When you were a child, you probably learned the three R s: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. But your generation is more likely to think of the three R’s as reduce, reuse, and recycle. And that’s for good reason. The planet you’ve inherited is not, shall we say, in pristine shape, because of decades of choices that other people have made. But today, it’s up to you: What choices can you make to help improve the state of the planet?

Why Choose Green?

You may wonder why you even need to make choices to help the planet. You’re just one person, after all. First, think about why you might want to act.

“Everyone has their cause. For some, it is climate change; for others, it is endangered species; and for many, air, water, and soil pollution is deeply concerning,” points out Courtney Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But … we can make a difference to a lot of issues by just changing a few common behaviors.”

Not only are greener choices good for the environment, but they also can make you feel good. “Doing environmentally good things–making sound choices–is life affirming,” says Miriam K. Deitsch, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Farmingdale State College in New York. “There is a need within [us] to prepare the world for future generations.”

By all accounts, the world needs that help. “The human population is growing so quickly. If we don’t take the time to keep our air, water, and land clean, we are all going to suffer from sicknesses that come from pollution–pollution that could be prevented by making smarter, greener purchases and choices,” explains Kelly Simpson, an environmental educator with Portland Parks & Recreation in Oregon.

Teens Have the Power

As a teen, you’re in a powerful position. “If scientists are right, today’s teens will be the first generation to directly feel the effects of global warming,” says Jenn Savedge, author of The Green Teen. “So it makes sense for teens to become part of the solution, even if they don’t feel like they caused the problem.”

The problems facing our environment are complex, and it’s easy to become over whelmed. “Forget about global gloom and doom for a minute, and focus on what you can personally control,” says Simpson. “Focus on the little things you can do each day–they really do make a difference.”

And that’s one thing that makes teens so powerful, says Emily Packer, copresident of Teens Turning Green, an environmental advocacy group. “We can become the role models for the green movement simply by taking a little time to make educated choices in what we buy, what we eat, what we do, and what we say,” says the 16-year-old. “A choice for green is a vote for a safer environment, a healthier body, and a greener future.”

A Day in a Greener Life

Think about your typical day. What opportunities are there to make greener choices? Here are just a few ideas.

1 You get up in the morning, shower, and get dressed.

Take shorter showers to save water. “Put a timer in your shower, and see how quickly you can shower, or pick a five-minute song … and see if you can finish before it ends,” suggests Byron Emmons, 21, student director of sustainability at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

Try natural soaps with fewer chemicals and less packaging. Bars of soap use less packaging than liquid soaps, for example. “Become an educated consumer,” suggests Hannah Gross, 18, copresident of Teens Turning Green. “Whatever you put on your skin–be it makeup, body care products, or clothing–you are covering yourself in many different chemicals and ingredients that could be potentially harmful to your health and are definitely harmful to the environment.”

Wear used clothes. “Indulge your shopping habit by buying from hip used clothing shops or Goodwill,” suggests Simpson. “It’s guilt-free, fun, and you can buy a lot more!”

2 You go to school.

Get there green. Walk or bike if you can. “It’s good for your body and good for the planet,” says Simpson. Otherwise, take public transportation or carpool.

Think about school supplies. Can you reuse notebooks or folders from last year? Can you buy recycled supplies? Gross also suggests investing in one nice refillable pen and pencil set–good-bye, disposable pens.

Stop buses from idling. “School buses line up and wait in front of the school with the engines running, filling up with harmful particulate pollution that will stay with you throughout your ride,” explains Savedge. If your school district hasn’t banned bus idling, consider asking it to make the change.

Green your school. “If you can turn off a couple computers for even an hour, do it,” says Emmons. “If you can turn off the lights in the restroom, do it. If you can convince your administration to turn off the lights in sunny hallways or classrooms, do it.”

3 You sit down for a meal.

Reduce meat consumption. It’s a simple and healthy move that has a big impact on the planet; all those animals consume a lot of resources. “For every pound of beef that you replace with veggies and tofu, you save hundreds of gallons of water,” says Packer.

Eat local. “If your food doesn’t have to travel to get to you, you not only cut down on carbon emissions, you also get fresher food!” says Packer. If your area has a farmers market, check it out. When buying an apple for a snack, choose the apple that traveled the shortest distance to reach you.

Reuse bottles. Tap water is free and clean. Save money and energy by sipping from a reusable bottle, such as one made from stainless steel (Bonus: Water tastes better in those!). Plastic water bottles are made from nonrenewable resources, and most don’t get recycled. If you do use a disposable drink container, try to remember to recycle. But a reusable, nonplastic bottle is a cleaner, greener choice–and cheaper over time.

