Sitting on an airplane as she was flying across the United States, Dr. Jane Goodall said she noticed a 1)bleary-eyed woman sitting next to her. She asked the woman why she was so tired, and the woman said she was absolutely exhausted because she'd been up at two in the morning trying to turn off the water. Her young daughter was in an environmental group at school and her daughter's passion had turned to making sure her family was 2)eco-friendly. They were staying at the woman's brother's house the night before her trip, and in the middle of the night her daughter woke up to the sound of a dripping 3)faucet. The daughter asked for help turning it off as the faucet handle was broken. The only way to stop the leak was to dig to the pipe in the front lawn to find the 4)main valve to turn the water off, and her daughter wouldn't go to sleep until the leak stopped. So at two in the morning everyone in the family was out in the yard helping to dig to turn off the water.
And that, Dr. Goodall related, is the power of youth. When children make a change in their lives, families are dragged along to become environmentally friendly too.
It's not just families that are changed by youth either. Dr. Goodall tells another story about a young boy in New York who went to one of her talks and learned about the facial expressions of chimpanzees. When he saw a picture of a chimpanzee on a box of cereal and it looked like the chimpanzee was grinning, the boy realized from what he'd learned at Dr. Goodall's talk that the chimpanzee's look was actually one of fear. The boy wrote to the cereal-maker asking to take the chimpanzee's picture off the box. Along with receiving a letter back from the company, he saw the picture of the chimpanzee disappear from the box within just a few months. “I took action,” the boy now relates, “and the company changed.” However it happened that the picture changed, the boy and his family believe it was his doing.
As these two stories show, young people have much more power to initiate and accomplish change than what adults may believe. Moreover, youth often achieve much more than they ever expect they will. These stories also illustrate two key points that environmental groups would do well to remember.
First, saving the environment means more than just holding large public events targeted at adults. Students can make a major difference through smaller actions at home or larger campaigns. By influencing families, corporations and government, students can have a significant positive impact. So working with student groups can be the start to making big changes.
And second, small actions can have a big impact. We often tend to think about big events like 5)Clean and Green Week. Instead, a lot of small changes can make a difference. If hundreds or thousands of students convince their families to turn off the tap to save water, move the air conditioning temperature up a degree or two, drive less and make other environmentally-friendly changes, the entire family may change its behaviors. With these small and symbolic yet high-impact changes, youth have an effect beyond just their own actions.
Youth can benefit by realizing that their own actions have more power than they may expect, and environmentalists can benefit by taking the time to focus on even the youngest students.