Air Date: May 21, 1993
Young Urban Activists/ Cy Musiker
Reporter Cy Musiker profiles the East Bay Conservation Corps of Oakland, California, a model for President Clinton's national service plan. The corps helps young people from 12 to 24 develop a spirit of hope and community involvement through urban environmental projects. In return for their labor, corps members get educational assistance, job training and a small stipend. (06:09)
Boom in Kids Enviro Books/ Phyllis Joffe
Phyllis Joffe reports on the boom in books on the environment for children. From fictional stories to how-to books, environmental titles are the fastest-growing segment of a rapidly-growing industry. The demand is coming from parents and teachers, but also from kids themselves. (09:20)
Too Much Too Soon/ Karen Pollens
Commentator Karen Pollens warns against overloading kids with environmental concerns. (02:52)
Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation, Cambridge, MA 02138. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Betsy Bayha, Kim Motylewski, Peter Kenyon, Stephanie O'Neil, Cy Musiker, Phyllis Joffe
COMMENTATOR: Karen Pollens
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Young people are some of the most ardent environmental activists. In Oakland, California, kids as young as 12 have joined a program to improve the environment of their own neighborhoods.
SMITH: Because its hecka dirty and stuff and people need to clean up the earth, because that's how God wanted it to be, they're like destroying the city, gangs shooting other people, it's crazy.
MUSIKER: Can you stop that stuff too by just cleaning up the neighborhood?
SMITH: No, but we can encourage people to help us heal the world.
CURWOOD: Also, kids are driving a boom in eco- publishing.
ROBACK: Children have really latched onto the issue of the importance of environmental awareness and they've made the cause their own, it's isn't something that's being pushed on them by teachers or by parents , necessarily.
CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.
NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.
Air pollution can be fatal, even at levels currently considered safe by the Federal Government. That's the conclusion of an extensive new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, presented at a meeting of the American Lung Association in San Francisco. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports.
BAYHA: The study was conducted over a 15-year period, and tracked more than 8,000 adults. Unlike previous studies, this one took into account personal risk factors such as smoking and obesity. Researchers measured the health effects of tiny airborne particulate matter far smaller than what is currently allowed under the Federal Clean Air Act. Only one of the cities studied had air pollution levels exceeding EPA standards, but researchers found a link between air pollution and mortality rates in all the cities. People living in the most polluted areas were found to have a 25% higher mortality rate than residents of cities with cleaner air. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.
NUNLEY: The EPA has put an 18-month moratorium on new hazardous waste incinerators. The suspension was announced along with a new set of EPA hazardous waste rules. Among these, a plan to tighten controls on controversial industrial furnaces, including cement kilns, which burn hazardous waste as fuel. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski reports.
MOTYLEWSKI: Nearly five million tons of hazardous waste is burned every year in the US, most of it in 171 industrial furnaces. These facilities are regulated by the EPA, but they operate under less stringent oversight than commercial incinerators. According to Hugh Kaufman, an official for the EPA's Hazardous Site Control division, many of these industrial furnaces are now being run in a quote "criminally incompetent" fashion that poses an immediate threat to public health. The EPA says a comprehensive review to ensure these facilities operate safely is now a top priority. The review is scheduled to last 18 months. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.
NUNLEY: Norway's decision to resume commercial whaling may cost it membership in the European Community, and bring economic sanctions from the US. Norway plans a research and commercial catch of nearly 300 minke whales this year, despite an international ban. The US Commerce Department says when Norway takes its first whale for commercial use, the clock starts ticking on a process that could lead to a US embargo of Norwegian products. Meanwhile, an EC spokesperson says Norway's hunt could pose a "serious roadblock" to membership in the EC. Norwegian officials say there's a healthy population of as many as 87,000 minkes off its coasts.
New Jersey is the first state to collect rechargeable batteries for recycling. A new law requires merchants to accept returns of batteries from portable power tools, cordless phones, and laptop computers. These batteries usually end up in landfills or incinerators, where they can release toxic metals into the environment. Similar measures are pending in half a dozen other states.
This is Living on Earth.
