Solutions to environmental challenges lie in the contagious optimism and activism of the youth.
Next to my copy of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, sits Helen Ward and Marc Craste’s more recent picture book, Varmints. It’s a spare and striking story about the dystopic sprawl of industrialization and the steadfast resolve of a single creature to save a small pot of wilderness.
These two artists are, without question, extraordinary talents. Varmints held me captive. It is cinematic and dark, tender, evocative and even hopeful. I credit this story—both the book and the 20-minute animation short by the same duo—more than any other, with inspiring me to consider what hope and hopefulness means.
At the end of the story the small creature, pot in hand, heads toward hope, toward a new beginning.
The author leaves room for the reader’s interpretation as to where that hopeful, new beginning resides. Might it lie within our own commitments and resolve? Or, as the illustrator depicts, might it reside elsewhere? Craste draws the creature carrying his small pot of wilderness into a floating, domed biosphere—away from the noise, away from the ruin to a place where wilderness and birdsong might once again flourish.
The story suggests that hope is realized through fresh starts, that hopefulness must be pinned elsewhere—beyond this world—and away from the places we currently inhabit. Without that possibility, where in this world, should children direct their hopes, hearts, and desire to be part of the solution?
This is why I was struck by Ted Wells’ fourth grade class (who I wrote about here). I was struck by their commitment to this world, imperfect as it might be. Over the past few years, even before their petition to Universal pictures about their adaptation of The Lorax, Park School students have taken up the Catalog Canceling Challenge. Their aim: to reduce the environmental costs exacted by the catalogs that clutter mailboxes each day.
As I learned from their Catalog Canceling Challenge, retailers (circa 2007) shipped some 19 billion catalogs to US households each year, though retailers have reigned in catalog distribution a bit in response to shifting economic and consumer conditions, including rising paper and production costs. By simply cutting back on unwanted catalogs, the students quickly saw an opportunity for sizable environmental benefits: thousands upon thousands of trees, gallons of water and BTUs of energy saved, and in pounds upon pounds of carbon not emitted (see the information Wells compiled here).
The students collected catalogs from friends, family and neighbors. Then, as their teacher taught them, they cancelled them by phone or through Catalog Choice. The 168 students participating in the Challenge canceled nearly 5000 catalogs the first year. The following year, the teachers and school administrators upped the ante: If they reached an even bolder target, the staff promised an unforgettable celebration.
Sure enough, the students exceeded their teachers’ goals and were rewarded by their teacher, Ted Wells, who shaved a mohawk into his flop of mouse-brown hair; by their teachers, who wore to the celebration clothing the librarians fashioned from cancelled catalogs; and by the art teacher, who painted an Earth on their principal’s bald head—a spectacle not to be missed here.
They chartered their progress, and mapped the ripple effects. By their teacher’s estimate, for each catalog canceled, six times as many would be stopped the following year. By my estimate, they were sowing hope to the benefit of countless others.
These young students are living a definition of hope that I have only recently arrived at through the mentorship of my friend Carolyn Raffensperger, the Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Carolyn, you see, defines hope much like the late Valclav Havel did: not as rooted in an assurance that all will turn out right, but rooted in a deep conviction that your actions make sense, that you are working toward what is right. It is a well-informed hope, hope that acknowledges its shadow, as she wrote. Hope that doesn’t affix itself elsewhere. Hope that is rooted right where you stand, in your community, in this, our shared biosphere. You can read his words yourself here.
The students of the Park School invite you to live in the spirit of the Lorax, to root your hope here, too. They seek other schools, groups and troops to join them in the Catalog Cancelling Challenge. Please spread the word.
Ted and colleagues have drafted a nine step plan to get the Catalog Cancelling Challenge rolling, including a slideshow and movie to jumpstart the campaign. They invite you to pool results with others who’ve joined the challenge, which includes kids representing 22 states and Washington DC . And, to find creative ways to demonstrate the scale of your achievements, as Park School students did here.
By Rebecca Altman
Learn more | Visit Park School’s website; watch Oprah’s feature of the Catalog Canceling Challenge:
You also can write for more information at: firstname.lastname@example.org