Youth Across North America Are Fighting For Their Future Climate
By Subhankar Banerjee
05 October, 2010
I recently urged young people to start a climate revolution in a post titled "Letter to Young Americans." Here are some of the comments that were posted in the blogosphere 1 | 2 in response to that post: "Your letter will be thrown into the marginalized bin and be lost forever. You're asking for honesty and sincerity in the land of hypocrisy;" and "American college kids (and others their age) have other things on their minds -- like sports, drinking, i-pods, text-messaging, video games, TV, etc;" and "I'm a college freshman, and I, along with most other Americans, disagree with almost every tired idea you bring up in this article;" and "I'm not a 'young American', and, I don't even go to college. But, I'll go ahead and sink this stinky diatribe to the bottom of the briny depths."
Not an auspicious beginning for a revolution, wouldn't you say?
But the post also resulted in several emails in my inbox. Here are three stories from those emails about young people with a different perspective -- a teen rock band called One Eyed Rhyno from Sacramento, California; climate students from the North Cascades Institute in Sedrow-Woolley, Washington; and a bicyclist from the Yukon province in Canada.
Teen Rock Band One Eyed Rhyno
On September 22, I received an email from Two Sheps that Pass, a marketing agency in New York City. Normally, such an email would sit in my inbox for a few days before I'd get to it. But in this case, I responded within an hour because I found the subject line intriguing. "Teen Band One Eyed Rhyno Rocks to Raise Awareness and Funds for Gulf Spill," it said. The band has been compared to Led Zeppelin -- I love rock music, and Led Zeppelin is one of my all-time favorite rock bands. I saw the Page-Plant reunion concert in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
One Eyed Rhyno released a single entitled "The Bird," which addresses the devastating and deadly conditions that impact wildlife after an oil spill. "The Bird" reminded me of Albert Pinkham Ryder's painting, "Dead Bird," which I've long been interested in since I first encountered it in a reproduction. He painted this unusually small (4 3/8" x 10") and representative -- not his oeuvre -- work sometime during the 1890s. Ryder's masterpiece is the most affecting painting I've ever come across that evokes the pain and suffering of a dying bird.
So I was curious. I clicked the link to the music video of "The Bird." Powerful music; I was hooked. I went to their Myspace page and watched all nine music videos they've posted.
In India, I grew up with the unforgettable melodious voices of Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeskar, Kishore Kumar, and Mukesh. I'm no music critic, but when James sings "Name" or his sister Elaine sings "Sea of Love," I feel these voices are hauntingly melodious. And when he sings "Amelia," "Armaggedon," and "Rooster," he reminds me of a young Neil Young - engrossed and lost in the song he is singing. And then I listen to "My Side," "Capless," and "The Bird," their vibrant youth energy burst out.
For a while, I was so lost in the music that I forgot these kids have anything to do with the environment. It actually didn't matter to me because I loved their music. Then I returned and listed to "The Bird" again, and again.
In 2004, James Hunter was 9 years old and his big sister Elaine was 12. They were psyched by Jack Black's movie The School of Rock and wanted to create a band of their own. So they did, for a school talent show. And the name? James had visited the San Diego Zoo and thought rhinoceros is the coolest animal on the planet. Elaine thought rhinos fight and sometimes one of them might loose an eye. That was the birth of One Eyed Rhyno. Since then they've been rocking with a purpose to save the planet -- not unlike a charging one eyed rhino who is determined to do something.
The One Eyed Rhyno Myspace page says, "Always ready to support a good cause, OER has played benefits for many charitable events, such as Africa Student Funds, Music for Kids, Teens Turning Green, blood drives to fight leukemia, community shopping days to benefit many local nonprofits, plus various church and school fundraisers and many more."
On January 13, 2005, there was a mysterious oil spill in Ventura, California. It was the largest California oil spill in 15 years, in terms of dead and injured birds. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 birds were affected, and James and Elaine had seen photos of dead birds from the spill. James wrote the song, "The Bird" that year. He was ten years old at the time. Here are a few lines from the song:
Have you seen the bird... he don't fly
his wings are black... can you hear him cry
how's your soul... do you even see
you just ignored it... you let bad things be
you wanna save the world
you think you gotta way
you better save tomorrow
before you loose today
After BP's oil-and-methane spill in the Gulf of Mexico this year, James (now 16), Elaine (18), and their long-time friend Andrew Daniels (17) recorded "The Bird," with James as the lead singer and guitarist, Elaine on drums and vocal, and Andrew on bass.
"The Bird" was featured on the "Weekend without Oil" campaign of DoSomething.org -- "one of the largest organizations in the US that helps young people rock causes they care about" -- and in a blog piece called "Singing in support of wildlife" in The Defenders of Wildlife, a prominent national conservation organization.
One Eyed Rhyno is donating 100 percent of their proceeds for gulf restoration projects to The Student Conservation Association (SCA), which "builds new generations of conservation leaders and inspires lifelong stewardship by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land." I talked to the band members over the phone recently and asked them why they decided to donate the funds. They responded, "We're young. We don't have much time, we have to do everything we can right now." They told me they have events planned with SCA through Earth Day 2011.
