Cooler Than Your Environmental Club: An Interview with My Little Sister about the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit

By Elizabeth Preston | November 29, 2013 3:14 pm
Teenagers who want to cause a disruption don’t have to ride a skateboard anymore; these days they can do it on a bike generator. Earlier this November a crowd of students came together in Upstate New York to share ideas about greening their schools and addressing climate change on a small and large scale.  My youngest sister, Leigh, is a senior in high school and was at the conference for her second year. I asked her what they did there, and she told me about energy efficiency, celeriac soup, and how her generation is going to do things differently. (I never did get a straight answer about some Facebook photos, though.)*****************

 

Hi Leigh! So who attends the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit?


There were about 150 students representing 27 colleges and high schools around New York, mostly from the Adirondack region. Each school could send 5 to 6 students along with a teacher chaperone. Students at my school had to write an essay explaining why they wanted to go to the summit and what interest they had in climate change. (Most students I talked to were shocked that my school had been so selective because their schools just brought their entire environmental club.)
By the way, I hope email is OK. Would I have more generational cred with you right now if I were conducting this interview via SnapChat or something?


I have to say, I much prefer the transfer of information through text bubbles containing less than 140 characters attached to a picture I can only view for 10 seconds on a 4-inch screen…but I guess this will do.
What kinds of workshops did you go to?

I got to attend three different workshops of my choice on the first day, splitting up with my school group so that we could cover more ground. I attended the three that were geared towards successfully sustaining a school garden and implementing younger students into climate action, because that’s what I’ve been focused on at school the past couple years. The rest of my team attended workshops about composting, green teams, energy efficiency, biofuels, and recycling.I hear the food was a highlight.

The food was absolutely delicious! All the meals and snacks were provided by local farms and vendors. They had vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, and Ben & Jerry’s (a major sponsor of the summit) provided ice cream the second day. I caught myself enjoying kale chips and even tried parsnip and celeriac for the first time in a delicious soup that a Culinary Arts professor from Paul Smith’s College made. (See recipe below.)
As weird as it sounds, I think the presence of wholesome, fresh, unprocessed food really boosted everyone’s brain power for a few days.

And there were speakers too?


Brian Stillwell of Alliance for Climate Education kicked off the summit with a catchy, motivating presentation about climate change and the science behind it, followed by Brother Yusef Burgess of Youth Ed-Venture and the Children & Nature Network, who spoke about using the power of nature to transform and educate youth. Later in the afternoon Dr. Susan Powers, the Associate Director for Sustainability at Clarkson University, presented to us the outcomes of climate change in both our best and worst case scenarios.

Mark and Kristin Kimball, who own Essex Farm in the Adirondacks, hosted the dance party, fed us freshly harvested carrots, and encouraged our generation to be the driving force of the climate movement—and, more importantly, to have fun doing it. They made the point that these days, things like smoking cigarettes or dumping gasoline into a lake are considered “socially unacceptable,” but that took time. Now, it is our time to make not caring about the environment be socially unacceptable.

Was it valuable just interacting with the other kids there, from different kinds of schools? Were you learning and getting ideas from each other?

YES. The second day, there was a 2-hour poster session where all the schools displayed posters of their current “green” efforts and plans for the future. I had a chance to talk to so many different schools and share ideas about outdoors clubs, gardening problems, recycling efforts and cafeteria food. I had conversations with a high school that was having trouble even starting an environmental club due to the lack of support from administration, and on the other end of the spectrum, I talked to a school that had livestock and taught all their science classes on a farm.

We also had the amazing opportunity to Skype with Finland, where they were holding a similar youth climate summit modeled after ours in the Adirondacks. Despite the sound lag and language barrier, it was still inspiring to see that kids our age halfway around the globe are facing the same problems we are.It looks like you guys had a lot of fun at this dance party. In your Facebook photos I observed electric guitar, someone crowdsurfing, a guy in a sailor hat juggling fire, and what appeared to be people using ropes to move a large rock. Are these the elements of a good party for the young environmentalist crowd?


I think these are the elements of any good party, actually. Moving the rock could have been a metaphor for how teamwork can move the world or something, but it was really just for the fun of moving a rock. We were told that our generation will make it through this difficult time in climate change only if we have fun in the process.What sorts of ideas or projects did you bring back from the summit to use at school?


The second day of the summit, all the teams were given 2 hours to create their school’s “Climate Action Plan” and a detailed timeline to present to the rest of the schools at the end of the day. Our team decided to focus on 4 major projects in the coming year: improving the school garden, building a bike generator for the lobby, holding a bi-annual school-wide locker clean-out to donate gently used school supplies and teach proper recycling, and finding places to cut the school’s phantom energy usage (a.k.a. the wattage used by electronics when they’re turned off but still plugged in).You may not know this, but back when I was at your school I belonged to an “environmental club” too. This meant that a couple of us would go to all the classrooms after school and pull trash out of the blue bins, because otherwise the maintenance guys refused to recycle. Is it fair to say things have come a long way?


Simply put, yes. We have a recycling bin in every classroom, our cafeteria serves vegetables from a number of local farms, quarterly grades and comments are now only available online, our drinking fountains are now water-bottle filling stations, and we have a garden that brings vegetables to the salad bar. We have solar panels on one building and another LEED-qualified building, with another one in the construction phase.I think we’re also a little cooler than your environmental club, because now we are the “Green Avengers,” equipped with a logo and a Facebook page.

Are you optimistic about climate change? Do you come back from an event like this feeling like you’re part of a group of people who will actually make a difference, whether it’s through school-level projects now, or after college as policy makers? Or are we pretty much screwed?

Both times going to the summit I came back incredibly high in motivation, but I knew if I didn’t write down all my ideas and get acting quickly, I would lose my energy. Spending time around so many like-minded people definitely makes me excited to get out there and make change.

It also reminds me we have to be able to work on our own and not rely on the work of others because that’s part of the attitude that brought us to this predicament in the first place. As Dr. Powers told us, even in the earth’s “best-case scenario,” we’ll still experience rising global temperatures. It’s just up to my generation to slow the acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions and provide the optimistic attitude.

Celeriac and Parsnip Soup
Yields 18-24 servings (reduce if you’re not feeding a youth summit)Ingredients:
5 pounds cubed celeriac root
5 pounds chopped parsnip
6 tablespoons olive oil
15 cups vegetable stock
1 bundle thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the over to 400°F. Toss the celeriac and parsnip with the olive oil. Arrange the vegetables in a single layer on a foil-covered baking sheet. Roast them 35-45 minutes, flipping once, until they are tender and golden brown. Combine the caramelized vegetables with the stock and other ingredients in a pot over medium-high heat. After bringing to a boil, let the soup simmer for 15 minutes. Put all the food through a blender or food processor until smooth and serve hot.

 
 
Images: The Wild Center (top); Leigh Preston (bottom).
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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also Editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she frequently writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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