Letter to a Young Ocean Activist

01/27/2011 07:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago, Jill Buck, founder of Go Green Initiative, forwarded an email from Sarah Fyfe, a tenth grader living in Michigan. After learning about the pacific garbage patch Sarah wrote a passionate letter in which she expressed her love and concern for the planet, and asked, "How can I get people to want to help as much as I do?". Jill forwarded the email to me because of an initiative I am developing, Reclaimin' The Oceans. (Sidebar, Jill receives approx 500 such questions a day during the school year and has found a way to answer some via her van cam.)

It was such a profound question, that it felt worthy of sharing, both the question, and the answer. Below is my response, peppered with comments from a few others...

Dear Sarah,
I am inspired by your deep commitment and willingness to ask the hard questions, and to be truthful, am grateful for the opportunity to share a few nuggets I have learned along the way. But since I am just one of many working on these issues, I invited people on Twitter to chime in, and so, below you will find a mishmash of answers to your questions.

For starters, as Mahatma Ghandi says, it all starts at home: "Be the change you want to see in the world." When I posted your question on Twitter, 22 year old Eric Mayle answered, "The best way to make people care is to let them see her caring and acting. We're a generation of people looking for purpose. People who have it are very attractive to us in terms of emulation. Why it's so important to BE."

I would add that nothing is more empowering than taking action in the name of love. I think that's why Jacques Cousteau's quote resonates, "We protect the things we love." Since you asked specifically about what to do about the Pacific Gyre, if I had to pick just one group to direct you to for inspiration and action steps, run don't walk to 5 Gyres website. This team of eco-rock-stars-scientist-geeks sail the world researching the presence and impact of plastics in the ocean, share stories about their journeys, and employs strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the 5 subtropical gyres.

But for the sake of this moment, lets begin with a few practical steps you can take, such as eliminating the use of plastics in your life. One of my favorite examples of inspiring the masses through a simple personal gesture was done by Ari Derfel, who decided to keep all of his garbage for 1 year, Then there is Roz Savage, who decided to row her itsy bitsy tiny boat across the ocean to raise awareness about the ocean issues, and since we're speaking of inspiration, I am always amazed by how uses creativity and fun to make climate science (snore) comprehensible, accessible and interesting to the masses.

But you asked a far more complex question, one that haunts nearly everyone I know involved with environmental stewardship, "How do I get people to care as much as I do?" Inspired questions lead to inspired answers. From people working in the media, to people working for environmental conservation groups, one of the leading questions we come face to face with every day is, "How do we get people to look, let alone care?" Consider your communication strategy re: how to let the world know what you are doing. Personally, I'm a fan of the, "Wow, isn't this cool" conversation technique. I don't like feeling guilt, shame or blame, so when thinking of ways to draw people in, I do my best to eliminate those elements from all conversations about the environment. I also like using props. For example, sometimes I use my tiffan from to-go ware. Now we all know that I could use a reused food container to carry my lunch. But I use this sparkly container, and just last week while on the plane the person next to me asked about it. It provided the perfect opportunity to chat about how I started using it when I decided I wanted to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Then they asked me about he pacific garbage patch, and the next thing you know we're having an interesting conversation and sharing information.

Which brings me to the firm belief that if you want to get someone to care about the things you care about, you need to authentically care about things they care about. That means that a difference in religious or political beliefs should never stop a conversation about the environment. At the end of the day, we all want the same things, to live happy healthy lives. When you move past differences to find common interests, that is when you become a real champion for the environment.

There will be moments when you feel like you are losing. It is inevitable if you choose to walk this path. It's part of the journey, and as my friend Noah says, "You will make a difference as long as you stay positive and just keep putting yourself out there day after day. Small steps do add up if you keep taking them. Remember, even the largest beaches in the world are just made up of tiny grains of sand."

Last but not least, 11th grader Shreya offered a few wise words. Shreya Indukuri and her friend Daniela Lapidous co-founded the smart energy project, which was designed to reduce the energy consumption and save thousands of dollars of their school's energy bill. "Daniela and I co-founded to help other high school students implement the same project at their schools. Shreya wrote, "Like Sarah, I have also found it difficult to encourage people to care about helping the environment as much as I do. One method I realized is effective is giving people tangible work to do and something that could benefit them. Instead of just saying "help the environment. Period." Specific examples and reasons give people more of an incentive to be green. Unfortunately, many people are so caught up in their daily lives that they don't have a chance to pause and be conscious of their carbon footprint. Giving them a reason to be green, that not only helps the environment but also themselves, can go a long way." Shreya also mentioned that their project was inspired after seeing a presentation at her high school put on by the Alliance for Climate Education.

I believe one of the things that should be at the top of your to-do list is to make sure you don't try to so this alone. Find people in your community to do projects with, as you already have, reach out online. I have come to cherish the environmental community on twitter who are sharing information and inspiration on a daily basis. Most important, go be with the land, the ocean, the forests, the places you love most. Celebrate those places, enjoy those places, bring friends to those places. The land and the ocean you love will fill you with insight, inspiration, wisdom, and brilliance as well as the courage you need to carry it back so you can share it with the rest of us.