Kids open arms to give Earth a hug


Young students in Ohio boycott British Petroleum gas stations because of what they contend is the company's poor pollution record; teens in Arizona fight to stop a high-tech telescope from being built on land sacred to the Apaches; high schoolers from Texas explore the fragile rain forests of Costa Rica.

Even 7- and 8-year-olds get into the act. Daisy Girl Scouts spend the weekend planting trees in a city park because "you don't want the Earth to be a big blob of something," said 8-year-old Katie Ryan of Corey Elementary in Arlington, Texas.

"Children are the most radical environmentalists there are," said Randi Hacker, editor and publisher of P3, an ecological magazine based in Montgomery, Vt., for kids ages 4 to 13. "They care more about saving the Earth than anyone on Earth."

Environmentalism is the youth movement of the 1990s. Not since the 1960s has the nation's youth embraced an issue as passionately and with such commitment -- composting paper, collecting tin and aluminum cans and nagging parents to recycle.

"It's not just being more aware, it's taking action in areas that adults say can't be done," said Marianne Cherni, Greenpeace youth organizer from Washington, D.C. "They're the MTV generation; you can't pull the wool over their eyes."

On the first Earth Day 22 years ago, conservation was only one of many banners carried by teens who were angry about decisions being made by adults. But elementary and high school students have since made it their priority. Earth Day 1992 is Wednesday.

In January, World Wildlife Fund released a national survey that asked 880 children, 11 to 18, to rank five social issues in order of importance. Protecting the environment was their No. 1 concern, chosen by 38 percent of respondents over all topics including drugs, education, homelessness and the economy.

"It's more than anger -- it's righteous indignation," said Amy Belanger, national representative of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the country's largest youth-run environmental group, with headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C. "They see the planet is being taken out from underneath them by people who won't be around to suffer the consequences."

Young ecologists, once limited to anti-littering campaigns, now take on a host of issues like global warming from the greenhouse effect, dangers of ultraviolet rays from the weakening ozone layer, poor air and water quality and a growing list of endangered species.

Youths have become the main force propelling the green movement, unlike the adult-driven anti-drug and alcohol campaign.

"When you show children a very deep love and appreciation for their Earth, they're going to develop that consciousness," said Judith Doucette, director of Barbara Gordon's Montessori School Colleyville, Texas, where toddlers spread compost over their garden plots. "For them, it's not learning to do something new -- it's just learning to do something."

Educators and environmental experts, dismayed throughout the late '70s and '80s as the ecology issue lay dormant, welcome the earnestness in children they haven't seen in decades. Dozens of groups have sprung up around the nation tapping this concern: CAPE, for Children's Alliance for Protection of the Environment; Global Kids; Kids Save the Earth; YES, or Youth for Environmental Sanity.

"I know how quickly these fads can burn out, but I think a lot of what is happening is very solid," said Joan Rosner, chairwoman of Sierra Club's environmental education committee and an Albuquerque, N.M., resident. "There's no question they have an awareness that their elders don't."

Coupled with this insight is the students' knowledge that they can make a difference in the actions of corporate America: Kids have spending power.

Student activists rattle off their successes: McDonald's halting its use of foam containers; tuna firms pressured to put out products that are "dolphin-safe"; and companies that have stopped making aerosol cans that contain ozone-depleting fluorocarbons.

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