Air Date: Week of April 2, 1993
Adam Hochberg of member station KUNC reports on Youth for Environmental Sanity, a group of teenagers who bring a message of environmental activism to high schools around the country. (This is the first in our month-long "Making a Difference" series.
CURWOOD: It's our anniversary month here at Living on Earth -- we're two years old. And to celebrate, we'll be focusing this month on some people and groups that are making a difference in the environment. We begin the series this week in Greensboro, North Carolina. That's where reporter Adam Hochberg caught up with a group of teenagers who are taking their message of environmental activism on the road, to high schools around the country. They call themselves Youth for Environmental Sanity.
(Sound of students entering auditorium)
HOCHBERG: On this day at Eastern Guilford High School, students are getting a rare break from their teachers and textbooks. For an hour this afternoon, classes have been cancelled, and all 700 students have been ushered to the school auditorium for a crash course in environmental activism.
WAGNER : As far as we know, Earth is the only living planet containing air, water and land. Are we taking these three elements for granted?
HOCHBERG: Two members of Youth for Environmental Sanity, 19-year-old Lisa Wagner and 18-year-old Paris Gallagher, have come to Eastern Guilford to preach to teenagers about the environment. Their message goes well beyond just encouraging students to recycle or clean up roadsides. YES members tell young people that the best way to improve the environment is to become active in social and political causes.
WAGNER: Ecological issues like ozone depletion and deforestation and water pollution are only like one piece to a much larger puzzle of what the environment is. There are also social issues like racism and AIDS and poverty. It's also politics, like there are things like free-trade agreements, that really affect our environment, 'cause there's some towns called maquiladoras and these corporations go in there and they set up toxic waste sites, and what's happening are a lot of peoples' babies are being born without brains.
HOCHBERG: Lisa Wagner is a Texas native who joined YES after she saw the group put on a presentation in her home town. She and Gallagher are among 14 people in the organization. Some go on the road to appear in schools, others work at an office in Santa Cruz, California, raising money and arranging activities such as summer camps for young people interested in the environment. All YES members are younger than 21, and most are vegetarians. Their show includes a strongly worded sermon about the evils of eating meat.
("Cow Rap" music up and under)
HOCHBERG: Gallagher, who says his goal is to become the first Black President of the United States, tells his audience that cattle farming is the cause of many of the world's ecological problems, such as water pollution and the cutting of tropical rain forests. He says 40,000 children die of malnutrition every day, but that most of the grain produced in the United States goes to feed livestock.
GALLAGHER: I know that if the United States reduces its beef consumption only ten percent, by only ten percent, we could free up enough grain to feed every man, woman and child on this planet. I know that.
HOCHBERG: The YES tour is the brainchild of 19-year-old Ocean Robbins, the son of environmental activist John Robbins. Ocean says he decided to start the tour three years ago, after he began to feel frustrated about the world's environmental problems.
ROBBINS: One day I was getting really depressed, and a friend and I, we were walking on the beach together, talking about all this, and we said hey, let's do something about it. Let's actually change the world. So we came up with this bizarre idea, which was a national speaking tour, and it sounded crazy and a lot of our friends said, oh, good luck, and we decided, all right, we're going to do this, we've got to raise $90,000 in the next year, and here we are, it's happened.
HOCHBERG: Today, YES has an annual budget of $270,000, paid for in part by sponsors such as the Esprit clothing company and the hair-care product maker Aveda. Much of the information recited during YES presentations comes from the best-selling book that Robbins' father wrote: Diet for a New America. It also comes from environmental groups such as World Watch and Greenpeace. The YES tour tries to pass along that information in a way that teenagers can relate to, because Robbins is convinced that young people are better equipped than adults to change the world.
ROBBINS: If you drop a frog in boiling water it jumps out. If you drop a frog in lukewarm water and heat it up, it'll stay there until you save it. To me, youth are like the frogs that've been dropped into boiling water. The environmental crisis is very hot. It's very current. Whereas I think for a lot of times older people may not quite have such an easy time grasping the severity of the crisis, because for a lot of older generations they weren't born into it.
HOCHBERG: Still, the YES tour can't completely ignore adults. After all, adults such as teachers and principals must agree to allow the group to perform in their schools. There have been some problems. Gallagher says community leaders in some cities have been less than pleased when the YES tour has talked with teenagers about AIDS and condoms. And in parts of the country where a lot of cattle are raised, Robbins says he's heard complaints about the group's promotion of vegetarianism. But at Eastern Guilford High School, teachers were more supportive of the YES tour. History teacher Linda Hensley, who sponsors the school ecology club, says the YES presentation fit in well with the club's goals.
HENSLEY: In addition to recycling and cleaning highways, we are [ unclear ]. We wanted to make students more aware, and when this particular flyer came through I thought, this fits with our theme for the year, which is awareness. And the credentials this group sent out were fantastic.
HOCHBERG: After the YES show at Eastern Guilford, dozens of students came up to the stage to pick up brochures about the environment and buy YES buttons and other items. All the students we talked with after the show said it made them more aware of environmental issues.
STUDENT #1: I didn't know it was this bad, I think it's time we need to make a change, recycle and stuff. And I recycle.
HOCHBERG: Would you do anything more because of what you saw here?
STUDENT #1: I'd try to cut down on eating beef and stuff, so we'd have more rainforests so we can breathe.
STUDENT #2: I think I learned what everyone else learned, that it's a lot worse than we ever thought, and unless we do something it's going to get a lot worse and it's just going to keep on getting worse until there's nothing left.
STUDENT #3: It was highly educational. I'm going to save the planet, starting today.
HOCHBERG: What're you gonna do?
STUDENT #3: Recycle. Reuse, what's the other one? Recycle, reuse, reduce -- reduce, reuse and recycle.
HOCHBERG: What about that stuff about giving up hamburgers?
STUDENT #3: Can't do it. I eat five hamburgers in one day, [unclear] the roast beef.
HOCHBERG: Ocean Robbins says the YES tour has appeared before about 300,000 American high school students and is reaching new students at the rate of about 100,000 a year. The group also is starting to turn its attention overseas. YES tours are underway in Australia and New Zealand, with plans to expand into the United Kingdom and Costa Rica. For Living on Earth, I'm Adam Hochberg in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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