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‘I Don’t See the World With Rose-Tinted Glasses.’ What Happens When Young Environmental Activists Grow Up

8 minute read

Six months ago, 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, started skipping school on a weekly basis to raise awareness of climate change. Now, on Friday, thousands of children and adolescents worldwide are following her lead, in hopes that their march will force lawmakers to take drastic action to mitigate the already harmful effects of global warming.

These young activists say they have been partly inspired by the teen survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who inspired school walkouts for stricter gun control laws. But the roots of these protests also run deeper: Friday’s demonstrations echo the actions of youngsters about 30 years ago, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s took up the cause of conservation.

In 1990, TIME dubbed this group the ecokids: “a new generation of conservation-conscious, environmentally active schoolchildren” who “may be the best hope for the cause of preservation.”

As a feature that December noted, they were a group of children who had been getting the message about saving the planet for their whole lives, not just from school but also from TV shows like Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Awareness of climate change was growing, and they were frightened by what they’d heard about holes in the ozone layer, oil spills and the extinction of animal species. They were also the offspring of parents who grew up during the era of ’60s activism, and had inherited some of that tradition, starting early by forming clubs, circulating petitions and writing to Congress. The “youngsters have become convinced that they were put on the planet for the express purpose of saving it,” the writer Philip Elmer-DeWitt observed.

When TIME named the Endangered Earth the Planet of the Year for 1988, the magazine noted that “everyone suddenly sensed” that Earth “was in danger.” Nearly 30 years later, that sense remains strong. The individuals who appeared in that 1990 article are still all ecokids at heart — but they are also shocked by how much work urgently needs to get done.

‘I Did Feel Like an Outsider’

The 1990 story started with three American kids who were examples of a global trend:

Kimberly Carr, 10, of Montgomery, Vt., recycles hergarbage and is designing a board game in which the goal is to save the elephants. Elizabeth Bayley, 17, is active in a Seattle-based youth group that organizes tree plantings, stencils storm drains with dump no waste notices and monitors pollution in Puget Sound. Jeremiah Johnson, 10, from Brentwood, N.Y., puts his McDonald’s detritus in recycling bins, tells his mother how long it takes each shopping bag to biodegrade and intervenes whenever his younger brother is about to commit an environmental outrage, like pulling the legs off a defenseless (and ecologically valuable) spider.

Then it went on to highlight ecokids who saw results on the policy-making front. The article referred to a 1987 success story in which sixth graders at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City alerted the EPA to a yard full of hazardous waste, and the kids successfully lobbied for a law that created a fund for cleaning up such sites.

Their teacher, Barbara Lewis, said letters and flyers in crayon and kid handwriting got people’s attention. If the effort “doesn’t smack of kid,” and looks too professional, as if a parent wrote it, then it won’t be as effective. She advised her students to talk to lawmakers as if they were telling their grandparents something really cool and interesting that they just learned.

Not that every kid was on the bandwagon. For Elizabeth Bayley, even though she grew up paying attention to environmental issues and her father has served on the board of environmental organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, her passion for conversation was perceived by some of her peers as nerdy and strange.

“I did feel like an outsider,” she recalls now. “Being an enviro-geek at that time wasn’t all that hip or cool. There was one kid in my class who knew how it would affect me when he purposefully held down the button on the water fountain to let the water run, to watch my reaction. He’s also the guy who once told me ‘you intimidate guys with your morals.'”

Now, about 30 years later, the world has changed — for better and worse — and so have they.

For Bayley, it’s clear that, thanks in part to celebrity backers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, promoting environmental causes is more socially acceptable than it used to be. But, she says, it’s hard to put her old passion into action in her adult life. Though she’d wanted to be an outdoor wilderness instructor when she grew up, a back injury changed her direction. At 45, she describes herself as being “pulled in a hundred different directions” as a nurse practitioner in Seattle with two children. She tries to make greener personal choices, such as buying fewer plastic products and taking shorter showers at home, but says she doesn’t have much time for anything beyond that.

And it’s not just a lack of time. “I cannot help but wonder if kids in high school just feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenges we face,” she says, listing topics ranging from immigrant rights to #MeToo and gender equality in the workplace.

For Kimberly Carr, now Kimberly Bryant, 38, some hope on that front can be found close to home. While her board game never took off, she studied sustainable agriculture at a college solely focused on sustainability education and taught organic farming for more than a decade, before going into the organic, fair-trade coffee business. Today, she has two daughters, including a 14-year-old who composts at home and is going on a backpacking trip in Arizona to learn about water issues there.

“Because of the Internet, there’s so much that kids can get involved in now,” she tells TIME in a phone call from Belize. “It’s so much easier to be involved than it was when I was a kid.”

‘It’s Kind of Sad’

But some of the former ecokids say they feel a sense that the window to make a difference has closed. To them, the fact that three decades have passed and these problems remain unsolved is a sad wake-up call.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, there was this feeling that we can make a change. Now we have to make a change,” says Maxine Gilmore, 43, who was one of the students in the class that helped sound the alarm on the toxic waste in Utah, and now works at an after school program that has coordinated field trips to a local eco-garden. “There is more urgency. It’s kind of sad. I really thought this [1987 cleanup] is going to make a difference — and it did, there isn’t a toxic waste site polluting my area — but I’m an adult. I don’t see the world with rose-tinted glasses like I used to.”

Her former teacher, Barbara Lewis, now 75, says she’s personally found climate-focused calls to action to be less motivating than the pollution-focused work her students did in the ’80s. “I think it’s important for us to respect nature. I’m a big advocate of that. I think it’s a good rule of thumb that we should respect our environment and take care of it. I think that’s just common sense,” she says. “But I don’t know if [climate change] is so disastrous as they think. I don’t know what to believe.” (The overwhelming scientific consensus is that humans have caused climate change and that it is already an urgent threat to national and global well-being.)

For Jeremiah Johnson, 38, it was hard to re-read TIME’s description of him in 1990. He feels like he “drifted away” from that kind of full-time involvement in environmental causes when he went on to major in Computer Science at Columbia University and became a technologist and electronic music producer.

“It’s so upsetting to see how little progress has been made,” he says. “We’re in such a worse position now. I wonder what path we might be on right now if Al Gore had been elected President. Could that have been a possible turning point? Would the U.S. have been the model for other nations on this issue? The more I read about these things — I don’t want to say I feel hopeless about it, but I don’t think there’s really a good understanding in the general population of the scale of the problem. Humans have this sense that we can overcome anything that we come up against. Even if we went completely green tomorrow, the damage is already done. The best we can do is minimize the damage.”

He says he hopes big tech companies will step up and do more to look for scientific solutions, and notes that he’s been making an effort in recent years to reconnect with nature — an effort that he says he now vows to extend, recommitting himself to the sustainability movement.

“I’m getting a little emotional,” he says, his voice breaking. “I started to think, what have I done to help move things forward since then?”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com