Green Teens


By Nancy Marx Better;

Published: March 8, 1992

It's 11 on a cool Fall morning, and Sol Solomon, an 18-year-old native of Santa Monica, Calif., is pacing back and forth before some 900 students in an auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan. Dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt, his long black hair flowing from a baseball cap worn backward, Solomon is complaining about the environment's destruction. "The ocean I'm surfin' in is like a toilet that hasn't been flushed," he laments. "The sky has got colors in it Picasso couldn't even paint. What's going on here? Who's in control? Some corporate dude who wants to get rich? Some corporate dude who doesn't care about me?"

Amid cheers from his audience, Solomon reels off a dizzying list of ecological disasters: global warming, ozone holes, acid rain, toxic waste, vanishing wildlife. He tells how young consumers forced Star-Kist to stop buying tuna from fishermen who ensnared dolphins, how they stopped McDonald's from using foam containers and how they stopped Burger King from importing beef harvested from tropical rain forests.

"I know a lot of companies that are good, and I know a lot of companies that are bad," Solomon says. "So I'm going to speak out and boycott companies I don't like, because I can make a difference." Intoxicated by the potent juice of ecological righteousness, the Martin Luther King Jr. students clap wildly.

Solomon is a member of YES -- Youth for Environmental Sanity, a troupe of eco-crusaders that travels around the country preaching an evangelical mission with a funky mix of skits, slides and songs. Founded two years ago in Santa Cruz, Calif., YES, which is financed by Earth-Save and other environmental groups, has already reached more than 100,000 junior- and senior-high-school students, inspiring many to establish their own eco-clubs. The YES performers deliver an impassioned plea to their peers. "Who says we can't save the earth?" asks Solomon. "If we don't save it for ourselves, nobody's going to save it for us."

Earth Day is more than two decades old, and many adults have felt their ardor for the environment cool off. Not teen-agers. In a recent survey of 10,000 young people, the Bedford Kent Group, a New York consulting firm, found that more than 75 percent championed the environment as their favorite cause -- over homelessness, AIDS, illiteracy and drug abuse. Hundreds of groups are cropping up around the country, with punchy acronyms like HOW (Help Our World), STOP (Students Tackle Ocean Plastics) and LIFE (Let's Improve Future Environment). Just as the civil rights struggle and Vietnam shaped the baby-boom generation, global catastrophes like the Valdez oil spill or local crises like overflowing garbage dumps make their children brood darkly. They've adopted the movement their parents abandoned, convinced it's their job to turn back the tide.

To fight the good fight, so-called green teens have turned to tactics their parents should recall from college days. According to a survey by Alexander W. Astin, a U.C.L.A. education professor, the percentage of college freshmen who have taken part in protests is higher than ever -- surpassing even the late 1960's. Across America, teen-agers are nagging their parents to cast aside disposable diapers, disposable razors, disposable lighters. Chanting their movement's anthem -- "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!" -- they conduct environmental audits of their households, examining how much trash is produced, how much energy is consumed, how much water is used. At school, they lobby teachers to substitute ceramic mugs for foam cups. Even their little brothers and sisters are getting in on the act, shunning felt-tip markers with ingredients like toluene (bad) and ethanol (very bad) in favor of beeswax crayons.

It's a reversal of the age-old generational war: now children are bullying their parents into changing their behavior. At the Bel Air Elementary School in New Brighton, Minn., 17 sixth graders were suspended in 1990 for boycotting disposable trays. Barred from class, the malcontents cleaned up a local park. At the next board meeting, the administration capitulated and agreed to buy reusable trays districtwide.

Even an innocent picnic can become a test case for the green police. Barbara A. Lewis, a Salt Lake City schoolteacher and mother of four, remembers the look on her 13-year-old son's face when she brought home plastic cups. "It was as if I'd committed a crime," she says.

Before too long, it may be. In Closter, N.J., a handful of elementary-school students founded Kids Against Pollution (KAP) four years ago to protest foam containers. After speaking before the local Board of Education, the Mayor and the Town Council, the students succeeded in getting the substance banned from the entire community. Today KAP numbers more than 1,000 chapters across the country and abroad, in junior and senior high schools as well as elementary schools.

