The greenest generation?

Are kids today more eco-friendly than their parents? Will they stay that way?

Courtesy of Scholastic
Kindergarten students of the Oak Park Elementary School in oil capital Bartlesville, Oklahoma, authored "Our Class Is Going Green," a winner of Scholastic's 2008 Kids Are Authors contest.
Courtesy of Scholastic

A friend from journalism school who now is now a flak for Scholastic Press sent me one of the winners of his company's annual "Kids Are Authors" contest.

It's a neat little book. Produced by 19 kindergartners and titled "Our Class Is Going Green," it describes some of the steps they are taking to reduce their environmental impact, all colorfully illustrated with newspaper scraps and recycled art-class watercolors.

"Walk to school" one page says, and then on the next page "INSTEAD of riding in cars."

"Wear our clothes in layers," says another page, "INSTEAD of turning the thermostat up to keep warm."

For their winning effort, the kids get $5,000 in vouchers for Scholastic books, as well as having their book – which is of course printed using recycled paper – featured at 100,000 book fairs at schools across the country.

So where are these little treehuggers from anyway? Berkeley? Cambridge? Madison? Somewhere in Scandinavia, perhaps?

Nope. Try Bartlesville, Okla.

To call Bartlesville "oil country" would be an understatement, like calling Disneyland "trinket country." The city was longtime home to the Phillips Petroleum Company (now ConocoPhillips), which has always been the largest employer.

Bartlesville is in a state whose capitol building hosts an oil derrick on its grounds, whose official state monument is the "golden driller," a giant yellow statue of an oilman (accompanied for some reason by a penguin in a hardhat). Oklahoma is represented in the Senate by James Inhofe, who famously calls the idea that fossil fuels are changing the climate the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," and by Tom Coburn, who last year voted to block commemoration of the centennial of the birth of Rachel Carson.

And yet, right out of the middle of all this comes a book that celebrates driving less and keeping the thermostat turned down.

How did this happen? Most poll results I've looked at suggest that, the younger you are, the more receptive of environmental messages you're likely to be. For instance, in May, a Pew research survey found that 54 percent of Americans under age 30 believe in manmade global warming, compared with only 37 percent of those ages 65 and older.

Another example: A 2007 survey conducted by Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy asked whether "America is in as much danger from environmental hazards as it is from terrorists." Some 69 percent of respondents aged 18-44 agreed with the statement, compared with only 54 percent of those 65 and older.

These surveys don't look at those under 18, but there's no evidence that the trends reverse themselves at younger ages. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite. After all, at the heart of environmentalism are simple rules of fairness – "clean up your own mess," "don't take so much for yourself so that others get nothing" – that are easily grasped (if not always followed) by schoolchildren. The rules only seem more complex in a world of electricity bills, shiny gadgets, and corporate-funded think tanks.

The real question is whether we discard these attitudes as we age, or whether America is getting genuinely greener over time. It's still too early to tell: with each passing year, each of us is producing more and more garbage and emitting more and more greenhouse gasses, but these trends seem to be leveling off. Perhaps the kids at Bartlesville's Oak Park Elementary School are in the generation that will finally turn them around.

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