This is part of our new series "Gen: Change," in partnership with Youth Service America, featuring stories from the 25 most influential and powerful young people in the world. Click here to read more about Olivia and her amazing story.
How do we get people to care about the environment enough to save it? When I wrote and illustrated my children's book about birds, Olivia's Birds: Saving the Gulf (Sterling Children's Publishing), I hoped to encourage other kids to learn to love the natural environment the way I do. How can you fight to save something you didn't even know exists?
I have the wonderful opportunity of having an exhibit of my bird artwork at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, which runs until September 15, 2012. On display are some of the drawings from my fundraiser that I started two years ago when I was 10. Since then, I've raised $200,000 for environmental causes through my artwork.
Part of the opening events included meeting all the kids at Lankersville Elementary, leading an art tour for kids and teaching drawing class at the center. Kids all loved drawing birds and talking about nature. But what if they can't see those birds or hike in nature because it has been destroyed?
In order to learn about the earth my generation will inherit, I asked the White House if I could organize a Champions of Change discussion of some of the environmentalists I met over the past two years and report back what we discussed. They gave me a big thumbs up. This weekend at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, environmental experts, authors and eco-activists sat down with my family and I to give us a sense of what's going on today and what we need to do to save tomorrow.
If we destroy habitats, some species may become extinct forever. Our current thirst for energy is one of the main ways we are losing habitats today. Author and biologist Doug Weschler said that the pristine Boreal forest is the largest untouched wetland in the world, and would lose at least three to four million birds should the Keystone XL pipeline be approved by our government. Is this dirty fuel more important than the lives of four million birds just because of our psychological phobia of renewable and alternative energy sources? We, kids, can't let that happen.
But there are options. Children's book author and director of Young Voices for the Planet Lynne Cherry filmed students in Florida who conducted a school energy audit. By reducing the school's energy use, they saved the school $53,000 per year. She said activities like this one could easily be done by other kids as part of school curriculum. It would be great if every school in the country was a green school, and even used their rooftops to power themselves. The technology is there -- we just need to apply it.
A clean environment doesn't just help wildlife. USFWS Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber said the health benefits of clean air for children are very important. When there is less pollution around schools and homes, there are fewer cases of asthma. We, too, are animals, and we need certain conditions to survive. We are messing things up, so we, too, will perish! She also said that one of the greatest challenges for the future generations will be the access clean water in the Northeast. Can you imagine not being able to drink the water out of your faucet?
My dad, James Bouler, a green architect, echoed this concern for a clean environment. Since pesticide use is killing wildlife and poisoning our waterways, he feels it should have clear warning labels for families to show the dangers of using it on your lawn, like making wildlife ill and contaminating our drinking water. He suggested that all new commercial development and public buildings set aside part of their site for natural planting to support natural habitats.
But kids can do something to turn this around! Ornithologist and author Scott Weidensaul said, "Volunteer citizens are important to good science advancement." He described how the volunteers for the saw-whet owl program at the Ned Smith Center have not only helped preserve owl populations, but have also expanded into saving other animal species. If you help one species, it has a positive ripple effect. Kids like us who volunteer can make a huge difference.
International Associate of Volunteer Effort representative Kathi Dennis described how volunteerism needs to shift from "a lifecycle to a lifestyle," meaning that helping the community and the environment can be a regular part of a family's routine. What's the best way to reach young volunteers, you ask? Social networking, of course! Former National Audubon Society Senior Philanthropy Officer Lynne Mecum said there are causes out there that could use a flash mob or some Twitter trending to get going. Amy Weidensaul, director of Pennsylvania's Audubon conservation program, described how student volunteers can gain community service hours and make our world a better place. Check out Roots and Shoots for projects near you.
But it was my eight-year-old brother Jackson who truly inspired me. As he described his love for the outdoors, I realized that it was essential to save our precious resources for kids like him, like those I met this weekend and for me. In other words, if we don't want to inherit pollution and deforestation, our generation needs to stand up and get involved, no matter how small we are. It's our only chance to save our planet. There is no tomorrow, only now. If we do not act now, there will be no tomorrow for us and the other inhabitants of our Earth.