Trustees for the $900 million-dollar Exxon Valdez settlement say they'll buy a key parcel of land near Kodiak Island to protect it from logging. Peter Kenyon of Alaska Public Radio reports.
KENYON: The land around Seal Bay on the Fogneck Island is home to an abundance of life, from bald eagles to marbled murrelets to salmon spawning streams, as well as deer and bear populations. Enticed by high timber prices, two Alaskan Native corporations that owned the land had already begun logging. But in a surprisingly swift move, the trustees approved their largest and most expensive land acquisition to date: 42,000 acres at a cost of nearly $39 million dollars. The move was spearheaded by Alaska Attorney General Charles Cole.
COLE: I realize it's a large acquisition, but it's the highest habitat profile lands in the entire spill area.
KENYON: The final selling price is subject to an appraisal. This is the second land acquisition using Exxon's money. The trustees have already approved the purchase of roughly 20,000 threatened acres within Ketchimek Bay State Park. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Kenyon in Anchorage.
NUNLEY: The Mojave ground squirrel has become the first animal to be removed from California's endangered species list. But that doesn't mean the animal's survival is assured. As Stephanie O'Neil reports from Los Angeles, environmentalists charge the commissioners who made the decision favored developers.
O'NEIL: Developers who applauded the decision have long complained that the squirrel's status was hurting the economy by preventing or delaying more than 200 development projects slated for the Mojave Desert. That's because the state Endangered Species Law requires a developer who builds in an endangered habitat either donate habitat land elsewhere or pay the state to help preserve the species. Environmentalists say the vote violates the spirit of the law by putting politics and economics before species protection. The national conservation group Defenders of Wildlife says it may file suit to block the delisting of the Mojave ground squirrel and may urge the Federal Government to place it on the Federal Endangered Species List. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neil in Los Angeles.
NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
Kids, of course, are our future. And many of our ecological problems threaten that future. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that when it comes to the environment, young people from all walks of life have been especially concerned and active. In fact, some observers wonder if the barrage of books and programs about the environment aimed at children is burdening them too much. We'll have more about that later on. But first . . .
In Oakland, California, young people from twelve to their early twenties are getting a unique blend of vocational education and environmental idealism, through a program called the East Bay Conservation Corps. The Corps gives older youths a chance to finish their high school degrees and start college, while working on urban environmental restoration projects. Younger kids get after-school programs, summer jobs, and a chance for some ecologically-focused fun, like the East Bay trash Olympics. From Oakland, Cy Musiker has our story.
(Sound of voices announcing beginning of event: "Shalika, get ready, get ready, get ready . . ." "Project Yes Clean Sweep relay . . .")
MUSIKER: About 60 kids, 12 to 14 years old, participated in the Trash Olympics at Oakland's Westlake Middle School. In the Clean Sweep Relay, the kids use a pushbroom to sweep an aluminum can up and down a race course.
(Voice: "On the whistle. On your marks, get set . . .tweeet." )
MUSIKER: The teenagers are all members of Project YES, Youth Engaged in Service. That's the name for the middle-school program of the East Bay Conservation Corps. The kids earn a small stipend for running recycling programs for local businesses, or designing and building a garden for science class. Just as important, says 7th-grader Rosemary Smith, they learn taking care of the environment is important , not just in places such as Yosemite Park, but right here in their neighborhoods.
SMITH: Because it's hecka dirty and stuff, and people need to clean up the earth, because that's how God wanted it to be. They're like destroying the city, gangs, shooting other people. It's crazy.
MUSIKER: Can you stop that stuff too just by cleaning up the neighborhood?
SMITH: No, but we can encourage people to help us heal the world.
(Sound of train horn)
MUSIKER: The East Bay Conservation Corps is emphatically a city organization. The younger members meet at Oakland schools, but headquarters for the 180 older members is here, hard by the freight tracks, near the freeway and the Port of Oakland. The building is a former fruit canning warehouse, transformed into a work and learning center.
(Sound of pushups counted in cadence)
MUSIKER: In a parking lot out front, these 18 to 24-year-old men and women begin each morning with a quick workout, then form crews that maintain parks and reservoirs, paint and landscape senior centers, and design and build community gardens and playgrounds. They also spend eight hours a week working with Corps instructors to complete their high school degrees or start community college. Most of these older member are Black or Latino; some are homeless or have drug problems when they enroll; few had a purpose in their life before they came here. Alain Orta is in his second year with the Corps.
