Children, Earth Day, and Activism

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“The kinship that children feel for animals and their ongoing disappearance from us literally brought me to my knees that night, on a sidewalk in my own village. It was love that got me back up. It was love that brought me to this jail cell.”                                         Sandra Steingraber

Today is Earth Day.  Yesterday the film “How the Kids Saved the Parks”  brought me to tears.   It tells the story of how a group of children from Grass Valley Charter School worked to prevent the closure of the South Yuba River State Park, one of the parks that California had planned to close in 2011 due to budget cuts.   In watching the movie, I was amazed at how articulate the children were in expressing their passionate feelings about this issue.

Those of us who live here really love the river.  This “park” is a patchwork  of accessible areas  stretching 20 miles along the river.  It includes miles of hiking trails, four historic bridges, and the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail, the Independence Trail.

Several of my grandchildren gathered signatures for this effort.  Wonderful teachers helped them organize.  Community support was high. Local nonprofit South Yuba River Citizens’ League (SYRCL) activated their network of volunteers.  We were all thrilled when the “parks” were saved from closure.

These same children and others from various Nevada County schools are now engaged in a new campaign:  to institute a local ban on single-use plastic bags.  They are learning the facts, making posters, and developing speeches about the issue.  Last Saturday they hosted a showing at the local theater of “How the Kids Saved the Parks, followed by a showing of “Bag It,” with children speaking about why they are involved in this new campaign.

This was a painful movie for me to watch when I saw it a couple of years ago.  I’m sad that our children have to face such a massive problem.  But it’s not healthy for them or for us to be in denial about the harms being done to our planet by what we accept as our “normal” way of life.  I’m sure that taking action to address these harms is a healthier response than apathy, no matter what the outcome.  This we can teach, as well as model, to our children.

Or maybe they will teach us.  At a school organizing meeting the other day I overheard one parent say to another, “When these kids see something wrong, they won’t just sit around and say ‘I don’t like this.’  They’ll get up and do something about it.”

I’m concerned, though, that we adults not leave such activism to the children.  So much damage has already been done.  There isn’t time to wait.  We must all wake up to what is at stake and act together before it is too late.

Climate change is an example of an issue that won’t wait.  The Spirit of Life is motivating people around the world to work to stop or prevent fracking, end mountaintop removal, stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, and reduce the overall use of fossil fuels.  When normal political channels fail, as they often do in this system dominated by money and corporate power,  some people are engaging in acts of civil disobedience as the only way to effect change.

Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, is one such person.  I close by quoting a letter she wrote from the Chemung County Jail in Elmira, New York, where she is serving a fifteen day sentence for blockading a gas compression rig owned by the Inergy gas company near her home in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  She focuses on her feelings about her children: 

Seven years ago, when my son was four years old, he asked to be a polar bear for Halloween, and so I went to work sewing him a costume from a chenille bedspread. It was with the knowledge that the costume would almost certainly outlast the species. Out on the street that night – holding a plastic pumpkin filled with KitKat bars – I saw many species heading towards extinction; children dressed as frogs, bees, monarch butterflies, and the icon of Halloween itself – the little brown bat.

The kinship that children feel for animals and their ongoing disappearance from us literally brought me to my knees that night, on a sidewalk in my own village. It was love that got me back up. It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.  The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?

See Sandra Steingraber’s whole letter here.

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