KAP is now lobbying Congress for an "environmental bill of rights." Their proposed statute, sponsored by Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, proclaims: "We believe we are entitled, by law, to clean air, land and water. It does not appear that our right to a clean environment is being upheld."

VERY POLITICAL movement has its heroes, its martyrs, its myths. Looming large in the green-teen pantheon is 17-year-old Joel A. Rubin, now a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy. In January 1990, as a freshman at Cape Elizabeth High School in Maine, he saw a TV film shot by Sam LaBudde, a San Francisco biologist who worked aboard a Panamanian tuna boat to document dolphins being slaughtered in tuna nets. "I didn't see how humans could murder them so brutally," says Rubin. "Maybe it's because I was taking biology at the time, and I knew dolphins were intelligent."

Rubin blames the blunder, in part, on the generation gap. "If my parents had seen the program on TV, they would have said, 'That's too bad about the dolphins, but that's life,' " he says. "They weren't taught how to save the environment when they were growing up."

With the help of his biology teacher, Rubin got the home addresses of three senior executives at H. J. Heinz, the parent company of Star-Kist, the largest producer of canned tuna in the world. He sent letters and received no reply. Frustrated, he enlisted 75 other biology students and deluged the Star-Kist executives' mailboxes with postcards. Says Rubin: "We wanted to affect these people on a personal level. We wanted them to come home every day to those postcards."

In April 1990 -- 10 days before Earth Day's 20th anniversary -- Star-Kist announced that it would no longer buy, process or sell tuna caught at the expense of dolphins. At the press conference, Anthony J. F. O'Reilly, president of Heinz, read a handful of postcards from the Cape Elizabeth students, including one that carried a single line: "How can you sleep at night knowing your company is doing this?"

The Star-Kist saga galvanized teen-agers everywhere. It also helped set the movement's confrontational tone. In the fall of 1990, KAP members mailed 3,000 letters to McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., begging the company to banish its foam containers. Last winter, McDonald's announced a switch to paper-based wrappings. The company also agreed to work with the Environmental Defense Fund on a waste-reduction program.

McDonald's was lucky; it succeeded in shoring up its image among young consumers. Other businesses haven't been so fortunate. In March 1990, a group of junior-high-school students in Walnut, Calif., persuaded the State Legislature to pass a bill banning the mass release of balloons at the beginning of football games and the like. Testifying before the state's Natural Resources Committee, the students argued that after balloons pop, tiny pieces float to earth, choking small animals and birds. The students won their vote -- dealing a severe blow to the balloon business in California.

If teen-agers have been remarkably successful at forcing concessions, it's probably because they have intransigence on their side. In April, 100 high-school students were invited to Pepsico's headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., for an environmental conference sponsored by the Volunteer Center of United Way. They refused to attend if box lunches were served, objecting to the excess packaging. It would have to be a buffet. "These kids were extremely strong-minded," says Louise Leeds, coordinator of the conference. "They weren't going to give an inch." GREEN TEENS AREN'T the first group of young people to threaten corporate America. But they may be the most effective. Opposition to Vietnam couldn't easily be expressed as a point-of-purchase decision, but opposition to environmental degradation can. "I think boycotting is something that allows you to make a real statement," says Ryan Eliason, who helped create the YES tour as a high-school senior in Santa Cruz, Calif. "It feels powerful. If you're saying to a company, 'No, I don't like what you're doing and I'm not going to support it,' you feel strong."

Thus far, only a handful of adults have capitalized on youth's enthusiasm for the environment. The most prominent is John Javna, author of a best seller, "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth." Last fall his Berkeley, Calif.-based publishing firm, the Earthworks Group, brought out a sequel, entitled "Kid Heroes of the Environment," a collection of stories celebrating eco-victors. Prompted by the success of adult eco-magazines like Garbage and E, Marvel Comics introduced Captain Planet, a comic book based on an international band of teen eco-heroes who battle earth polluters. There's more to come: in 1993, New Line Cinema will release "Toxic Crusaders," a feature film based on a band of characters who are "faster than a nuclear meltdown, stronger than the Environmental Protection Agency and able to blow away radioactive fallout in a single breath."

"50 Simple Things" has spawned a flurry of junior self-help books, most of them advising teen-agers to help the earth by acting nice, not by acting up. In early 1993 the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities will publish, with Ballantine Books, a youth version of its best seller, "Shopping for a Better World," which rates the makers of 2,000 grocery products, based on companies' social, political and economic policies. "Our aim is to have consumers of every age turn their shopping carts into vehicles for social change," says Alice Tepper Marlin, president of the council.

