T hose with small children know how hard it can be to go on a date. Even if the date takes place—the plans made, the babysitter procured, the money accounted for—things can go terribly wrong. For instance, if it has been a long time since the last date, one might make an inappropriate choice for a romantic evening, and decide to go see Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth . Luckily for children across the country, Marin County's Carleen and Jeff Cullen made exactly this error, one so depressing that when they left the theater, they put thoughts of further romance aside and decided to take action on behalf of the planet instead.
Their first step was to lease An Inconvenient Truth , as well as a movie theater, and show the film free for two days. After each viewing, they facilitated a community discussion, not as environmental experts, but as concerned citizens of the planet. The entire experience was energizing, Carleen Cullen says over the phone. Everyone came up with such great ideas and seemed so motivated and inspired. The Cullens handed out lists of practical carbon-reducing steps, and then went home, feeling like something good had been done and there was hope after all. This sense of euphoria soon came crashing down, however, when they checked in with some of the filmgoers and discovered that all motivation had rapidly dissipated.
This was when the Cullens realized that they had been working with the wrong crowd. Adults tend to be cynical; they want things to be better, but they all too often can't face the sheer grandiosity of the challenge. Carleen realized that if she could get children to believe, however, they could take the message home with them and convince their parents that we can solve the climate crisis. Furthermore, the only reason parents would need would be standing right in front of them, waving a coupon book in their face.
Cullen reminds me of the good old days, when parents felt perfectly comfortable driving while chain-smoking cigarettes with the windows up, four kids in the car and no one wearing a seatbelt. (Frankly, I get nostalgic just thinking about it.) Then she recalls how things started to change. Education began in the schools, she says, and the kids brought the message home, over and over and over again.
It's simple: educated children can influence their parents. This is the idea that inspired the Cool the Earth program, a nonprofit designed by the Cullens, for which they work almost incessantly for no fee. The program is designed to be implemented in K-8 classrooms with little to no impact on either the teachers or the school's finances. So far, 23 schools have taken on the Cool the Earth program, and together saved over 10 million pounds of carbon, the equivalent of taking 850 cars off the road. This summer, Cullen says, their goal is to reach 75 Bay Area schools and another 25 across the country.
Rather than trying to bring curriculum into already saturated classrooms, Cool the Earth is run by parent volunteers, and is brought to the entire school via assemblies and a simple but competitive coupon program. Coupons feature specific carbon-saving tips that anyone can do. Students attend educational and fun assemblies featuring a different play for each year of this three-year program, acted out by teachers in costume.
Each month, there is a spotlight on a particular coupon to keep the interest alive. Kids might build collages out of junk mail, for example, or do a fundraiser selling reusable water bottles. A banner that tracks the coupons used is prominently displayed.
Cool the Earth is about education, inspiration and action. Kids get excited and realize not just what the problems are, but what can be done to help solve them. Right now, the program is reaching 10,000 kids. Add in those influenced parents, and that could be some 20,000 people.
Not only does Cool the Earth aim to keep the program costs at a minimum, but the organization finds the funding for schools that can't afford it. Right now they are working on getting more costumes together, so that each school can have its own, as opposed to the current borrowing system. Cullen laughs when she tells me that she's getting a little bit tired of people coming in and out of her garage trying to find an extra polar bear head.
As a high school teacher, I have firsthand experience with individuals who cannot tell the difference between a garbage bin and a recycling bin. The reality is frightening. I only wish that each of my students had been lucky enough to have had a program like Cool the Earth in their early days. Maybe then they wouldn't be so color blind.
For more information go to www.cooltheearth.org.