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Steward of the Earth
A trip to the aquarium turned me into an environmentalist
Sherilyn Blake

Up until the 8th grade, I never really cared about the planet. I thought it was Al Gore’s job to care and that he was supposed to handle its affairs. I never saw how the smallest things I did would affect the planet, or how the planet’s problems would affect me too.

For example, my mom used to tell me that if I threw paper in the gutters near my house, my garbage could end up in the Atlantic. I was a non-believer; I thought, “The ocean? Really?” Then I went to the beach and saw tons of trash floating around. It bothered me somewhat, but not to the extent that I tried to change anything. I didn’t care enough because as far as I was concerned, it was not affecting me personally.

In 8th grade my social studies class watched a video of one of Al Gore’s talks—the talks that the movie An Inconvenient Truth was based on—and it had some impact on me. Seeing how the polar ice caps are melting away made me think about the poor arctic creatures that would be devastated by such a disaster, and the thought lay heavy on my heart.

Yet even after seeing that video, I wasn’t putting the pieces together to see the bigger picture. I continued carelessly dropping candy wrappers on the ground.

Wake-Up Call at the Aquarium

It was my concern for animals that helped me change my ways eventually. All my life I’ve had a weak spot for animals, especially water creatures. My mom bought me a manatee book that came with a stuffed manatee toy, and I loved reading it; something about manatees and dolphins captured my attention. I loved going to the aquarium, and still do. When I can’t go there, I watch nature shows on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet.

One summer day, I think between 9th and 10th grades, I made one of these trips to the aquarium with my mom, brothers, and sister. I’d been to many feeding shows before, but no one had ever spoken about the environment. On this day, the guy who was doing the feeding show explained to the crowd how people’s pollution is passed along straight to sea animals.

He quizzed audience members about what types of seafood should and shouldn’t be consumed, and explained that certain kinds of shrimp shouldn’t be eaten since they are endangered and their extinction could destroy the ecosystems they belong to. He also explained how letting plastic and other non-biodegradable things get into ocean is hazardous, since animals can accidentally swallow these substances and their bodies will not be able to break the material down.

Listening to his talk, something clicked for me. I started to think that maybe the stuff I put in the sewers really was hurting the animals I loved, and hurting them was hurting me. I know I can’t consume plastic, and I’m pretty sure animals can’t either. But when my wrappers or junk end up in the ocean, they wind up inside the fish and eventually inside me.

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That day in the aquarium changed the way I thought and felt about pollution. This time I knew that a big change was needed, and it should start with me. I trained myself to carry junk with me until I found a garbage can, for one thing. And I found other ways to become more earth-friendly, like changing all the light bulbs in my family’s home to energy efficient ones. At around the same time, my family also started using more environmentally-friendly cleaning products. It was a relief to see even such small changes, since I knew that enough people making small adjustments could ultimately make a difference.

I became earth-friendly instead of me-friendly. Why? There is only one planet Earth with more than 7 billion people living on it, and we all need to share it. Therefore we are all responsible for it. I realized that change has to be a global movement, something people from around the world take part in.

Our Interdependent Planet

In the 10th grade, my Living Environment class helped educate me further. I learned that almost everything we see is part of an ecosystem and the smallest change can disturb that entire ecosystem. For example, all the pollution that we release into the air from things like cars, especially non-hybrid cars, increases greenhouse gas levels and contributes to global warming. A rising temperature shrinks the polar ice caps. This ruins the habitat of animals living in the arctic, and also leads to rising sea levels and flooding. Even those of us who don’t lose our homes to floods can lose our food sources, since the topsoil that’s essential to plant growth will be destroyed by salty ocean water.

And just as the different elements of an ecosystem are interdependent, human society is interdependent. For example, if one country takes too much oil for themselves, others may be deprived of it and unable to run smoothly. Some people say water is the next oil, because as clean drinking water becomes scarcer in the world, people will fight over it. You need water to live much more than you need oil, so the need to share resources will be even more urgent if drinking water dries up. By making me pay attention to issues like this, my Living Environment class expanded my understanding of the world and made me care about saving the world.

Looking for Ways to Help

I have come a long way since 8th grade, and now I’m always looking for ways to make a difference in the world beyond myself. I’ve planted small flowers and trees in a park by my elementary school and around the neighborhood, as part of a school-wide effort. It not only makes the area look better, but also makes our air cleaner.

And because thinking about the environment has helped me understand my responsibility to others, I’ve raised money for causes at my church. I gave my old clothes to Hour Children, a charity, and my family and I gave food to their food pantry.

Most problems can’t be quickly fixed. But we stand a better chance of solving big problems if we all cooperate. Now that I am more educated than I was before, I can help educate others on how their actions can affect the entire world. I am still learning how to be environmentally friendly—friendly to all the living things in the world.

Read more teen-written stories about the environment.

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