Where does the passion for environmental conservation and volunteerism come from for these teens? In 2005, 2006, and 2007, they participated in the Creek Week in Sacramento, their hometown, a local effort to clean up creeks. They recounted one experience of finding the carcass of a bird. They were strongly affected as they learned about global environmental problems through local volunteerism. But they also fondly remember at the end of each of these weeks that there was good food and music, and, sure enough, they performed each time.
Now they say they want their music to inspire youth across the world to participate in creating a healthier planet for their generation.
During most of the phone call they talked about saving the environment. It was only after the call that I found out that One Eyed Rhyno had taken first place in the Contemporary Music category at the 2010 Jammies, Sacramento's Youth Music Competition. Bono, Leo, Letterman, Leno - pay attention to One Eyed Rhyno. They've got tremendous potential to inspire their generation. Give them a little nudge, and they'll fly!
Cascades Climate Challenge at the North Cascades Institute
Beat legends Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen spent time in the North Cascades of the Pacific Northwest and celebrated those mountains in their writing. The story goes that those experiences profoundly impacted their later writing. I lived in Seattle for 10 years and also took many gentle strolls in the Cascades. Since 2005 I've been a friend of the North Cascades Institute (NCI). In a recent email, Megan McGinty brought to my attention the Cascades Climate Challenge Program at NCI. She is coordinating this program in which "Youth Become Leaders in Climate Change Education." Megan recounts her experience of running the program in a moving blog piece titled "Climate Change, Youth and Hope: Debunking the Paradox" she wrote in Clearing Magazine. She writes, "While some of us may see a reason for despair, there are others who hear a call to arms. When these students learn about pressing issues, their response is a desire to inform others about it. They intend to catalyze the change they believe their communities need."
In 2009, the inaugural year of the program, NCI brought 19 urban high school youth from five cities across the country - Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. They were selected on the basis of teacher recommendations, service and leadership experience, an essay application, and personal interview. They spent the month of July in the North Cascades camping, hiking, and learning about climate change. In September, they traveled to Washington, DC, and presented these ideas to decision-makers. In October and November the students worked with teachers and partners from their local National Park units to bring climate change awareness into the elementary schools, engage more youth, and provide opportunities for service and action.
As a result of the program, NCI produced a beautiful video that you can watch online. In the video a biologist says, "(Bull Trout) is like the polar bear of the North Cascades National Park. As climate warms, this is going to be the species we're probably going to loose early on." One student says, "I think I peed my pants. I think I peed my pants" (during a thunderstorm on a peak). Megan says, "This is the sound of frogs on Ross Lake in the evening." NCI director Saul Weisberg says, "The lens is climate, but what we're really talking about is that this is citizenship 101. How do we pay attention to places that we live in and care for?" One student says, "My mom doesn't really know a lot about climate changes. Back then all they knew was how to drive and smoke. They don't really care. But she is learning these things as I'm telling her." And another student says, "It's so easy to get involved and help out, and most people don't know, so education is the key."
Bicyclist Malkolm Boothroyd
The person in the above photo is Malkolm Boothroyd. He is 18 and lives with his parents in the Yukon province of Canada. Behind him we see a carved wood sign that says Welcome to Alaska. He looks a bit tired, because he is. He started his journey in Alaska and biked 1060 kilometers on the Alaska Highway to reach Fort Nelson in British Columbia. He has a warm smile on his face but his posture is firm and his eyes are open and locked directly into our eyes, a bit confrontational, because it is. Unlike macho explorers of yesteryear, Malkolm is on a mission, and he is addressing us directly. We do get a hint of the nature of his journey by zooming into the photo: the bag that is attached to the front wheel of his bike says, 'Shut Down - Tar Sands.'
On June 25, Democracy Now presented a powerful interview with Clayton Thomas Müller, a Cree indigenous activist and the tar sands campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Müller talks at great length about the massive devastation being brought by tar sands oil production, but he also brings attention to the human-rights issues far too often ignored by the mainstream environmental groups. "The impact is absolutely catastrophic," he states, "particularly to local Dene, Cree, and Metis peoples, who have subsisted and relied on those sacred lands in northern Alberta for time immemorial. And these communities have been put on the sacrificial block of American and Canadian energy and climate policy."
In late August I wrote a piece on how bark beetles are killing forests all across the world due to global warming. And because of this, some boreal forests in British Columbia and Yukon provinces in Canada have already turned from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. But I did not point out then that tar sands oil production in Alberta, Canada, is a major killer of boreal forests, contributing significantly to climate change. If you're interested, you can check out this report, "Tar Sands and Boreal Forest" from Greenpeace [pdf 2 pages].