ORTA: This is a big opportunity right here for us, so you can change your life here from whatever you were doing wrong out there on the streets. I mean, yeah, you know, I was gangbanging , you know, I was into all this stupid-ass shit that I didn't realize till I went to jail. I'm planning to change my life now, that's it.
MUSIKER: Corps members all dress in the same style jeans and work shirts, like US Forest Service uniforms, only in Raiders football team colors: silver and black. Most sign up for the Corps, not out of any environmental idealism, but because it's a chance to earn some money while going back to school. But Corps member Elijah Philips says he found himself recycling, researching issues like toxic waste sites in poor neighborhoods, and applying for jobs he couldn't have imagined before.
PHILIPS: I've been working here four months. I've accumulated five awards, a raise, and I currently got an interview with the California Department of Forestry. Which they'll call me in 3 weeks and I'll be really working from the Oregon border all the way to the Mexican border, in California fighting fires, hopefully.
MUSIKER: Not all the Corps members are so gung-ho, and some complain at the low wages. But founder and director Joanna Lennon says members shouldn't really think of it as a job.
LENNON: It's not a work program, it's not a job-training program, it's an education program, and we use the medium of work in the community to educate young people in a very broad sense.
MUSIKER: In many ways, the Corps is a melding of Lennon's own twin passions of environmentalism and educational reform.
LENNON: It also empowers them to feel that they have something to offer and that they're seen as resources in the community, and in fact that they are major players, and that maybe this is a good thing that they're citizens. And when you look at what the demographics of the country is going to be, it's going to be mostly people of color, and if we can't engage the majority of the population in realizing that the environment is their responsibility, we're dead in the water.
MUSIKER: In a canyon thick with native bay and oak trees, one of the work crews is rebuilding a park trail that's slid into a creek bed. It's a beautiful setting, just a few hundred yards behind a condominium complex in the city of Hayward. These are the kinds of places that Corps veteran Ronnie Polk says he didn't even know existed before he joined. Now he wants to protect them for his own family and friends.
POLK: A lot of people ain't really into those things, until, once you come here you realize how important all those things are. You take it home with you, and start recycling and everything, and just worry about the environment. You know, like I used to have a knack for killing bugs and everything, now I don't do that, I let little spiders roam about their ways and stuff. So it's good to learn that kind of things, that I can teach that to my little boy.
MUSIKER: Next fall the East Bay Conservation Corps will expand its program for younger kids from just middle schools into elementary and high schools. The White House has just acknowledged the Corps' success by selecting the group to run the largest pilot program for President Clinton's proposed National Service Network. This summer, 250 young people will provide medical services to poor and homeless children. But knowing the Corps, there's bound to be a lesson on urban ecology mixed in as well. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Oakland.
(Sound of birds; fade into music up and under)
CURWOOD: For years nature books and animal stories have been staple items in the billion-dollar-a-year children's book industry. Books such as Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are grace children's shelves around the world. But increasingly, kids' books are going beyond the cute and fuzzy and spooky to present works about the serious environmental challenges and changes we all face. The environment has become a big growth area for children's books, partly because parents and teachers are more concerned about it, and partly because the children themselves are demanding it. Phyllis Joffe of Connecticut Public Radio reports.
(Sound of kids in classroom)
LUCKS: Because if you litter, the Earth is gonna become a bad place to live in. And you could get sick, and people could die, and the Earth wouldn't be a good place to live and you'd have nowhere to go.
JOFFE: Nine-year-old Nicholas Lucks says he didn't pay so much attention to littering, until his fourth-grade class spent several weeks this spring studying ecology and the environment.
LUCKS: I was throwing away lots of things you could recycle, plastic, other things. But then when I heard what plastic and things could do to the world, I started recycling.
JOFFE: Nicholas and his classmates learned about recycling from some of the colorful picture books displayed prominently in one corner of the room. Teacher Diane Powell introduced ecology to her class at Jefferson School in New Britain, Connecticut two years ago, with a book called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth. Last year she added a second book. Now there are a dozen.
