Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You Bet! BUNDjugend

Sometimes the government moves too slowly. At least it seemed that way to the young members of the German group BUNDjugend. To them, when the government said that in seven years, Germany would reduce its CO2 emissions by 10%, it seemed about six years and five months too long.

“We bet that we can achieve the Government climate protection target at our schools within seven months, instead of seven years,” BUNDjugend wrote to the Federal Minister of the Environment. What did they want in return? Well, if they won, BUNDjugend wanted a party, of course!

This might seem like a simple enough bet to win and a simple enough prize to pay. You might think it’s like your class winning a school fund-raiser and earning a pizza party. The difference with BUNDjugend’s bet with the German government is that BUNDjugend gathered 192 participating schools with over 135,000 students. If they won, it would be one heck of a big party!

BUNDjugend also knew that to coordinate their 135,00 students, they would need more than just one hero—to win the bet, it would take an army of heroes all working together. And for each of these heroes there would have to be hundreds of kids willing to do what it takes to reduce CO2 emissions. Which raised a good point—what the heck is COs, why is it bad, and how can you get rid of it, anyway?

It was time for BUNDjugend to hit the library.

They learned that carbon dioxide gas (CO2) comes from almost everything that burns including car exhausts, energy plants that burn coal, production of cement, lime, iron, and steel, and especially from breathing. So all they needed was for everybody to hold their breath! As you probably guessed, this doesn’t work for long. In fact, BUNDjugend found that most “breathing” in the world is actually done by microscopic animals that live in the ocean. These little guys release over 60-thousand-million tons of carbon into the air each year—that’s the same weight as 50 million elephants or the weight of 75 times all the cars in the world!

BUNDjugend also learned the problem with COs is that it acts like a giant earth sweater, forming a cozy blanket in the sky and making everything heat up. Also, the little microbes whose breathing produces millions of carbon dioxide elephants every year like the heat. So, if it warmed up a little there would be more microbes and it would warm up a lot, and soon water would cover the Earth and we would be ruled by giant alien squid (not really...). And BUNDjugend decided their school principals were already too much like giant alien squid!

Once they figured out that CO2 comes from using energy, they knew how to win the bet—cut down on their schools’ energy consumption! With a hero in charge of each school, BUNDjugend turned down the heat, installed energy-saving light bulbs, reduced their water use, and installed solar panels. Kids also brought in plants and turned their classrooms into mini rainforests (because all plants breathe in carbon dioxide and change it back into oxygen). And they had to be fast because the clock was ticking!

At the end of seven months, Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency went to the schools to see how they had done. As the inspectors in white coats poked around the schools with their beeping electronic meters and clipboards, BUNDjugend and the other 135,000 students crossed their fingers. After checking 20 schools, the agency found that BUNDjugend schools easily reduced their CO2 emissions by 10% and won the bet!

On September 17, 1999 there was one heck of a party in Bonn, Germany.

But the BUNDjugend didn’t stop there. Kathrin Gutmann and Nadine Evers had been part of the original bet and in the year 2000 they were sitting in a cafeteria talking about what a shame it was that the project was over. What could they do to keep the idea alive? The two girls knew that the European Union planned to cut their CO2 emissions by 8% over eight years. Could it be possible to do “the bet” all across Europe? Of course it could!

Gutmann, Evers, and the rest of BUNDjugend organized schools in 16 countries to bet they could reduce 8% in eight months. Most people didn’t think they could do it. “The Bet,” as it was known around the world, included schools from Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Whew! There were so many schools involved in The Bet that BUNDjugend had to organize themselves like a small government and everything was linked by the website www.thebet.de.

In 2001 the schools of the 16 European countries won their bet, too! You can only imagine the size of the party.

Maybe it’s time for somebody to organize The Bet in the United States.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Monkey Business: Janine Licare

If you were driving through Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica in 1999, you might have seen two girls selling painted rocks at a roadside table. If you stopped, you would have met Janine Licare, who was nine-years old at the time. While sitting at her stand, Janine and her friend, Aislin Livingstone, loved watch the Titi monkeys frolic in the high branches of the rainforest canopy.

