The Power to Shape Our Future

Green Club Yearbook Photo

This is a submission by Sofia Menemenlis, ACE Action Fellow, to the Nature's Voices Project and was originally shared on their site. The Nature's Voices Project honors and amplifies the voices of young people inspired by environmental education.

My dad studies the ocean, and the computer models he writes are mesmerizingly beautiful. Color-coded representations of surface temperature ebb gracefully, drifting back and forth with the changing of seasons and the passing of time. Ocean currents swirl around and branch out like an abstract painting infinitely more elaborate than Van Gogh’s Starry Night. These patterns are so intricate, so complex, that they are humbling. I feel lucky to exist on this planet as one of the millions of types of organisms who depend on wind patterns and ocean currents and oozing magma and slowly shifting tectonic plates and the composition of gases in our atmosphere and the life cycles of animals and plants interacting with one another in a careful balance. We depend on this balance, and we are disrupting it. Quickly.

I had always been aware of climate change, but I didn’t realize that I had a role in it until I saw the Alliance for Climate Education assembly in eighth grade. ACE is an organization that delivers assemblies about climate change to schools across the nation, including my own. Our ACE presenter spoke about how our fossil-fuel burning lifestyles pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing climate change. I was forced to confront an unpleasant reality: that almost every aspect of my own suburban lifestyle was contributing to an enormous carbon footprint. This was also when I realized how potentially disastrous climate change could be.

It was incredulity, as well as fear, that first motivated me to do a bit more research on the causes and effects of climate change. I paid close attention to how scientists and politicians discussed the issue. It shocked me to see how sure experts were that a fast response to climate change was necessary, yet how reluctant many of our country’s leaders were to take any action. Statistics alone indicated that while certain individuals in my parent’s generation had profit to make from the exploitation of our environment, my generation had everything to lose. I knew immediately that I had to do something about it.

There is a strange dichotomy at my school between those who choose to ignore climate change and those who believe it is a problem. It was in this kind of atmosphere that I became president of my school’s Green Club mostly by default, because I was one of the only students who showed up to meetings. One thing led to another as I became more and more involved in seeking ways to contribute to a more sustainable school, city, and world. I attended ACE Leadership Trainings, where I met like-minded individuals and was inspired by the work they were doing. At school, I focused on recruiting more people to join Green Club. We distributed recycling bins to classrooms. We organized “Bike to School Week” and set up activities for Earth Day at lunch. We published “Green Tips” in the school newspaper, and removed an appalling amount of trash from Santa Monica beaches. We worked with our school plumber to retrofit a water fountain with a spout that could refill reusable water bottles.

Sometimes I doubted whether any of it was making a difference.

However, with each article I read and each conference I attended, I became more and more certain that my efforts were worthwhile. In the summer before my junior year, I became a climate action fellow with ACE. The fellowship is a program that allows high school students to work closely with ACE staff to fight and speak out against climate change. Through this program, I became more involved than ever with environmentalism, and spoke with activists from around Los Angeles. I grew more confident speaking out for the environment. I wanted to change the world.

Changing the world starts out small, in communities and schools, so I am working to ban Styrofoam cafeteria trays from my school district. With the environment and human health in mind, Styrofoam is probably the worst material possible to serve children corn dogs and tater tots on. Its manufacture creates vast amounts of solid and liquid waste. It doesn’t decompose and is very lightweight, so it remains in landfills until it is blown back into the environment, where animals fatally ingest it. Moreover, it is composed of benzene and styrene, both of which are hazardous to human health. In spite of all this, my school district has been using Styrofoam food trays for years, just to save on a few cents per tray. This won’t carry on for much longer; I have been working with our school administration to find alternatives to polystyrene, and by the end of this year I hope that it will no longer be used.

The use of Styrofoam in schools is just one manifestation of a pervasive attitude in our culture that values short-term convenience and profit over long-term sustainability. Back when the basic structure of our current economy was developed, people were still giddy with the fervor of industrialization yet blissfully unaware of some of its consequences. As a result, we now are part of a society where mass consumerism is so deeply ingrained in us that we define ourselves by our material possessions, where people and the environment are neglected for the sake of profits, and where environmental policy has become a pawn on the battlefield of partisan politics.

The challenges are great, but our ability to stabilize the climate and build a sustainable economy is greater.

My generation must be at the forefront of the movement against climate change. Whether we created it or not, we will be affected by it and it is our problem to solve. Through education, organizations like ACE are effectively combating the greatest enemy to solving the climate crisis: ignorance. And once we are armed with knowledge, young people have the passion, the energy, and the power to shape our future.

Sofia Menemenlis

Sofia Menemenlis is a 2014-2015 Action Fellow in Los Angeles. She attends La Cañada High School.