4 You’re out of school.

Go outside. “The outdoors are so much fun,” says Simpson. “And besides, you have to love nature before you can really want to protect it.” Emmons has a few ideas for healthy outdoor fun: “Look for parks and trails in your area, and don’t be afraid to get a little dirty. Learn a new sport. Ask your parents for a bird or tree identification book.”

Carry a reusable bag. “You never know when you’ll be stopping in a store or picking up some books at the library and might need a bag,” says Gross. “I recommend keeping a foldable nylon one, which is light and small so it’s easy to keep in your purse or backpack …. By bringing a bag … you [eliminate] the use of thousands of plastic and paper bags.”

5 You’re hanging out at home.

Breathe easy in clean surroundings. Consider green cleaning supplies to keep chemicals out of your air and your water supply. Or, Packer suggests, “make your own cleaning products! It’s inexpensive and effective.” Recipes can be found online, and most require just common household products, such as white vinegar, lemons, and baking soda.

Power down. While it’s great to use less paper by going digital, your computer uses energy. Try monitoring your use of computer time, and consider how much of it might be time–and energy–wasted. Shut down when you’re done with your computer.

Hang up your clothes. Instead of just dumping clothes on the floor when you take them off at night, hang them up. They’ll look nicer, and you’ll be more likely to wear them a few times before washing them. That saves energy by cutting down on laundry, and it extends the life of your clothing.

THE BASICS

REDUCE your consumption of goods. Ask yourself whether you really need a new gadget, knickknack, or clothing item.

REUSE bottles, bags, books, toys, clothing, paper, and school supplies.

RECYCLE whatever you can’t reuse, including paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass, and plastic.

Key Points

1. Everybody can change their habits and choices to be more environmentally sound.

2. Choosing ecofriendly options can help prevent some health problems related to pollution.

3. Focusing on what you can control can help you feel less overwhelmed about eco-choices.

4. Each day offers many opportunities to make a difference.

Critical Thinking

What are some ways to conserve and protect the environment that everyone easily can do?

Extension Activity

As a class, list environmentally friendly options that are easy for teens to choose every day. Then list the challenges in pursuing any of those options and strategies for overcoming those barriers.

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A year ago this month, as a senior at Forest Hill Community High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., Frankie Catalfumo had an idea. “I wanted to raise money for the Everglades,” recalls Frankie. “So I started A Walk on the Green Side,” a fund-raising and awareness event.

Located on the southern tip of Florida, the Everglades wilderness area is home to an amazing array of plants and animals, many of which are endangered. A Walk on the Green Side, says Catalfumo, involves walkers doing laps around his high school’s track. Sponsors pay for every mile the walkers go, and the money goes toward buying trees to reforest the Everglades.

Staging an environmental fund-raiser–especially from scratch–is a difficult job. The biggest challenge for Catalfumo was getting the word out. He needed walkers, sponsors, and volunteers, and as far as he could tell, few people shared his passion for saving the environment. For his walk to be a success, he’d need to get creative.

His solution? A little peer pressure–of the positive kind. Catalfumo, who’s now 19, created a visual display that “showed how much of the Everglades we’ve lost … and I just stood in public places and informed people about the issue,” he says. “I told them how we’ve chopped down the trees to grow sugarcane and that we’re basically destroying everything out there-that it used to be 4.1 million acres, and now we’re looking at a third of that, and that’s only because it’s been preserved by a park.”

His presentation, he says, was impossible to ignore: “When someone said they couldn’t go or could only make it for 30 minutes and didn’t think it was worth it, I’d say, ‘Thirty minutes–you could walk a mile, maybe two, and it’s all money we didn’t have before.'” On the day of the walk, it rained. Still, says Catalfumo, 50 people showed up, and the event was a hit. “A lot of people were surprised,” he admits. “We raised $2,000 and bought a hundred trees.” And it doesn’t end there: Catalfumo, who’s now a student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, hopes to duplicate A Walk on the Green Side there.

Really Time

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, consider following Catalfumo’s lead: Recruit others to your favorite environmental cause, and tap the “power of many” to help save the planet. Organize a group to clean your local beach or park. Launch a campaign to reduce community energy usage. Rally friends to speak out about waterpollution and the things people can do to fight it.