One day, Janine was sitting at the crafts stand when she noticed a weird ray of light shining right in her eyes. She shifted to the left and shifted to the right, but she couldn’t keep from squinting. Had light always been able to get through the trees? Janine didn’t think so.
The next day the ray of light was bigger and not only was the sun in her eyes, but it was hot, too! It also seemed quieter—where was the sound of the Titi monkeys?

The day after that, it was obvious where the light was coming from. Their crafts stand that had once stood in the middle of the rainforest was now smack-dab in the middle of stump-land. All the trees had been cut down! And that’s when Janine and Aislin realized what they wanted to do with the money they made at their stand. They wanted to save the rainforest.

But they soon found that “saving the rainforest” was like trying to empty Lake Arenal using a plastic cup—where would you even start? Janine decided to start small—in fact, she decided to start with the Titi monkeys, which is just about as small as you can get. At one-and-a-half pounds, it takes about four Titi monkeys to equal the weight of the average housecat. And size wasn’t the only small thing about the Titi—their numbers were getting smaller, too. Due to deforestation, hunting, and the danger of roads, there were only 1,500 Titi monkeys left in 1998.

Janine didn’t yet know how to stop logging and she didn’t know how to stop hunting, but she did know how the monkey crosses the road, and she knew how Titi monkeys could cross the road better. Using the money she made selling painted rocks, Janine bought rope and strung it across the busy road, high in the trees. The rope wasn’t much, but it was exactly what the Titi monkeys needed to get across without becoming monkey pancakes. The rope bridge also helped keep the Titi’s from becoming fried monkey fritters, as they didn’t have to walk across power lines anymore. Every time a Titi monkey used her bridge, Janine felt like she had done her small part to help the rainforest.

But she wanted to do more. “The trees are our lungs,” she said, “and with the vanishing of the rainforest goes the future of our planet.”

And she knew the rainforest was vanishing quickly. In fact, one and a half acres of rainforest are lost every second. In the time it takes you to read this story, the world will have lost about 360 acres of irreplaceable rainforest. That’s the same as 300 football fields lined up next to each other that had trees when you read “if you were driving through…” and won’t have trees when you read “…a better place”.

Most of the trees that are cut down are cleared to make space for farming. Unfortunately, the soil underneath rainforest trees is not very good and it won’t grow crops for long. After only a few years of farming, the land is useless and farmers have to cut further into the rainforest for more land, leaving a dusty wasteland in place of what was lush rainforest. That is what happened to the trees around Janine and Aislin’s crafts stand. If they moved further into the rainforest, they knew it would only be a matter of time before it happened again.

So Janine and Aislin decided to make a stand, at their stand... But between painting rocks, working at their crafts table, going to school, and hanging monkey bridges, the girls were already stretched thin. To do more, they needed help!

That’s when Janine started her club, called Kids Saving the Rainforest. The first project of Kids Saving the Rainforest was to make a bigger, better stand. In addition to their own crafts, the new store sold goods made by local craftspeople and all the profits went to more bridges and to planting rainforest trees. To date, Kids Saving the Rainforest has planted over 5000 trees in Costa Rica. The club also used the new store to educate tourists who stopped to buy things—while looking at painted rocks, you were likely to hear that one in four medicines used in the United States was developed from rainforest plants, or that a 25-acre square of land in the Borneo rainforest can contain more than 700 different kinds of trees—the same number as in all of North America. At the store, Kids Saving the Rainforest volunteers told people that only one out of a hundred plants in the rainforest has been studied, and that one of these undiscovered plants could hold the cure to cancer—but we’ll never know if we chop them all down!

As Kids Saving the Rainforest grew, they added an animal rehabilitation clinic for monkeys, sloths, birds, and kinkajous and they sponsored a summer camp where children learn about the rainforest and the need for conservation. They also started a website (www.kidssavingtherainforest.org), where you can learn more about the rainforest, sponsor a monkey bridge, adopt a tree, or even learn about projects you can do in your community to earn a Kids Saving the Rainforest membership.

Today, Janine’s little club has grown to over 250 members, worldwide. In ninth grade, Janine Licare was ranked first in her school at the Ecological Tourism High School of the Pacific, where she continues the projects of Kids Saving the Rainforest. She has already learned that, “we have the power to change the world and make it a better place.”