Dear Umbra,

I’m an officer for my high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, and we stress academic importance and help our community by doing service projects. I’m trying to get a service project going in support of the environment. Greenhouse-gas emissions and alternative fuels are some things I tried to bring up at our officer meetings to motivate my friends to help out, but they don’t seem too interested. What I want to know is, what issues can I bring up to get a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds in southern California to care about this? Thanks.

Richard Gomez
Colton, Calif.

Dearest Richard,

Good for you. You’re thinking big. We need people your age to care about this planet. (Don’t you hate it when people my age say things like “people your age”? Sorry.)

Could you get them to care about climate
change?

Photo: iStockphoto

My second reaction to your excellent goal — after “Bravo, Richard!” — is that you might be thinking a bit too big. Your talk of greenhouse-gas emissions and alternative fuels, while admirable, might not be something that really grabs your fellow students, you know? I would suggest trying to focus on something that affects them more directly.

For instance, you could point out how important it is to make sure your cafeteria serves local food, and start a campaign to get your school to switch to sustainable food providers. You could research how driving uses precious oil and costs money and causes nasty emissions, and try to get teachers and students who drive to school to pledge to come at least once a week by a different mode of transport — bicycle or train or bus. Or find out some statistics on how many cell phones, iPods, and other cute little devices get tossed each month, and create a project to collect them for recycling. You could also launch a project focusing on the pesticide-heavy cotton industry, and help your peers understand the truth behind their clothes. Whatever you do, make sure it’s related to daily life, not something that feels far away.

It might be useful to check with an environmental group in your area — I’d bet there’s a Sierra Club chapter nearby, and there are probably other local groups, too — to find out what they need help with in Colton, whether it’s cleaning up a river or helping with a local legislative campaign. They will have a good handle on what needs your area has, and how a group of high-school students can help. They might also have ideas about how to get your fellow students on board. Don’t be intimidated about calling or emailing — I think they’ll be very happy to hear that a person your age (oops, there I go again) is interested in the cause.

Of course, it sounds like you’re particularly interested in activism related to climate change — and that’s a good impulse, as it’s certainly the big daddy of all environmental issues. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest issues to make seem real to people, no matter what their age. One simple way to approach it would be to launch a campaign to sell or give away compact fluorescent bulbs — they save a lot of energy, which is key to addressing global warming; they save money, which makes them appealing to folks of all sorts; and they are a simple, tangible thing that people can hold in their hands and understand.

Probably the most important thing to think about is how you present your message. I don’t know what sort of budget your chapter has, but I think it’s worth using some shrewd tactics to get other students interested. Have a party, serve food, get the local media involved, even try to invite a celebrity to speak on the importance of these issues. Make sure you don’t get preachy, though. Try modeling your approach after Grist. Or think of The Daily Show: it covers environmental issues all the time, and I bet half the people watching don’t even realize it. That’s because the show is funny, but also because they don’t call the stories “environmental.” These days, environmentalism means not just trees and whales and air and water, but food and gas and cell phones and clothes — all things no teenager can do without.

Angstily,
Umbra