That's no idle threat. According to the Rand Youth Poll, the 28 million teen-agers in the United States from ages 12 to 19 have almost $60 billion to burn. While the number of teen-agers has declined over the last decade, their purchasing clout has doubled. What's more, busy parents dole out $28.3 billion to kids for family grocery shopping. All told, the Rand group estimates the impact of teen-agers on the United States economy at about $230 billion per year.

Not surprisingly, green marketing is booming -- for adults and children alike. Some 600 new "green" products were unveiled in 1990, which means such introductions are increasing at a rate 20 times faster than the overall rate for new packaged goods. Many of these introductions are targeted at children. Animal Grahams, a line of crackers made by the Small World Products Group, depicts 11 endangered species, including pandas, elephants and rhinoceroses. Made from organically grown flour, they're packaged in biodegradable cardboard boxes with soybean ink. The Small World Products Group plans to donate 2 percent of the wholesale price of the crackers to environmental causes.

Some companies, like Chevron, Exxon, Scott Paper, Weyerhaeuser, and Procter & Gamble -- are setting up environmental-education programs to improve their image among young consumers. Sebastian International, a hair-care manufacturer based in Woodland Hills, Calif., recently began a project called Little Green, which includes "eco-literacy" contests in elementary schools.

But corporations should be wary about sprucing up their reputations with a coat of green paint. "When a company spends money trying to convince people it's a good citizen instead of trying to actually alleviate pollution, kids nose it out," says Peter Bahouth, former executive director of Greenpeace.

THE MOLDING OF THE green mind generally begins at school, where, since the giant eco-disasters of the early 80's, teachers have been struggling to explain environmental issues. Ari Raisa, who teaches science at Brooklyn Friends School, is an example. "I told them to come up with a product they feel is strongly connected with environmental problems, and then research how it's made and how it's disposed of," he says.

The strategy seems to work. Tara Satahoo, a sophomore, says her family no longer buys juice in plastic jugs or coated-paper containers; they make it from concentrate, in glass jars. When she goes grocery shopping, she carries a reusable plastic bag. "We talk about products at school, so I know what's okay to buy," Satahoo says.

When these teen-agers hit college, their activism tends to intensify -- and occasionally goes right off the rails. When a Shell Oil recruiter visited the University of Minnesota, Eric Odell, a senior, donned a gas mask and poured blood-colored paint from a gasoline can over a pile of fake money stacked on a table in front of a Shell Oil recruiter. "I'm one of those people who needs reining in at times," he says.

Today, Odell is affiliated with the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the nation's biggest and bold est youth-run ecological organization. Founded in 1988 by students at the University of North Carolina, the coalition now has 1,500 chapters on college and high-school campuses. In October 1990 it sponsored the largest gathering of young environmentalists in history, attracting 8,000 students.

The conference kicked off the coalition's Corporate Accountability Campaign, in which members conduct environmental audits to change the behavior of the business world. Students at Ohio University plan to boycott British Petroleum, requesting reforms in its waste-management process. The coalition's members at the University of Colorado boycotted Coors beer, demanding less pollution in the Rocky Mountains. Students at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque boycotted acid- and stone-washed jeans, which are made with pumice, a lightweight volcanic rock produced by strip mining. The main target: Levi Strauss & Company, which holds 49 percent of the jeans market. "We want to use public pressure to make corporate America clean up its act," says Randolph L. Viscio, the coalition's national outreach coordinator.

The group recently called for a boycott of Mitsubishi, the giant Japanese conglomerate, which finances logging in South American rain forests.

Today Mitsubishi, tomorrow the world. "I think S.E.A.C. represents the future of environmentalism," says Viscio. "We're trying to broaden the definition to include everything that surrounds us."

Photos: Joel A. Rubin, 17, persuaded Star-Kist to stop buying tuna caught in nets that also trapped dolphins. (Jose Azel/Contact for The New York Times); Members of Youth for Environmental Sanity strive for a model earth. (J. B. Diederich/Contact for The New York Times)

Nancy Marx Better, a New York-based freelance writer, specializes in business issues.

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