Inconvenient Youths

By Ellen Gamerman, page W1
(September 29, 2007)- ‘Mom, we gotta buy a hybrid!’ Kids are becoming the green movement’s stealth weapon, pressuring their parents on everything from lightbulbs to composting. Inside the push to create the littlest eco-warriors.

Jim and Robyn Dahlin knew replacing the roof of their home in Greenbrae, Calif., would be expensive. But they hadn’t planned to spend an extra $15,000 on solar panels. For that, they have their 8-year-old son, Luke, to thank. After Luke acted in a school play about global warming, he went on a campaign to get his parents to install the panels. He routinely lectured his dad from the backseat of the minivan about how reducing their energy consumption could help save the planet.
Mr. Dahlin says he put Luke off at first, not wanting to “just give in and sound like a big wet-noodle parent.” But after doing more research about the energy savings, he relented. Luke, he says, “is proud that we’re trying to do our part.”
In households across the country, kids are going after their parents for environmental offenses, from using plastic cups to serving non-grass-fed beef at the dinner table. Many of these kids are getting more explicit messages about becoming eco-warriors at school and from popular books and movies.
This year’s global-warming documentary “Arctic Tale,” for instance, closes with a child actor telling kids, “If your mom and dad buy a hybrid car, you’ll make it easier for polar bears to get around.” Kids on field trips to the Garbage Museum in Stratford, Conn., are sent home with instructions to recycle cans, bottles, newspaper and junk mail. The museum hosted 388 schools visits last year, 42 more than the year before. At one California elementary school, kids are given environmental activities to do with their families — including one where parents have to yank out the refrigerator and clean the coils to make it more energy efficient.
The Littlest Eco-Warriors
“Kids are putting pressure on their parents, and this is a very good thing,” says Laurie David, a producer of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Ms. David is the co-author of a new children’s book, “The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming,” which urges kids, among other things, to petition mom and dad for recycled-fiber toilet paper. “I know how powerful my kids are,” she says. “When they want something, forget it — all the resistance in the world isn’t going to help you.”
For Sherrie Mahnami, some tactics go too far. Last month, the mother from Concord, Calif., took her 4-year-old son, Jacob, to see “Arctic Tale.” At bedtime, when she got him into his Mickey Mouse pajamas, he asked, “Mom, do you think they’ll have ice next year?” She didn’t like the part of the film where she says kids started to “preach” about energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. “I thought that was a little much.”
Some parents object to what they see as proselytizing by their kids’ schools. Mark D. Hill, who until recently was chairman of the Republican party in Marin County, says some mothers called him upset when their children came home from Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., with fliers stuffed in their backpacks advertising a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The parents thought the public school shouldn’t promote the screening, which was paid for by a local parent, because they considered it a political statement.
Sally Peck, the principal of Bacich, disagrees. “We have a responsibility to educate our children,” she says.
Mr. Hill says the mothers worried their children would be criticized if they spoke out, so they kept their names secret. “It’s very scary for mothers,” he says. “They kind of go with the programs because they don’t want to be viewed as trouble-makers.”
In Princeton, N.J., James Verbeyst’s energy-saving fixation cost his mother $5,500- the difference between the Toyota Matrix she was going to buy and the hybrid she finally purchased. With every car she looked at that wasn’t a Prius, the 8-year-old protested by announcing the Prius’s gas mileage. James says now he likes the Prius more than his dad’s Jaguar. His reason: “You’re not hurting any animals.”
The New Jersey Environmental Federation, a chapter of the nonprofit Clean Water Action, tells kids on its Web site to ask their parents to take a “no-idling pledge” when they bring them to and from school. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site has “Captain Earthworm” instructing kids to tell their parents to return used oil to gas stations and lube centers.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York nonprofit, has been trying to secure permission from various media companies to use a cartoon character to spread the word. “It is the really, really young kids who are going to change their parents’ behavior,” says Phil Gutis, the group’s spokesman, adding that the message to children ought to be straightforward: “I think it’d be as simple as, ‘Kids, tell your parents.’ ”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says it recently dedicated three additional staffers to target elementary school kids, and has added interactive quizzes for kids on its Web site. (“Going vegetarian is the best thing that you can do for animals, the Earth, and your health. True/False?”)
A spate of environmentally themed books aimed at the youth market- including kids under 10- has come out in the past two years, with more on the way. The young-adult version of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” sold more than 100,000 copies- Penguin Young Readers Group’s biggest nonfiction title in five years.
Nicole Thomas thought her 4-year-old son’s interest in the environment was cute- until he told her she needed to quit drinking coffee. Ailer said he’s worried that coffee growers in Central America are cutting down forests to grow their crops. “Going to a coffee shop with a kid who’s saying, ‘Mommy, you can’t have a cup of coffee’ isn’t very pleasurable,” says the 35-year-old mom from Boulder, Colo.
Ailer’s obsession with the rain forest started when a neighbor gave him a copy of the book “The Umbrella” about a boy who walks into the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica and discovers exotic animals like the kinkajou and toucan. His mother was soon raiding the library to find more books, like Jane Goodall’s “The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours.”
Ailer often tells his mom about the wonders of composting and runs around the supermarket parking lot picking up trash. He has pestered her, his grandmother and a Safeway cashier to get rid of plastic bags and use reusable cloth ones instead. In response to his complaint, the cashier fired back that eating fast-food hamburgers is worse than using plastic, referring to the environmental impact of beef production. Now Ailer is bugging his mom to stop buying hamburgers.
Kids were tapped by the green movement as early as the 1970s, when recycling bins started showing up in schools. In 1971, Keep America Beautiful famously launched its antipollution-ad campaign featuring the “crying Indian.” Today, eco-marketers are going a step further — not just teaching kids to recycle, but using them as a proxy in the war against their opponents.
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