by Akanksha Kataria
Akanksha is a current senior at Bergen County Academies. We're honored to have her kick off our Youth Speak Series, where we publish opinions, stories and analyses by the young voices of our times.
In November of 2008, I was just entering third grade. I remember how that year, my parents looked for just about any excuse to place themselves before the television, keeping a constant watch on the 2008 U.S. electoral polls and any further information concerning the political candidates. The upcoming election was becoming a turning point in the concerns of American politics and citizenry, raising unique central issues such as the continuation of the war in Iraq and financial policy amidst a housing crisis. These subjects seemed to pave the way for the state of our environment to become yet another key discussion. Although scientists had already amassed a century’s worth of data to support climate change, global warming became a front-line topic as concerns over oil imports from regions of conflict in the Middle East and the fracturing state of the U.S. economy intensified. Candidates finally began to officially confront this issue, as my father observed: “for the first time, we were becoming [increasingly] environmentally conscious, and it was a topic that both candidates finally fully addressed. We were learning of new ways to contribute in our own small ways, to the protection of our environment.” Both campaign platforms, despite their different political parties, shared the common goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging protection of our natural resources. My father continued, “[McCain] said we needed to diversify our energy sources and Obama said we needed industry regulation. They both addressed the problem.”
Of course, at the time, I was quite young and knew very little about the circumstances of the election. But that’s when I began to learn what it really meant to be “environmentally conscious”. Our school curriculum included lectures about simple ways we could help preserve our resources: turning off the lights when we left a room, unplugging devices that we weren’t using, and learning of our obligation to dispose of waste correctly. I even recall taking a quiz in class about the “three R’s” (which, if you are unsure, are reduce, reuse, and recycle), their roles in protecting the environment, and the concept of compost. (I will honestly admit that to this day, the idea of compost still goes over my head- making that quiz a not particularly fond memory of mine.) So really, at that time, concerns about the ozone layer and the loss of natural resources did not mean much to me aside from a rather unfortunate quiz grade.
Yet the way that my school system took the extra step to teach these basic concepts represents, to me, a cultural shift toward greater awareness of the impacts of our actions on the environment, driven in part by its centrality in the election. My generation was essentially required to learn about and openly speak of the increasingly prevalent and urgent issues of the environment represented. I asked a teacher who identified herself as a member of Generation Y (the generation that statisticians fondly refer to as “millennials”) about the way in which environmental crises impacted her childhood education. She reflected, “There really was not much of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ idea talked about at school- I doubt it even existed then. No one considered the environment to be an important subject, especially in the classroom.” Perhaps this might not have been the standard of environmental protection education throughout all curricula at the time, but it seems that such priorities eventually shifted, considering that she attended schools in the same region as I have.
Nearly 10 years later, the political sphere of ecological awareness has created a rift between party values, between laissez-faire values and policy regulations concerning the environment, such as greenhouse gas emissions and protection of biodiversity. The rhetoric of proponents and opponents of environmental protection makes it an issue that seems to have been around forever, to the point where both sides have begun to argue like an old married couple. The conflict becomes not so much about our questionable neighbors in the house next door as it does of those across the Pacific when we consider the veritability of topics such as the Paris Agreement.
It is within this atmosphere that my generation has grown up and developed political opinions. It is within this atmosphere that the animal rights club at my school is one of the most popular, that we have carefully marked recycling bins in just about every crevice of the building, and made our own life choices in relation to environmental awareness. It wasn’t long after that 2008 election that I became a vegetarian as a result of a documentary called Food, Inc., released that same year. This was an extremely difficult decision at the time, yet now I can barely imagine a life with meat due to the outburst of restaurants that support both environmentally and health conscious diets. A close friend of mine became the self-made vegan of her family just a year ago; she composts and grows her own vegetables, and coincidentally leads the animal rights club at my school. She told me of how the mainstream discussion of environmentally conscious dietary choices, alongside a generation that has begun to open itself up to other issues such as mental illness, has provided her with the room to recover from an eating disorder and at the same time actively respond to the environmental crises that surround us: “It is so easy, these days, for someone to help the environment in some way. It’s almost a natural part of our culture. We have the internet, for the resources with which to grow our own fruit or make our own vegan or vegetarian dishes. We have groups and societies dedicated to these issues. I became a vegan to cope with my difficulties with food, and it seems like it’s become part of a greater project- to heal our environment in the process of healing ourselves.”
Those final words of hers resounded with me. Granted, my generation has its fair share of flaws, but I think I can fairly say that we have developed quite a few creative, innovative methods with which to cope with our prior lack of action toward the environment- in a way, healing a social apathy.
It began for me with a quiz, an election, and a touch of urgency; it continues for me with a sense of vulnerability and acceptance of the planet we inhabit.
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