Friday, January 26, 2007

Activism 101: lessons for a changing world

Community school class journeys to Boise and returns with ideas for change

Express Staff Writer

Students from The Community School?s Activism 101 class discuss climate change and its potential effects on the world and the Wood River Valley. From left to right are Charlie Grabow, Zana Davey, Nicol Wheeler, Emily Williams, Carson Caraluzzi, Alison Sher and Grace Guryan. Photo by Willy Cook

The risks posed by global warming are at the forefront of public debate.

In his 49-minute State of the Union Address Tuesday, President George W. Bush dedicated one line to "climate change" and the search for "environmentally sensitive" fuels. It was the first time the president publicly acknowledged the potential threat posed by the warming of the earth's atmosphere.

However, environmental activism, including advocating more aggressive stances on global warming, has long been on the agenda for one local school teacher.

Seventh grade team teacher Scott Runkel, who heads The Community School's Activism 101 class, took a group of middle school students to the Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs in Boise to hear former Vice President Al Gore speak on Monday, Jan. 22.

Runkel's class is scheduling a free screening of Gore's movie on the perils of global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," for Jan. 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. Following the movie the students have invited local municipal leaders to participate in a discussion about climate change and how to battle it in the Wood River Valley.

The fragility of the planet and mankind's responsibility to be stewards of the environment was not lost on the young audience.

"The thing that struck me was when Gore put up a slide of the Earth," Kyla Jarrett said. "I realized all the wars, all the problems we have, are all on this tiny little blue dot."

Gore's movie "told us there's a lot of problems," Zana Davey said. "But the movie really didn't tell us what to do about it. We need to find out what we can do in this town instead of just leaving a movie all depressed."

As Nicol Wheeler put it "there are a million little things we can do."

The students returned from Boise bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm for change.

"Just little things, like turning off the car instead of idling or turning off a light when you leave a room—those little things add up," said Emily Williams. Runkel has been leading by example for years.

"Scott (Runkel) rides his bike everywhere and when not on his bike he rides the bus," Alison Sher said. "But, we all can't be like Scott."

Last semester, Runkel's students employed the aforementioned mind-set to see if they could reach a goal of reducing their electricity use by 5 percent. When it was all said and done, those small, seemingly insignificant changes resulted in a 15 to 30 percent decrease in energy consumption, Runkel said.

The power of money and the fact that, if environmentalism is going to be embraced by the mainstream it must be economically viable, was a key notion not lost on the young students.

"Green is not just the color of environmentalism. It's the color of money," Davey said.

Sher agreed.

"Saving the world for fun and profit was one of the themes of the conference," she said.

Runkel further explained that a diagram made by former President George Bush, and used by Gore, showed an old measuring scale with bars of gold on one side and the Earth balancing on the other.

"It was an example of the balance between the Earth and profit, the point being that we don't need to have a trade-off," Runkel said. "We need a healthy Earth first. If we don't have that, money is useless."

Of the many examples put forth by Gore during his keynote address, a few in particular appear to have the largest impact on the young minds in attendance.

"He (Gore) put up a little slide of Glacier National Park, and then he said that every glacier will be gone by 2030 if we don't do something," Charlie Grabow said.

"I need to put that on my list of places to see before it's gone," Grace Guryan said.

Sher, too, was stunned by the perspective such an illustration provided.

"It's scary because all the changes he talked about are going to happen in our lifetime," Sher said. "We're not even going to be old yet."

Rising sea levels and the human displacement that would cause also hit home for the students.

"The thing that really scared me—if Greenland or Antarctica lose their ice caps, the oceans could rise 23 feet," Davey said.

As the students explained, a 23-foot rise in ocean levels would cover most of Florida, leaving only the very middle of the state above water. In addition, the land between Calcutta and Bangladesh would be inundated with water, displacing around 60 million people. The students appeared to grasp the sheer enormity of such numbers and the strain such occurrences would place on the world at large.

A final example of rising sea levels in Gore's speech seemed to appear to have carried the most weight.

If seas rise as high as predicted, chunks of Manhattan, including the site of the World Trade Center Memorial, will be under water.

"We're spending so much money fighting terrorism," Runkel said. "But if we don't fight global warming, our memorial, and in many ways what it stands for, will be gone. It's amazingly symbolic."

And the world's coral reefs could also suffer.

"The ocean's reefs, they are disappearing, too," Sher said.

According to Gore, in 1998 alone, the world lost 16 percent of all its coral reefs.

"Ah," Guryan said. "I need to remember to add that to my list of things to see before they're all gone."

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