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Can Green Kids Save the Earth?

Pete Salmansohn

It's been a green autumn here in Putnam County, New York. I've watched with excitement and optimism as bands of passionate eco-moms, sympathetic school principals, and environmental educators have staked out territories for their kids in the woods and wetlands of this rural but sophisticated township. We now have after-school Explorer's Clubs, recycling teams, high school and middle school kids studying the Hudson River, and a beautiful wildlife garden at a local school, in its second year of a construction program, created entirely by volunteers. Our tiny amphibian pond there was dug a bit too shallow and the newts died from heat exhaustion, but we did have an incredible crop of gooey green filamentous algae that both fascinated and repelled the kids.

Green is in, of course, and we're trying our heartfelt best to get there. Several weeks ago, the entire faculty of another school, about seventy in all, walked to a nearby forest and pond for training in outdoor education techniques. We had them writing nature poems, listening for sounds they wouldn't hear in their classrooms, sorting through pond water and mud to find insect larvaes, and designing useful lessons for this wonderful outdoor learning laboratory.

Jane Goodall was on Jon Stewart's Daily Show recently and said that she had started the international youth conservation organization "Roots and Shoots" because present generations have not done enough to save the earth's animals and plants from desecration and ruin. That mantra seems to be on a lot of people's tongues these days. The kids will grow up and save the planet if we show them how to identify trees, build bird feeders, collect and recycle used up batteries before they're thrown in the garbage can, and in general, love and respect the earth. Hudson River Snapshot Day, managed back in October by New York State and by Columbia's Lamont-Doherty, corralled 3000 students from a variety of schools to take the pulse of the river along 140 miles of riverfront. It was great fun and an inspiring success, but I'm asking myself these days why I'm feeling so bad about the future? And what hope do we really have if someone as iconic and spiritual as Jane Goodall says that we, the earth-day generation, have failed to protect mother earth?

That first Earth Day celebration happened almost 40 years ago and in looking back over the decades I suggest that more American children have had exposure, both formal and informal, to environmental education than at any time in history. Many school districts, including large counties in California and Oregon, mandate that all of their 5th or 6th graders spend a week at Science Camp or "outdoor school." They learn about the interconnectedness of life, and how cycles and energy make the world work. They learn to value the life of a singing bird, or a schooling fish, and they learn to work together in collaboration. And their teachers, guys like me, make sure we focus on the positives and how fine it is to be in nature. Summer camps help do the same. And yet the news stories I've been reading lately report that the natural world is crumbling before our eyes and international committees proclaim an extinction crisis in a rapidly changing, degrading earth. Why haven't all these green kids saved the earth?

Older green "kids", who are now 40, 50, 60 and beyond, have rallied, of course, for a long time. We have our heroes, both living and dead, like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau, Barry Commoner, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, and most recently, Richard Louv, who wrote the landmark book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." Why, then, does the world appear to this observer to be getting sicker and more depauperized with each passing headline of a species going extinct or as seen through color photos of vast Pacific gyres of floating plastic garbage? Why haven't four decades of focused environmental education, a plethora of environmental laws, the ever present nature shows and animal networks on television, and 39 Earth Day celebrations been enough to turn the ship around?

I could solicit dozens of different, contrasting answers to this question. My good friend Jonathan, a scientist and educator at Vassar College, thinks I'm overlooking the many important achievements of the past decades: eliminating DDT and the concomitant and joyous return of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Ospreys; the amelioration of acid rain pollutants; the banning of CFCs that caused the ominous ozone hole, etc. etc. We sat in a Mexican restaurant in Poughkeepsie this week having a heated, endless argument about who was seeing things clearly and who wasn't. I still don't know if either of us is "right", but my opinion, which set my friend on edge and loud defense, is that environmentalists and other people who care deeply about the earth are stupendously and catastrophically outgunned and overrun by those whose financial and security pursuits trump a million-fold every attempt to go green, recycle, insulate, garden, or buy a Prius. Our voices and our local sources of empowerment just cannot do battle with those forces deforesting the tropics, overfishing the oceans, and selling us endless amounts of stuff.

Indeed, isn't the very nature of the market system for entities to grow continuously or be swallowed up by competition? Isn't that pathway, however, completely at odds with a finite earth? Surely it's the recipe, in my mind and that of many others, for the drastic simplification of the planet and a sadly impoverished world. Statistics show that most pollution is caused by corporations, business, and government. And yet, here in our little communities we're working hard to make our schools and our children and our lives friendlier to the earth. In fact, this is what gives me the most joy in my life. I'm a green missionary living in a community that, happily for me, shares these values.

But I don't know what to do because I'm caught in this existential paradox, and I have been secretly sick at heart. I rarely tell anyone how I feel about these things since I'm an environmental educator and responsible for teaching a lot of people, but I read about global devastation and that is what is moving me to write. The internet news stories and photographs are killing my spirit.

I love my job. I get paid to take young people on hikes and explorations. How great is that! And there's no way I'm going to quit. I live in a world, however, that has doomed polar bears to extinction, that still hunts whales, that permits mountaintop removal, and that allows for the hunting of wolves after years of painstaking restoration efforts on their beleaguered behalf. These people are crazy! How do I remain the happy, positive nature guy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? What is a guy to do? Tell me, neighbor, what is a guy to do?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Pete Salmansohn

Pete Salmansohn

Pete Salmansohn has been an environmental educator for 30 years and is the award-winning author of several children's books, including "Project Puffin", and "Saving Birds." His work has appeared in the NY Times, Boston Globe, Audubon, Wildlife Conservation, etc. He works for the National Audubon Society, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, and the Garrison Union Free School in Garrison, NY.

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