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The young activist’s guide to building a green movement

George Blacksell

24th August, 2011

Sharon J. Smith’s book acts as an inspirational guide for the youth of today to taking environmental matters into their own hands

Social agitation in reaction to injustice is an age-old phenomenon, and more recent activist movements have ranged from the so-called slavery abolitionists of the early 19th century to the African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s. According to Sharon J. Smith, ‘climate justice is really the defining issue of our generation’ and the modern day environmentalism movement is the focus of her book, The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World.

The book acts as an eco campaigners almanac, a go-to guide for people interested in making a positive difference to the environment. The clever use of successful activist’s personal accounts and the overwhelming enthusiasm with which it is imbued mean that Building a Green Movement is more than just a guidebook.

Smith found inspiration for the book from her role as the program advisor of Earth Island Institute’s Brower Youth Awards, which honours some of the most successful environmental leaders in North America under the age of 23. The book collates the remarkable stories of the winners of this award and effectively uses them to construct a template to being a green activist.

The book is divided into sections that should be on the agenda of all budding eco activists, and include creating everything from an action plan for your environmental initiative to garnering support and followers, and gaining funding. Smith is methodical in her approach to writing and each of her own tips and pointers tend to be backed up with a ‘success story’ of how they have been implemented by individuals in real-life examples.

The informal writing style used ensures that the book is very accessible (and it is easy to glean the necessary information from it quickly). At the close of each section the reader is presented with a list of relevant resources such as research groups and networks to get involved in. 

The book begins by impressing upon the reader the imperative for change. One of the reasons cited to enact such change is the stark fact that the current extinction rate of natural species is more than ‘a thousand times higher than the natural rate’ but at no point are the scare mongering tactics used by some environmentalists of old employed in this work.

Instead, Smith takes a refreshingly different approach and focuses on positive potential the youth of today posses to enact change. Clearly Smith doesn’t believe overwhelming the reader with worst-case climate change scenarios is the best way of getting an environmentalist’s message to resonate with people, young or old, and I would wholeheartedly agree.

Ultimately, young people are the real stars of this book and there is a wealth of young visionaries’ stories- some of whom began their projects from as young as 9 years old! The author cites that her inspiration comes from ‘the witnessing [of] storytelling by individuals and groups who are courageously working on these issues’. One of the most impressive is that of Alex Lin, an eleven year old who became concerned with the growing amounts of discarded electrical equipment or ‘e-waste’.

Not only did Alex set up a partnership with a recycling company to install a permanent receptacle for e-waste in his hometown of Rhode Island, but he also drafted a sample resolution to ban the dumping of e-waste and lobbied the state legislators to adopt it. Through determination and perseverance, Alex and his team proved instrumental in making Rhode Island the fourth state in the US to adopt a bill requiring the proper disposal of e-waste in 2006, achieving all of this by the age of thirteen.

Stories such as this serve to prove that it’s not just the multi-national companies and corporate lobbyists who have the power to shape laws.

The all important inspiration can also be drawn from activists from movements outside of the environmental realm and Smith refers to the stand taken by Rosa Parks by refusing to obey the order of a bus driver and how it ‘helped to incite the civil rights movement to victory.’

These stories of frustration and injustice can be a source of motivation and Smith is acutely aware of the need for leaders in the quest for ‘climate justice’. For those who are not natural born leaders, and lets be honest few can boast the initiative of shown by young individuals such as Alex, the book provides a great toolkit to help kick start their own environmental activism journey.

The wealth of practical information given in the book provides a roadmap for burgeoning movements, and it will undoubtedly become an invaluable resource for activists the world over. But perhaps the most unique feature of the book is its potential ability to link individuals and organisations so they can maximise the impact of their campaigns. In the rousing words of the author ‘you can and you will change the world’.

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