In the heart of iconic and soggy Southeast Portland there is a beacon of hope, a bastion of creative, passionate involvement and responsibility: a public school. Wait, what? I attended public schools up until I went off to college, so I can definitely understand why you may have doubts. It’s not just any public school, though. Sunnyside Environmental School (K-8) has a curriculum that introduces students to the wonders of the natural world through an “integrated, developmentally appropriate and art infused education.” Sunnyside champions community building and fosters a sense of individual and social responsibility for all ecosystems, for life itself. They’ve got some pretty incredible features, too: a humongous learning garden and composting system; high level Spanish and math courses that allow students to earn high school credits; ample time outdoors during recesses, hikes, field studies, camping trips and service projects; a community kitchen where kids prepare and eat the food they themselves grew in the garden.
Last week I got an email from friend, climate warrior and superhuman Bonnie McKinley, asking if I’d like to share Hike the Divide with the middle school students of SES during their week long teach-in about past, present and future energy sources and the human response to them. Now, I’ve had a few run-ins with Sunnyside kids before – mostly at City Hall in downtown PDX. They, like me, were there to testify in front of the city council. Most memorably, a few groups of SES kids from different grades took turns testifying in favor of Portland’s landmark resolution to ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure within the city. I think I speak for everyone there that day when I say they were a very hard act to follow. They spoke with such fervor and eloquence and demonstrated a level of knowledge about energy and our changing climate far beyond that of most adults.
If you want an idea of just how bright, passionate and responsible these young people are, check out this video they just wrote, filmed and produced about liquefied natural gas (LNG) and LNG terminals in the state of Oregon:
I know, right?
Naturally, I was a little worried I wouldn’t have anything new to teach these kids, but I signed on anyway. This past Tuesday and Thursday I had the opportunity to give my half-hour presentation six times to groups of about 15 SES middle school students. For the Thursday presentations, I was joined by my friend Colin Kerosky, whom I met at the Shell No! “Battle of the Bridge” blockade and who has been a community organizer for Greenpeace here in Portland. Instead of fossil fuels or renewables, we spoke about People Power. I spoke about individual human power, like a human on bicycle (the most efficient machine on the planet! You put a bowl of oatmeal in and get 30 miles of travel out, it’s amazing!) or, y’know, thru-hiking, and the power of individual will and determination. Of course, no feat of individual effort can compare to the power generated by humans who set aside their differences and work toward a collective goal. We talked about all the amazing work that grassroots advocacy and community led campaigns have accomplished so far up here in the Pacific Northwest (Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, has deemed the PNW “where [fossil fuel] projects go to die”).
“Okay, so if we know that people power is an unstoppable force, and we know that we have the means and tech to transition to a renewable energy system, why is it taking so long? How can be aware that climate change is a threat, that it’s happening here and now, yet still not take action?” I asked them.
In every single group, at least one student immediately responded: “Money.”
“Well, yes, that’s a big part of it. What else?” I asked.
“Maybe people are afraid to stand up to big corporations.”
“The fossil fuel industry works really hard to stop us from fighting them and from switching to renewable energy.”
“People think it’s hopeless.”
“The news distorts the conversation.”
Didn’t I tell you these kids were bright? “Those are all really good answers. It’s a very complex issue – some very smart people have devoted their entire careers to researching this very question and we could sit here and talk about it all day long,” I said, “but today I’m just going to focus on one way we can move forward: telling the right stories.”
After showing them my video and fielding the inevitable thru-hiking questions (How do you know how much food to take? How often do you get to shower? Will you be alone? Etc) we spoke about the importance of positive narratives and the endless ways people can get involved. I was glad to have Colin on Thursday to help me emphasize a few key features of involvement: unified vision, creativity and making sure you enjoy what you’re doing. We asked each group how they might be able to align a talent or an activity they love doing with an issue that they want to see changed. Here’s my favorite answer:
“A couple years ago, because I was bored, I wrote like a three page essay on fossil fuels and how they wreck the environment and economy. My parents thought it was super cool. Maybe I could get other kids in school to write essays too and we could start a blog, maybe even interview kids to make their voices heard.” Then another student, one who loves drawing, suggested they include artwork in the blog. Beautiful.
On Tuesday, after the last session wrapped up, I stood in the halls with a few of the other presenters, one of whom had been speaking about what a sustainable economy may look like and how we can work towards one. “I brought up the drastic overhaul the United States economy saw during the Second World War. "So why can’t we do that now?’ And this one absolutely brilliant girl responded, ‘Well back then the enemy we were fighting against was them way over there. But with climate change, if people look for an enemy they have to look to themselves, and people don’t want to do that. We can’t look at it the same way.”
The kids are alright.
We can, of course, choose to engage and effect broad change like what was seen during WWII (think auto factories and victory gardens, etc), but we need to enable the senses of cooperation, contribution and morality that Americans experienced back in the 1940s by pitching in on food production and manufacturing efforts as well as by willingly changing lifestyle habits. Like the girl from Sunnyside pointed out, enemy narratives are not the answer. So what is the answer? I'll be exploring that throughout my hike, and I encourage you not only to follow along as I blog my findings and insights, but actively engage in the conversation - you can comment on these posts, shoot me emails at email@example.com or post to social media with the hashtag #hikethedivide . If you just can't wait to delve into that burning question, I recommend checking out George Marshall's Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Hard-Wired to Ignore Climate Change.
Oh and don't forget -
We are the people we've been waiting for.