Courtesy Samara Haynes
When I was in kindergarten, I went to a progressive-education cooperative school that taught us to treat the earth with respect and value time spent in nature. Each year, we would study different ecosystems and learn about different cultures. We would sing traditional Native American songs about the earth and go on field trips to wolf reserves. This experience taught me, from a young age, to love being outdoors. It eventually led me to a backpacking camp in Wyoming, where I have spent the last five summers. When I was 12, I was evacuated from this camp because of a 16,000-acre forest fire that spread uncontrolled due to lack of rain. That was when I began to understand that the climate crisis threatened parts of the world I loved the most, and I felt moved to take action.
Small changes, big impact
That year, I started thinking about all the ways we as a culture are wasteful. As I was planning my bat mitzvah, I decided against party favors and instead opted to donate books to underprivileged children in honor of my guests. I worked on ways to make my family members more conscious of their environmental impact. I even made a PowerPoint presentation on how we can reduce our carbon footprint—by owning an electric car and changing the lightbulbs we used. My dad did eventually lease an electric car—yay!
Since then, I have also stopped buying new clothes—shopping instead in secondhand or thrift stores, because fast fashion, or short-term fashion trends that lead to quick and cheap production for consumers, is a major contributor to global emissions. More than 60 percent of fabric fibers are now synthetics derived from fossil fuels, so clothing that ends up in a landfill will not decompose, according to the New York Times. And although I have been a vegetarian for my entire life, I have recently been consuming less dairy after learning about the severe impact the dairy industry has on the environment. Changing your diet to incorporate less meat can have an incredibly strong impact, and can save hundreds of gallons of water. It takes 460 gallons of water to produce ¼ pound of beef, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Changing my lifestyle in a smaller, more personal form has been a way for me to feel like I am making a difference.
Earth Day means action
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. A half-century ago, activists took to the streets around the world to speak out for the protection of the planet in response to one of the worst oil spills in history. These activists inspired crucial changes in how our society views the environment, which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But protecting the earth is also a social justice issue, corresponding with many injustices that are seen around the world. People of color, indigenous people, and poor people are often the first to suffer the consequences of climate change—because they live near highways, factories, or garbage dumps, where there are more pollutants, for example, and because they may not be able to afford fresh pesticide-free foods.
Today, I have made public advocacy and striking on behalf of the climate a more significant part of the way I fight climate change. I attended my first climate strike on March 15, 2019, and I have continued to protest government inaction many times since then. I work with youth-led movements such as Earth Uprising and Extinction Rebellion Youth to hold leaders accountable and generate universal awareness. Together we are trying to change climate education policies in my local school system and mobilize other activists from around the country to take action in their own communities.
I had been planning to spend this year’s Earth Day participating in a three-day global climate strike to demand climate action alongside youth from around the world. The physical mass-mobilization has been canceled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The response the world has seen to this coronavirus proves that countries can disrupt business as usual in response to a crisis and demonstrates the feasibility of rapid change.
Every day is Earth Day
But you don’t have to be an activist to make a difference—in fact there are many tiny everyday changes you can make to help the planet. The environmental movement didn’t start with Earth Day—it started with indigenous people protecting the earth as a part of their way of life. I wish that everyone would see the climate crisis this way and take it as seriously as it needs to be taken. It isn’t just polar bears and plastic straws, it is an issue that will determine the future of life as we know it. When I think about my future, I imagine a world without clean water and fresh air. I picture a world where the snow-capped mountains and trees that I love aren’t there to be shared with my children. Projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that we have only 10 years left to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and some experts think that we have less time than that.
As a teenager, it is incredibly frustrating to see the election of politicians who don’t reflect my opinions and don’t understand the scope of this issue. The most important thing that adults can do to help fight the impending climate disaster is to vote people into office who will protect future generations and will prioritize climate change with their policies.
Earth Day to me means a day of action. Earth Day means a day of reflection on how far the movement for climate justice has come, and a day to look at what else needs to be accomplished. Most important, it is a day to call on everyone to make meaningful change in the world—for us and for future generations.
Samara Haynes is a sophomore at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey.
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