(Originally posted in May, 2001, but still all too relevant) Earth Day came and went as modestly as a ninety-year-old virgin last week, but before it shuffled back into obscurity, I was tabbed to give an Earth Day speech at a local prep school. Before my turn came to talk, the science teacher announced the winners of the Earth Day poster contest. I couldn’t tell whether the kids had done very much to observe the day aside from that. Which started me thinking of the sorts of projects your kids, or your own school, could carry out to make Earth Day something more than just good intentions. So here’s my list of five messy things high school kids can do to save the environment:
- Form a “walking school bus” for few weeks. See how long you can keep it going. Plot a route that passes by the houses of numerous kids within two miles of the school. The person who lives farthest, or a willing adult, is the “driver” or leader and walks the route, “picking up” kids along the way, thus forming the “walking school bus.” Choose kids who are normally driven to school. The adult leader provides “security.” Calculate how much fuel this saved, then how much money in the aggregate this fuel would have cost, how many pounds of CO2 this prevented from entering the atmosphere, how many vehicle-miles were saved. Discuss the pleasurable sensual and social aspects of walking to school together and what participants may have discovered in their own neighborhoods as a result.
- Form teams to sort out dumpsters, separating recyclables from non-recoverable garbage. Compare volumes of recyclable to non-recoverable garbage. Estimate monetary value of recyclables. Actually sell them through recycling concerns and distribute the money. Teams will have to research this ahead of time. Offer some kind of thematic prize to winning team. Use rubber gloves.
- Get the math geeks to calculate how much electricity (in watt-hours) and money the school could save by planting trees in front of sunny-side walls. Get the economics geeks to calculate the effect this would have on the California power crisis if all schools in the southern half of the state planted trees to aid classroom cooling. (There are actually program in LA Unified School District to realize this practice.)
- Start a project to collect and repair old bicycles and offer them cheap or free to the working poor for basic transportation. This facilitates economic empowerment as well as environmental benefit.
- Organize a team to measure sound levels at various busy intersections at different times of the day and night and compare them to decibel tables for various industrial activities. Estimate the health effects (both physical and psychological) of this constant noise exposure. Corral any kids who are interested in medicine for this one.
The only two problems I see with these activities is that they might have a real beneficial effect on the local environment, and that they may result in increased selflessness, thereby undermining our efforts to mold sincere and energetic kids into obedient consumers. Still, it’s a risk we’ll have to take if we’re hoping to build a society that our kids can pass on to their own, so go ahead and let them try it.