“The right to breathe is a basic right,” says Robert Bullard, Ph.D., distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy and director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. “The right to have access to clean energy and food and communities that are not under water…these are basic rights elevated above civil rights. These are human rights.”
Bullard is widely known as “the father of environmental justice.” Newsweek named him among the top 13 environmental leaders of the century. His words take me back to 1979, the year I first heard about “the environment.” I was in the fifth grade and, on a sunny day the teacher taught us about the dangers of pesticides in the food we eat and pollution in the air we breathe. She talked about the value of clean water and the benefits of solar power. Now that I think back, she may have been the first environmental activist I’d ever met. Here was a 20-something teacher speaking passionately to a group of 10-year-olds about the responsibility we each had to protect not only our planet but vulnerable people who could not speak up about such things for themselves. Unfortunately, 43 years later, that fifth-grade lesson plan is just as relevant to children today-actually far more.
Many environmental activists, including revolutionaries like Bullard, now age 75, and my fifth-grade teacher, began this journey when they were young. While studies show that activity and financial support to combat climate change and move to carbon neutrality is driven by younger groups, many seniors remain actively engaged and continue to make significant contributions to the cause.
Flo Brodley, ‘small-time activist’
Flo Brodley of Somers, 84, defines herself as “a small-time activist” who became an environmentalist in 1970 on the first official Earth Day — April 22.
In the 1980s, as a teacher at P.S. 89 in the Bronx, Brodley launched recycling programs for her students and encouraged kids and parents to join environmental organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace. Students gathered newspapers and donated funds collected from recycled bottles and cans.
Fast forward to 2019 when she lamented the melting icebergs on a trip to Antarctica with her granddaughter. “The ice shelves are disappearing into the sea, drastic signs of a warming planet. It’s pathetic,” says Brodley.
Today, she is on Somers’ all-volunteer Energy and Environment Committee, which held an Earth Week in 2016, and serves as energize ambassador with Sustainable Westchester, continuing a role she began through New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA). She hopes the monthly programs on making homes more energy efficient will resume as Covid wanes.
“The less energy you use, the less cost for you and the better for our planet,” she says. She also contributes to the maintenance of a solar farm that credits her energy bill.
“Right now we’re in a crisis,” she says. “It was about making sure the world doesn’t fry. It’s gotten worse. Now it’s not just fossil fuels. It’s methane fires and peat bogs that release carbon. When I started, I was trying to help make a better world for my children and my students. Now it’s to make sure we all survive.”
Should more people of all ages take action? “Absolutely,” Brodley says. “It’s critical and even a small role helps.”
Susan Schwarz, preserving the planet
Susan Schwarz, 84, became involved in preserving the planet in the 1980s. She organized a committee on the environment through her local League of Women Voters, which drew 2,000 to an environmental fair in 1991. She worked on environmental shopping tours that showed how to choose eco-friendly products and helped distribute 400 videos on the movement, garnering awards from the White House and others.
After retiring, Schwarz moved from Chappaqua to Tarrytown, where she has chaired the League of Women Voters Environment Committee for Westchester County for a number of years. The group is currently supporting a package of legislation that includes electrification of new buildings, similar to a law recently passed in New York City. She is a member of the Westchester chapter of the Climate Reality Project, founded by former American Vice President Al Gore.
Last year, Schwarz helped put together a Zoom meeting on NYSERDA’s Climate Smart Communities. This year, on April 13, she is organizing a program on the perils of plastic, “one of the most serious health threats of our time.”
A grandmother of eight, she says, “We need an international mobilization to become fossil free. There’s no reason we can’t use solar power and windmills. It’s a tragedy that it doesn’t seem to be happening. Too many people in positions of power are looking at their own self-interest. Most people are keeping their heads in the sand.”
The Andersens, Riverlovers and more
Gunnar and Cynthia Andersen of Croton-on-Hudson, in their 70s, are active in the Riverlovers Sloop Club, an affiliate of Hudson River Clearwater Sloop Inc. in Beacon, the group launched by folk singer-activist Pete Seeger in 1969. Gunnar is the president while Cynthia is the editor of Riverlovers Currents, the newsletter, and the secretary.
The group, largely on hiatus since Covid, had monthly potluck meetings, visited recycling and other sites, and assisted in beach cleanups. While Riverlovers welcomes all ages, members happen to be 65-plus. “We try to be sure an activity won’t involve many stairs as some use walkers,” he says.
Cynthia says the couple moved out of New York City because “We couldn’t breathe with all the pollution. I want a good environment. Climate Change is wreaking havoc with our forests.”
Kirsten Andersen, 77, Gunnar’s sister, is a member of Riverlovers, plus NYCD 16-Indivisible’s environmental committee, Concerned Families of Westchester and Food & Water Watch. She regularly participates in programs and rallies.
Raging Grannies and Elders Climate Action
If anyone doubts the commitment, witness Elders Climate Action, seniors “determined to do all we can to leave a sustainable planet for future generations,” and Raging Grannies, an international organization of social activists.
Clearly, older people are not only aware of climate change, but active in the fight.
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