Right now, the U.S. is considering approval of the massive Keystone XL pipeline project to bring tar sands crude from Alberta all the way down to Texas and the Gulf Coast refineries. Several U.S. congressional delegations have recently visited Canada to learn about tar sands oil. Earlier last month Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gave vague soothing comments to both sides after her visit there with Representative Ed Markey (D-MA). Most recently, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the tar sands oil field "really blends with the natural habitat" after his visit there with Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Kay Hagan (D-NC). You'd have to be really 'high' to make a statement like that about tar sands and natural habitat--Senator Graham must have been looking at those fields from a very high altitude, where everything peacefully blends into a holistic picture. I suggest you take a look at these photos from a low altitude, no more than table high, and then decide for yourself.
As I was finishing this piece I saw an ad that said, "Tell it like it is," on Huffington Post. It was posted by the Government of Alberta, Canada, to promote tar sands oil production.
The question is: To whom should we listen about the devastating impacts of tar sands oil - the inexperienced Canadian youth Malkolm Boothroyd from Yukon or the experienced Canadian politicians from Alberta?
Malkolm writes in his blog that he is now cycling from Alaska to Washington, D.C., and then continuing on to the U.N. Climate Change conference in Cancun in December. He is riding solo from Alaska to Missoula, Montana, where he will meet up with other people and continue on. I learned from a letter that he wrote to his family before he started his journey that his ride is part of several larger initiatives: in Minneapolis he'll take part in the 'Global Work Party' on 10/10/10; his journey is part of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, which is "a united front of youth from across Canada tackling the biggest challenge of our generation, the emerging climate crisis"; and he is excited to have been selected as one of 25 youths for the Canadian Youth Delegation to Cancun.
The best part to me is something he wrote in his blog on September 5: "It can be very lonely and dull cycling alone through the BORE-eal forest. I've passed many hours pretending I'm talking to Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada) or Jim Prentice (Environment Minister of Canada). I say things to the Prime Minister like, "you have asthma so you care about air quality, but you also have children so I can't understand why you don't care about climate change," or "can you look me in the eye and tell me that your government is doing enough to prevent my generation from inheriting a world devastated by climate change?"
See what I mean by his direct gaze toward us in that photo? It's no surprise that Malkolm is doing imagine-talking with Harper during his bike ride. Last year Canada ranked last among the G8 nations on climate change action. I'm sure you're wondering: How did U.S. fare? A whopping 7th place. I bet both Canada and U.S. will be vying for the last two spots again this year.
This is not Malkolm's first big bike ride, though. When he was 15 he went on a yearlong fossil-fuel-free bike ride with his parents in search of birds. They called the journey "Bird Year". They biked 21,144 km, identified 548 different bird species, raised more than $25,000 for bird conservation, and in the process became convinced "that climate change was more serious than they had thought."
Isn't it amazing that a youth in the far northern Yukon province of Canada and a group of urban youths from Sacramento, California, are independently talking about climate change, doing something about it, and raising money to donate for conservation?
It makes me wonder how effective the leaders of big U.S. charitable environmental organizations (whose salaries are far more than any U.S. Senator, the Speaker of the House, the Vice President, and near and sometimes exceeding that of the U.S. President) have been on climate change. Nothing we can write home about. I'm also certain that the climate deniers will soon be asking for pay raises from Big Oil and Big Coal after the recent loud announcement that "Big Green CEOs Earn More Than Climate Deniers." There was a time when mountains, forests, and deserts were places where Green leaders felt safe and comfortable to walk on and so they passionately fought for the protection of those places. Those times are gone. But I think right now the Big Green CEOs ought to reduce their salaries to no more than that of a U.S. Senator, and that would be fair, unless Wall Street is the only street they feel safe and comfortable to walk on. While you're contemplating that, I'll return to Malkolm.
In 2009, he biked more than 5,000 km, from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Ottawa, Ontario, as part of Pedal for the Planet. When the group got to Ottawa, the Harper government refused to meet with the young cyclists. Does that remind you of a recent episode when Bill McKibben and young students arrived in D.C. with their "put solar panels on the White House roof" proposal?
Malkolm began his current journey in Alaska, a place that has become like a second home for me through my decade-long work on Arctic Alaska issues. So I was curious about youth and climate change in Alaska. Two weekends ago, as I started writing this piece, the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action was finishing their Youth Climate Change Summit.
These are three isolated stories that came into my inbox through the blogosphere. I'm sure there are thousands of others like these all over the world that I do not know about.
These youth are quietly doing things that may not seem like a climate revolution to you, but to me it sure smells like kindling. If we elders support and educate our youth now, I bet in 10 years there will be many big fires!
Until then: Malkolm - happy ride! Megan and your students - happy trails! And let us all sing with One Eyed Rhyno:
you better save tomorrow
before you loose today
[Note for readers: I'd like to thank James and Elaine Hunter, and Andrew Daniels of One Eyed Rhyno, Drew Citron of Two Sheps that Pass, Megan McGinty of North Cascades Institute, fellow conservationist Christianne Hinks for bringing Malkolm Boothroyd's journey to my attention, and senior editor of ClimateStoryTellers.org Christine Clifton-Thornton.]
Subhankar Banerjee is a Photographer, writer, activist, founder of ClimateStoryTellers.org
Copyright 2010 Subhankar Banerjee