but parents can put on sweaters and turn down the thermostat, she suggests. If a new car isn't in the budget, a hybrid is out of the question, but carpooling to school or turning off the car rather than idling when stopped in the pickup line might work. Some parents think composting toilets are way too big a hassle, but they're willing to share a flush.
"I definitely hear a lot of frustration and anger in young kids," Ross says. "They don't feel powerful enough to be able to make changes themselves, yet they're being told that this is a big issue and they're going to have to deal with it. Parents have a tendency to dismiss the young."
A teacher's influence
Debra Weitzel, an environmental educator at Middleton High School in Middleton, Wis., says feedback from parents of her students has been overwhelmingly positive when her assigned home-based "green" projects force the family to participate.
One student meticulously charted his family's computer habits and was able to show a reduction in the electric bill after he trained his loved ones to shut down more often. Another student drafted energy-efficient plans for an addition to his family's house, and his father was wowed by savings from his high-performing insulation recommendation.
"When they see dollars saved, parents are happy. Parents of teenagers are looking for any way to connect, and this is an area they can do that," says Weitzel, who teaches specialized classes for juniors and seniors and recently won an award from the nonprofit National Environmental Education Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Weitzel has been the one to open the eyes of her students on compact fluorescent light bulbs, rain gardens to reclaim storm runoff from roofs and driveways and wheat-based composite counters and cabinets for rebuilding projects. But soon she'll have her hands on a generation that has cut its eco-teeth years before they step into her classroom.
Amanda Brosius, 6, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, recently watched a television special on the plight of polar bears losing their icy hunting grounds to global warming. Soon after, she could hear the shower running way too long in the apartment above, where a 7-year-old friend lives. The boy's long, water-guzzling showers prompted her to speak up.
"He doesn't care about the polar bears, but I do," Amanda says. "We're running out of fresh water and if you don't be careful the ice will never get frozen and the polar bears will have nowhere to go. Santa will have nowhere to live."
2. Research together
*Your daughter begs you to buy a hybrid car, but a new car of any kind is not in your family budget.
Research the cost of hybrids with your child so that you're not operating on assumptions, but on facts. Create a step-by-step plan to earn/save money to put away for a hybrid and use the car you have less by car-pooling with others.
3. Take a first step
*Plastic bags drive your kids nuts. But you're constantly shopping on the fly and forgetting to carry the nifty canvas bag they gave you for your last birthday. Do you promise to do better or explain that plastic is a fact of life?
Acknowledge that you haven't been as conscientious as you should have been with regard to carrying the bag they gave you. Agree to use paper instead of plastic when you forget.
The Associated Press
Web sites for young environmentalists
Many Web sites cater to kids who want to make the world a better place. A few:
*Adventures of Riley
Learn how to tag and track Bengal tigers in Asia or print out a Cape Buffalo cutout on this companion Web site to the popular Adventures of Riley books that follow 9-year-old Riley, Uncle Max, Aunt Martha and Cousin Alice as they travel around the world learning about animal conservation. For a one-time fee of $3, children can join "Riley's World" and receive a membership kit complete with "passport," stickers and a quarterly newsletter.
*Global Warming Kids
This portal for kids and teachers alike features an "energy action" kids' corner with games, photos and downloads in four languages. The game "Climate Challenge" allows older kids to imagine themselves president of the European Nations as they attempt to persuade competing regional blocs to reduce carbon emissions. Elsewhere there is video, including Blue Man Group's head-bopping "Earth to America" skit warning of the dangers of global warming.
*Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s Planet Slayer
Follow the animated Adventures of Greena, a funky young girl eco-warrior with a cutoff peace-sign T-shirt and bright orange hair as she whispers to whales, takes on evildoing loggers and frees farmed chickens in short video adventures.
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