What if your school bus released no harmful emissions? What if your school relied more on sunlight than on fluorescent light bulbs? What if your classroom wasn't even a room, but a stream, and you helped protect your whole community by watching it?
All of these things are possible, and, in fact, happening today. I interviewed and wrote about four people who chose careers that improve the environment. While protecting the world and saving the planet are deeds usually reserved for superheroes and their sidekicks, it's all part of a day's work for Galen Burrell, Bern Johnson, Lindsay Patterson, and Giorgio Zoia (below and page 19). For them, protecting the environment is more than a passion; it's also a profession.
The environment can't speak for itself. It can't stop someone from polluting rivers or chopping down too many trees. But the United States and many other countries do have laws to protect different aspects of the natural environment.
Environmental lawyers help make sure the laws are enforced. One of these attorneys is Bern Johnson, the executive director of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW).
Mr. Johnson started with E-LAW as a staff attorney after working on environmental issues in Congress. His work has taken him to the former Soviet Union, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the South Pacific, and Central and South America.
"We work with communities to protect their natural resources and health, the things that are important to them," Johnson says. For example, a coral reef is important to a thriving fishing community, so laws to protect it need to be developed and enforced locally.
Environmental law works in many ways. Issues can be argued in a courtroom or a lawyer might ask a judge to enforce a law.
An environmental lawyer can also work to get legislation passed or even educate communities about the environment and threats to it.
E-LAW helps communities in developing countries by giving them access to scientific research. It also provides resources that are necessary to identify and challenge environmental abuse.
"Environmental problems are scientific," Johnson says. "You need to be able to show where the damage came from and [propose] a cleaner way that does not cause pollution."
E-LAW recently supported lawyers and advocates in Nigeria who went to court against the Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria. E-LAW and Nigerian environmental lawyers showed that when open flames are used to burn off gases that were extracted from the earth with the crude oil, greenhouse gases were created and the local community was exposed to health risks.
Johnson sees enforcing environmental laws as good not only for people today, but also for the future.
"A lot of environmental issues are about children and the next generation," he says. "Will the air, the rivers be there for my children and their children?"
He encourages kids to make wise decisions about how their personal behavior affects the environment.
"We all make choices that affect the environment," Johnson says. "If you rode your bike to school, even if only one day, it would make a big difference."
Students in Tim Maze's class in Ranchester, Wyo., went from being just eighth-graders to being considered local heroes. All they did was show up for class.
Mr. Maze and his classes had been conducting research on the Little Tongue River for about 10 years. Because they had studied the same stream for some time, the students noticed when something was different: Some of the substrate (or subsoil at the bottom of the river) that they collected wasn't the same color as usual.
The class reported what they had found to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. When representatives came out to the area, they discovered that a landowner upstream had been dumping ashes from his coal stove into the stream. The landowner stopped, which prevented further contamination.
So environmental education allowed the students to find and address a problem and protect the stream.
Lindsay Patterson is an environmental educator and researcher who works with teachers, such as Maze, to develop monitoring and research skills they can teach to their classes.
This is part of her job as the watershed specialist at the Conservation Research Center, part of the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyo.
Ms. Patterson learned the importance of studying outside rather than just from a book while getting her undergraduate degree at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Now, in addition to helping teachers and students learn more about the environment, she develops research projects.
In her work with kids, she likes to say she's cultivating problem solvers. Learning about your community is a good place to start solving environmental problems, she says. Be observant and learn about the plants, trees, and animals around you.
"You could spend a lot of time outside and not know what you are looking at," Patterson says. But by watching your environment over time and questioning why changes occur, you can be like the students in Maze's class and help prevent further problems.
Galen Burrell knows how to light up a room by turning off the lights. His job is to keep people happy and productive while creating a more sustainable environment.
Mr. Burrell is a sustainable design engineer at Architectural Energy Corp. in Boulder, Colo. His specialty is "daylighting," which means he works with other professionals to make buildings energy efficient by relying more on natural light.
"It's not as simple as slapping a window on a wall and calling it a day," Burrell says. A window that faces the sun can cause glare or discomfort when someone looks directly at it. He uses computer- modeling programs to determine the best locations for the windows and how to properly shade them so that they allow natural light into a building's rooms without creating glare.
One of Burrell's current projects is Aspen (Colo.) Middle School.
"Building more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly schools with daylit classrooms - nice windows, maybe a skylight - connects students to the outdoors," he says. "They're less restless, more productive, and happier in a classroom that's daylit."
The "green" building and sustainable-design industries are growing. "People are starting to realize that this is something that we absolutely need to do," Burrell says. What holds sustainable design back is the high cost. But, eventually, Burrell thinks, energy prices will climb so high that energy-efficient measures will pay for themselves.
As a young boy in Italy, Giorgio Zoia loved cars. But he also noticed that smog, caused largely by pollution from car exhaust mixing with naturally occurring fog, blocked his view of the beautiful mountains that surrounded his hometown.
Then he saw a fuel-cell car. That's a vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel rather than petroleum. While it was running, he put his hand near the exhaust pipe. When he pulled it away, it was wet but also clean. (The only thing that came out of the exhaust pipe was water.)
"I could see the car really changing society [in the future]," Mr. Zoia says. He now contributes to that change, working in the gas, power, and renewables division of BP, an energy company.
It might be several decades before we see widespread use of fuel-cell cars, he says. But he compares the potential of these vehicles to personal computers in the early 1980s.
Ultimately, hydrogen may not be the fuel that replaces gasoline in cars, but Zoia says it has great possibilities because it is renewable and 100 percent clean.
Right now, there are about 100 fuel-cell cars in California, where Zoia and his team are conducting most of their research. They are working with car manufacturer DaimlerChrysler to maintain about 30 of these cars and build hydrogen fueling stations. They conduct many tests on how well the cars operate. They are also trying to determine the most economical and environmentally sound way to produce hydrogen. The team's goal is to gain as much knowledge about hydrogen fuel as possible. Then, by 2012, BP can decide if it wants to mass- produce hydrogen fuel and fueling stations, or pursue a different kind of fuel.
You can't buy one of these cars yet. With development and research costs, they cost about $1 million. But that will go down with time, Zoia notes. And he believes that in addition to being cleaner, hydrogen fuel could be up to twice as efficient as petroleum.