POWELL: Each year I do it, it grows and gets bigger and bigger.
JOFFE: Throughout the country, teachers such as Diane Powell are substituting more and more trade books -- books normally found on store and library shelves -- for traditional textbooks.
CLARK: The Great Kapok Tree, a tale of the Amazon rainforest, by Lynne Cherry. Two men walked in the rainforest. Moments before the forest had been alive with sounds of squawking birds and howling monkeys. Now all was quiet as the creatures watched the two men and wondered why they had come. The larger man stopped and pointed to the great kapok tree. Then he left. The smaller man took the ax and carried it. It struck the trunk of the tree -- whack, whack, whack . . . (Fade under)
JOFFE: Nine-year-old Candy Clark is reading from The Great Kapok Tree, a lavishly illustrated story about a woodcutter and animals in a Brazilian rainforest who plead with him not to chop down their home.
CLARK: Then the huge snake slid very close to the man. He hissed in his ear some more. "This tree is (unintelligible) , it is my home where (Whisper: "generations" ) generations of my ancestors have lived. Do not chop it down."
CHERRY: If he doesn't cut down the tree, this one individual saves this entire ecosystem and all these animals in the book, and if he cuts it down he destroys it.
JOFFE: Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Great Kapok Tree.
CHERRY: I say this to the children when I go to the schools that one person can make an enormous difference for good or bad. and I know children are picking up on this lesson from the letters I've been receiving.
JOFFE: Author Lynne Cherry was an environmental activist in New England before she began publishing children's nature books eleven years ago.
CHERRY: The reason that I concentrate on books for children is because I think it's really important to shape their values and get them to think in terms of being a responsible human being on the planet, but because also once they start realizing these things, they go home and they discuss these issues with their parents, and so the way we live becomes a subject of debate and maybe people can think about, well, how can they change their behavior to not be so wasteful?
JOFFE: The Great Kapok Tree sold out its first printing shortly after publication in 1990. It has become one of the most popular environmental books for children, with sales in the six figures. As the children's book editor for the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, Diane Roback has watched environmental books proliferate over the past three years. She says that, unlike other books bought primarily by adults for children, the demand for nature books is fueled by children themselves.
ROBACK: Children have really latched onto the issue of the importance of environmental awareness, and they've made the cause their own, it isn't something that's being pushed on them by teachers or by parents, necessarily, so yes, publishers are now looking for more material to publish, but I think more writers are thinking of that category as something they could write for children.
JOFFE: Roback says the books have become more sophisticated and diverse over the past three years. While the market for direct-action activity books, such as 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, appears to have peaked, Roback says the best, and best-selling, books these days are the ones that are both scientific and artful.
ROBACK: Going from the, really the eye-popping, there's weird nature books, fantastic phenomena that occur, books that really grab you visually, then to Eyewitness, the wonderful Eyewitness series that present very good solid information that's very important for children to have as a basis, then you get into sort of a middle ground area where information is starting to take on a bit of story to make it more interesting. Instead of a book about a red fox, you might have a fictional red fox, and so you would incorporate information about its lifestyle, its habitat, and all those kind, what it eats, those kinds of things, but it's mixing story and science, and sometimes that's done beautifully and sometimes it's atrocious. And then past that, you have pure fiction that's based on solid knowledge.
JOFFE: Roback estimates that of the thousands of new children's books published each year, a couple dozen could officially be categorized as environmental. But nature themes are finding their way into other books as well.
ROHMER: The day Lucia Zenteno arrived, everyone in the village was astonished. No one knew where she came from, yet they all saw that she was amazingly beautiful, and that she brought thousands of dancing butterflies and brightly-colored flowers on her skirts. . .
JOFFE: The Woman Who Outshone the Sun is published by Children's Book Press, a nonprofit company in Emeryville, California, specializing in bilingual and multicultural picture books. Harriet Rohmer is the company's publisher.
ROHMER: A lot of the books that we have worked on have been stories from indigenous communities either here in North or in Latin America. And one of the most important issues for indigenous people in the Americas is the question of the land, so it's inevitable that almost any meaningful story from indigenous peoples is going to touch on what we now call ecological issues.