As Catalfumo discovered, many young people are worried about the environment. Almost 70 percent of teens surveyed by the research company Generate say they care about environmental issues and want to get more involved. The problem is, many (37 percent) don’t know how and almost half (48 percent) think the issues are so big and so daunting that their efforts won’t result in real change.

Your job, then, is to get your peers on board. And a great way to do that, according to Noah Goldstein, a social psychologist and coauthor of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, is through positive peer influence. “There are certain things you can say to people to … [encourage] pro-environmental behaviors,” says Goldstein, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. For example, in one study, researchers placed smiley faces on the utility bills of home owners who used less electricity than their neighbors; the smiles resulted in conservation. Give people the tools, support, and encouragement they need, and they’ll most likely join you in your cause.

Follow Their Lead

Cara C., copresident of the Go Green Club at the Denver School of Science and Technology, knows about “green” pressure. The club is all about encouraging others to chip in and save the planet. “We do presentations about what you can do to help the environment, like using energy-efficient lightbulbs, shutting the door to keep your air conditioning and heating bills lower, simple things like that,” Cara, 16, explains. “We also have bright-green billboard-type shirts to let people know we’re around, to raise interest in what we’re doing.”

Laying out the facts, says Cara, is the key to green persuasion–and to her club’s mission. “It takes a certain amount of, ‘If you do this, you’re saving this much rain forest, or if you do this, you’ll save the whales,'” she explains. “You have to be convincing.”

At the same time, Cara always tries to stay upbeat–something Goldstein suggests is critical to green persuasion. “Don’t go out and tell people they’re horrible at something, like recycling, so they need to change,” he says. The negative tone and guilt might discourage them from doing what you want them to do–for example, sorting out the paper and plastic.

Recycling, in fact, is a major Go Green initiative, says Cara. Thanks to the club’s new school-wide recycling program, most students, but not all, have made recycling a habit. And for those who resist? Cara says she and her friends do their best not to sound like the eco-police. “If we see someone throw paper in the trash, we’ll say something–like, ‘Hey, could you please put that in the recycling bin?’ But we always do it in a nice, friendly way.” And they definitely avoid the guilt-trips, according to Cara: “You don’t want to be annoying.”

Ally M., 17, a Los Angeles student who founded the Green Youth Movement to spread the word about global warming, agrees that teaching green measures in a friendly way is the best strategy. Her efforts began at home–she persuaded her parents to install solar panels on their house–and continue today in elementary school classrooms around her city. “I go in and talk for five or 10 minutes and break down global warming into something they can relate to,” she says. “And then I have them pledge to change one thing about their lifestyle”–to drink tap water, for instance, instead of bottled water. “They sign a pledge sheet, and they take it home, where they can post it on their fridge. I’m not trying to get them to change their whole life at such a young age,” Ally says. Instead, following the advice of experts such as Goldstein, she’s asking them to make small but meaningful changes that are relatively easy to adjust to.” “I am teaching them to make a difference.”

PRESSURE PRIMER

Peer pressure can be effective, but remember to keep it positive. Some tips from Noah Goldstein, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of Yes/50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive:

  • Have people sign a petition in support of your cause. Keep your list of signatures visible to newcomers. When they see that their peers support saving the planet, they’ll sign it too.
  •  Ask people directly whether they would commit to your cause. “If they say yes, it’s more of a public, active commitment,” says Goldstein. Combine their yeses with their signatures, and you have them in the bag.
  • KEEP IT VOLUNTARY. “When you provide incentives;’ notes Goldstein, “like a nickel for every can recycled, [people may participate] during your campaign, but it probably won’t last.” Chances are they’re doing it for the money (or the free T-shirt), not because they really care.
  • SHARE THE LOVE. Give your approval to those who are already doing the right thing. Positive reinforcement ensures that they’ll keep it up.

Think About It …

Besides raising environmental awareness, what are some other situations in which peer pressure can be a good thing?

Key Points

1. Many teens worry about environmental issues, but not many feel they can help.

2. Positive peer pressure can be a good tool to motivate others in support of a cause.

3. Aim to educate and inspire those you want to rally.

4. Small and easy lifestyle changes can make a difference in people’s eco-footprints.

Critical Thinking

Besides raising environmental awareness, what are some other situations in which peer pressure can be a good thing?

Extension Activity

Choose an environmental issue. Then split the class into groups and have each choose a different way of recruiting supporters–for example, a poster campaign, a petition, a letter in the school newspaper, or an announcement on the public address system. Design and distribute a simple survey to learn which method was most effective.

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