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  • Campus Vote Project

Environment and Youth Activism: What do we do?

Updated: May 7

By: Abrielle Mannino, Democracy Fellow

The celebration of Earth Month 2024 marks a monumental achievement by humanity--concerning ourselves with the future. In our continued lack of foresight, humanity has caused dramatic shifts in the climate that will forever change the planet. Youth, defined as individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, are the most vulnerable to the environmental crisis and will be subject to most of its consequences. Projected to exacerbate natural disasters in our adult years, the youth population will be the first and worst impacted by global climate change. 

Climate change is not the only environmental issue with which we ought to be concerned. Over two billion people lack adequate access to water in the world today, a number that will continue to rise as industrialization and technological innovation require greater water resources (UNICEF, 2024). Moreover, the focus of this year’s Earth Day, plastic pollution, threatens global communities and ecosystems. Over 2,000 tons of plastic pollution are dumped into the world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans every day (UNEP, 2024). Our waste is not only plastic, however, toxic chemicals released in the air cause millions of cases of lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke annually (WHO, 2024). All of these harms accrue to the growing burden on the shoulders of the youth.

But we are not mere victims. 

Environmental damage represents a grave loss, but an even greater opportunity. This opportunity is incumbent upon the youth today to take up the mantle of defending our future. This blog highlights how students can be involved in environmental policy change. Specifically, how important to environmental efforts it is that college-age students exercise their right to vote and participate in activism. 

Youth activists have been at the forefront of the environmental movement for decades. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), many students in the 1960s and 70s read her novel. Highlighting the harmful impacts of DDT and other pesticides on human and environmental health, the novel was a global best-seller and catalyst for contemporary environmentalism. Moreover, in 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill resulted in “3 million gallons of oil leaked off the coast of California” (Weatherly, 2020) killing billions of animals and ranking the largest oil spill in history to date. Galvanized by understanding the harmful effects of human-produced chemicals on public and environmental health, youth activists developed coalitions across the world to combat the effects of environmental pollution. In response to these events, those same students developed non-profit organizations supporting environmental causes including renowned activist organization Greenpeace. Today, Greenpeace hosts protests, petitioning, and volunteer opportunities for those passionate about environmental issues to make a difference in politics. Several organizations followed this model including the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy who offer similar opportunities for students to get involved. 

The development of Earth Day was thanks to the activism of college students in response to these same events. One Dennis Hayes organized teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations across the United States to encourage environmental action (Weatherly, 2020). He worked with local The development of Earth Day was thanks to the activism of college students in response to these same events. One Dennis Hayes organized teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations across the United States to encourage environmental action (Weatherly, 2020). He worked with local governments, specifically his Representative Pete McCloskey of California, and their efforts resulted in over 1,500 college campuses hosting environmental activist opportunities in 1970. These events and demonstrations led to the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970, a landmark holiday solidifying our continued commitment to protecting the environment.

Today, youth activists have been the foundation of the environmental movement. Teens and college students together have sued governments, demonstrated publicly, and organized mass voting campaigns to further environmental goals. Several of these actors highlight the importance of youth and college activism for the environmental movement. 

The first is Xiye Bastida, a climate activist raised in New York City. Her work has been grounded in leading youth protests and media campaigns to support climate activist efforts. Her story began when incredible flooding that devastated and drought that devastated her home in Mexico. They moved to New York City, and there she began climate protests with the environmental club in high school. The movement was small at first, 600 strong, but grew to more protests reaching over 300,000 people participating throughout the city (Bastida, 2020). Her story displays how educational environments can be the innovators of environmental action and spread to a community. 

The second is Dominique Palmer, “a climate justice activist and student at the University of Birmingham, England” (Francis, 2024). She got involved with Fridays for Future, a movement that began in 2018, and has led many successful strikes on her campus as well as rallied her classmates to participate in legislative initiatives around climate change. Moreover, she uses her social media platforms to share information on how students can be educated, be involved, and make a change. Her activism reinforces the role of colleges and universities in facilitating demonstrations and protests, but also how everyone’s social media can serve as a way to educate their friends and peers about environmental issues.

In both of these cases, Xiye and Dominique show the importance of rallying support around climate as a political issue and how small choices can grow to become large change drivers.

As Xiye’s motto tells us: “we all take care of the earth, because the earth takes care of us.” Environmental efforts are not the work of one or two heroes, but the work of everyone who lives on this Earth to take responsibility as stewards of their home. It is for this reason we all must take up the challenge of demonstrating through protest, teach-ins, and other political action the importance of these issues to those who can change the laws and protect the environment. In my experience, I have engaged in protests and teach-ins, hosting several in collaboration with campus organizations. At the intersection of voting and the environment, I recently held a teach-in with local environmental leaders on climate change in collaboration with the Democracy Project at my institution. To the students who attended, I know our event served as an invaluable educational opportunity so they too may get involved with environmental efforts. Thus, it is our responsibility as campus leaders and passionate advocates for change to care for the Earth and inspire others to do the same. 

Today, Earth Day is still not recognized as a national holiday. Climate change becomes a more pressing issue every year, and many other environmental harms do too. Knowing the context and development of environmental activism in college students, it is easy to see how you too can become an activist toward environmental sustainability. Empower your friends and peers to participate in demonstrations with you, host teach-ins, or simply educate your peers on environmentally friendly ballot measures. In all cases, the youth are the most powerful generation on the environment and climate to date, and every person who joins the coalition brings us one step closer to a sustainable future. 



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