JOFFE: Children's Book Press donates dozens of books each year to schools attended by children of migrant farmworkers. Rohmer says the company wants to encourage young people to help change the world.
ROHMER: A lot of the children we work with do come from migrant farmworker backgrounds. They have a lot to say about ecology, use of pesticides. They're very much affected by that issue.
JOFFE: Some critics say children's environmental books put too much responsibility on kids to change the habits of adults. But Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly says children's contributions ought to be taken seriously.
ROBACK: Keep in mind that an 8-year-old reading a book about being socially and politically aware and how that relates to the environment, in ten years that 8-year-old is voting. So it really doesn't take very long for them as children to become adults and to have some impact.
CHERRY: Children's books aren't just read by children. They're read by every age, they're read by teenagers, by adults, parents read them to the children, teachers read them. Some people just collect them because there's such beautiful art in them these days.
CHERRY: And, according to author Lynne Cherry, that means that children's book writers have a lot of clout right now with publishers. Taking advantage of children's book sales that doubled between 1980 and '85, then doubled again by the end of 1990, Cherry and her colleagues have been lobbying their publishers to use more recycled paper, vegetable-based nontoxic inks and biodegradable packing materials in the production and distribution of children's books. The authors have made some progress, but say it's still not enough. Just as the market for children's books determines their content, Cherry hopes it also will influence the publishing process. She and the children's folksinger Raffi are taking that message to the American Booksellers Association Annual Convention later this month. For Living on Earth, I'm Phyllis Joffe.
(Voice of child reading: "And deep in the gricklegrass, some people say / If you look deep enough, you can still see today / where the Lorax once stood, just as long as it could / before somebody lifted the Lorax wood / What was a Lorax, and why was it there? / And why was it lifted and taken somewhere? / From the far end of time, where the gricklegrass grows / The Old One who still lives here, ask him, he knows." )
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: A little bit of environmental awareness can be a good thing for a kid, but according to commentator Karen Pollens, a lot can be too much.
POLLENS: One morning not long ago, my two girls came running up the back steps. Lee was six, Cynthia was four. Their grinning faces were smeared with mud. Both were cradling long shards of glass in their jackets. The glass was from beer bottles, dug up from the creek behind our house. "Look what we did!" they shouted. Hadn't I told them never ever to touch broken glass? "But Mom," Lee said, "It's our job to clean up the trash!"
It suddenly hit me how often our children are told that they must help save the planet. Ecology lessons begin in preschool. Mr. Rogers talks about recycling. A popular book lists "101 Ways Kids Can Save the Earth." In one Sunday episode of Captain Planet, Crusader for Earth, a boy risks his life to save a whale. So why should I be surprised if my two daughters dig up broken glass?
But is it really our kids' responsibility to save the Earth?
Someday our children will inherit the trash heap. But it seems to me that we grown-ups -- parents, educators, and of course those trying to make a fast buck --- are handing over the task of saving the Earth to the next generation a little too soon. Maybe we've put the weight of the world on the shoulders of children, because we've lost confidence in ourselves. We focus our energy on teaching our children to be good environmentalists, in the hope that someday they will make better choices than we have. But the concept of shared social responsibility is an almost impossible one for children, because they often don't understand the limits of their own influence. If someone they love gets sick, a child might think that they're somehow responsible and feel guilty. In the same way, they might really believe they have some control over a huge oil spill.
The other day, on the way to nursery school, Cynthia asked, "Is the Earth going to be all right?" Her words were an echo of my own fears. I swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, I think so." She seemed to buy it. I felt good about it, because she felt good. But I suddenly realized I had just committed myself to less talk and more action.
Parents should encourage their kids to be aware. But perhaps the best way to teach kids about environmental activism is by example. These days, if either one of my environmental superheroes finds glass in the backyard, she runs up the back steps shouting. But now my daughters know, and I know, that it's up to me to clean up the mess. Concern for our kids may motivate parents to do more for the environment, and that's good. Because, for the time being, it's still our job.
CURWOOD: Commentator Karen Pollens is a teacher and a mother of three. She lives in suburban Boston.
(Contest music up and under)
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(Music up and out)
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