In the early '50s, when Patrick Forrest went to high school, students, he said, worried about the Korean War and the spread of communism. But now as a government teacher at Camarillo High School, Forrest sees his students facing a new challenge.
"I've witnessed the world's environment disintegrate and now these young people are left grabbing at the remaining threads," he said. "They need to conquer a much more valid and more global concern than we ever had to deal with. It's unfortunate that they must worry about rescuing the world, but my generation, well, we just didn't know."
As Earth Day, the national environmental awareness day, approaches its 20th anniversary April 22, Forrest and a group of about 45 students are planning a weeklong "E-Day Celebration" at their school, April 16-20. "We called it E-Day so that it sounds like D-day or V-Day," said Ashley Reich, one of the four student coordinators, referring to the Allied invasion of Western Europe during World War II and to Victory Day.
As the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union began to improve, Forrest asked his government students to write an essay on what Americans could do to take advantage of world changes.
"Every single student mentioned improving the environment," he said. "Everyone is now breathing a sigh of relief that a nuclear holocaust seems to be less of a threat. But they are worried that the world may be destroyed by other means."
Each of the 15 E-Day student committee members who gathered recently in Forrest's classroom agreed that environmental problems are their most important concerns.
The government and media make it seem as if drugs are the biggest problem facing teen-agers today, said Lawrence Sweet, a committee member. "But drugs are more of a political issue. The environment, preserving our world, that's what we're really worried about."
The group agreed that the threat of nuclear war is just that, a threat. The students said that deforestation, depletion of the ozone layer and acid rain are the true killers. "Destruction by the bomb just isn't as realistic these days as destruction through the environment," Reich said.
If movies and television have made it seem that today's teen-agers are all grasping materialists, this group of students is ready to set everyone straight. No '60s Birkenstocks and tie-dyes, these clean-cut and well-dressed young people could be an ad for the environmental movement.
Victor Lee, 17, is in charge of procuring money for the school's E-Day celebration and has already secured sponsorship from Waste Management of North America. Lee, who considers himself a liberal, plans on becoming a businessman. "I love making business deals," he said. "But as much as I think about business, I think and worry about the environment even more."
Lee said his goal is to make enough money in his business ventures to be able to develop and run a nonprofit organization. "Something like United Way but bigger in scope. A lot of my friends want to go into business and they want to make money," he said."But all of them also want to do something to improve the world. I'm positive of that; we talk about it."
Elliot Loh, a student coordinator for the event, says that young people no longer have a choice when it comes to the environment. "The adults of today grew up in the land of plenty and they assumed that there would always be enough resources," he said. "But we're way past the point where we can afford to throw away a Styrofoam cup without even having to think about it."
The group was quick to say that the adults in their school have been very responsive to the Earth-Week celebration. "Well, Mr. Forrest was the one who started the whole thing," Reich said. And then the principal, described by the committee as "really conservative," surprised the students by making a variety of concessions, including an extra assembly.
Other activities scheduled for the week include a day in which school lights are to stay off to conserve energy. Also scheduled is a food fair featuring items low on the food chain.
"And starting Wednesday the janitors are not going to touch any of the trash, they're going to leave the cafeteria and school grounds alone," Forrest said. "So by Friday the students will be able to see how much waste they make in just three days."
The students expressed some surprise at how big the event has become. And although they are excited that so many people are involved in Earth Day, they fear that perhaps this might just be the chic topic of the week.
"This is not about being cool," said committee member Kim Le. "This is about survival."