To All the Earth Days I’ve Loved Before: One Grad Student’s Reflection

When I think about Earth Day, I think about myself in middle school, full of angst and preteen crises. During that time The Walt Disney Company launched a campaign called “Friends for Change: Project Green.” Lauded as an environmental platform for children, it starred fan favorite Disney Channel personalities in commercials and media campaigns, and featured informational articles about problems facing the planet.

Still obsessed with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, I was hooked. I would scour the Friends for Change website, where I learned things like the amount of energy needed for just one load of laundry. The Jonas Brothers taught me to wash my clothes on a cold setting to save energy, and I read about how bees were dying. Surely there were other sources of information out there, but Disney made it accessible and fun to learn about the environment. Galvanized by this campaign, I nagged my parents about going green. I regularly turned off lights in all of our rooms, even if my parents were still in them. I would shut off the faucet when my mom was washing dishes, yelling about how there is a water shortage (I hail from California, so my desire to conserve water was actually ahead of its time, in my opinion). 

Disney’s Friends For Change combined environmental education with teen stardom. (Source: Chip + Co., a Disney fansite.)

 

The environmental movement was virtually unheard of in my conservative suburb. I would get scolded by my parents for being an eco-warrior, who surely wanted to pull their hair out due to my incessant enforcement of resource conservation in our household. Yet, “Friends for Change” had launched a movement within my own home, led, supported, and carried out by me (and maybe my dog). Seeing as the project is over ten years old, it’s not surprising that the Friends for Change website is no longer in existence, so I’m afraid you cannot experience this platform as I did. However, you are still able to rock out to the Disney Channel classic song “Send it On,” performed by former teen stars, if you so please. 

Left: A photo of me at 10 years old, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Right: A photo of me at 13 years-old, taking a ride on a ferry at Magic Kingdom. My family and I have been going to Disney World almost every year since I was ten years old (I am now 22). It is no surprise that a Disney-led initiative about environmental stewardship instantly intrigued me. (Photo credit: Terri Woolf)

 

You may be wondering how a long-forgotten Disney Channel initiative relates to my relationship with Earth Day. The Friends for Change project is what first taught me about problems our planet is facing. As a child I had no idea about climate change, biodiversity loss, or ocean pollution. These topics were not taught in my school or discussed at home. Having a platform that I already loved where I could learn about these issues was both enlightening for me and, frankly, added ecogrief to my already emotionally fragile 12 year-old state. I acknowledge that the Walt Disney Company is not a great example of an eco-friendly company that limits its impacts on the planet, but again, there were no other avenues at the time for me to learn about the environment and Disney made this information accessible. 

Surprisingly, my hometown of Roseville, California soon provided me with another outlet to explore environmental activism when it established an annual Earth Day Festival. Thanks to Disney’s Friends for Change initiative, I knew Earth Day was related in some way to helping the planet, and I was eager to take my newfound knowledge to an avenue outside of Disney. I remember passing by a banner for the first festival while walking to middle school and begging my parents to go. Unlike my requests for them to put solar panels on our house, this was not too big of an ask for my parents, so they agreed. Walking to Mahany Park with our dog Macy in tow, I can still feel the sun on my skin and the smell of cherry blossoms that aggravated my allergies. The Earth Day Festival came to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring for our family, the first time of the year that we could don our summer clothes and go on a walk without umbrellas. If it weren’t for the Walt Disney Company first teaching me about the environmental movement, I probably wouldn’t have even cared about that banner I saw while walking home from school. 

Signs like this one would be posted around our city in the weeks leading up to the festival. Smart advertising led to Mahany Park being jam-packed with attendees and local businesses. (Source: Roseville Today)

 

Walking up to that first Earth Day Festival felt more like entering a carnival, with face painting, animal shows, food trucks, and spin-for-a-prize booths offering fun and freebies for all. My stepdad and I became obsessed with grabbing as much swag as we could. Reusable bags, chip clips, Tupperware to hold bacon grease, and samples of “healthy” food in single-use packaging were proof of our bounty as we made the lap around Mahany Park. Electric cars sat in the parking lot with salesmen trying to entice SUV-loving suburban residents. Children ran wild on the playground while their parents watched, drinking iced coffee in single-use cups with plastic straws.

Roseville’s Earth Day Festival gave Placer County’s local businesses a chance to showcase their services. The booths were often so crowded that we had a hard time visiting a majority of them. (Source: Roseville Urban Forest Foundation)

 

Reflecting on that festival has made me realize that perhaps it was not a very earth-friendly event, what with the waste and trash the activities generated. However, this did not stop me from excitedly running to my mom’s computer after we walked home and googling phrases like “how to go green,” recording the tips and tricks I discovered in a notebook. Excited to save the world, I started taking cold and short showers. My notebooks for school were replaced with ones made of recycled paper, and I nagged my parents to take reusable bags to the supermarket. So while the festival itself may not have been very eco-friendly, its message definitely had a lasting impact on my young self, and I reflect back on this annual event with fondness. Now I see that even imperfect efforts to promote environmental messages are worth it, because kids like me will have them as a springboard to learn and do more to help the planet. The environmental education I received from some unlikely sources, like the Disney Channel, proved to be a strong foundation for my future learning, and was the match that lit the flame of my passion for environmental conservation.

I greatly benefited from being exposed to science communication and education at such an early age. Teaching children about the environment fosters a sense of responsibility in helping our planet, provides learning opportunities outside of the classroom, enhances critical thinking skills, and connects them to their communities. Environmental education is also linked to better tolerance and understanding, healthier relationships with nature, and empowerment for both teachers and students. 

The benefits of an environmental education are substantial and valuable in building the next generation of environmental stewards. (Source: Environmental Education Association of New Mexico.)

 

Due to COVID-19, it is almost certain that Roseville’s Earth Day Festival will be cancelled this year, but I hope that the city will be able to continue the tradition in 2021. Thanks to the festival and Disney’s Friends for Change project, I was able to discover a passion for environmental stewardship that has guided every major life decision I have made in recent years. From transferring to UC Davis to study environmental anthropology and producing a self-designed undergraduate thesis on sea otter conservation, to moving to Seattle to study marine and environmental affairs, I am so appreciative that the Disney Channel capitalized on my preteen love for shows such as Hannah Montana to spark a lifelong devotion to going green.