La Jolla teen a finalist in environmental competition

Of the 3,864 high school and college-aged students from around the world that participated in the fifth annual Project Green Challenge — a 30-day eco lifestyle competition — 14 were selected as finalists and invited to an environmental convention in San Francisco in mid-November. La Jolla teen Megan Phelps was one of them.

“I enjoyed being part of a community of people who are environmentally aware and like-minded,” said 16-year-old Phelps, a student at Mt. Everest Academy. “Young people have more of a voice in their households and communities than they realize. We can encourage our friends and families to live more environmentally conscious lifestyles and (completing the Challenge) taught me the importance of living this lifestyle and encouraging a ripple effect, showing what people can do in their own homes.”

Facilitated by the environmental advocacy group Turning Green, the Project Green Challenge addressed an environmental topic every day in October. Each topic had projects affiliated with it that had certain point values. “Green” projects were worth 20 points, “greener” projects 40 points, and “greenest” projects 60 points.

At the end of the month, those with the most points and compelling post-challenge essays were chosen as finalists. Missy Martin of Belmont University in Nashville was named the challenge winner at the conference.

On Oct. 2, the topic was organic. After reading information on what organic means and its benefits, participants could choose which project they would like to complete. Options included writing a reflection on what participants learned (green), posting on social media about the difference between conventional and organic products (greener) and conducting an in-person interview with the owner of a certified organic business (greenest).

On the day the topic was food, Phelps decided to complete the greenest project by making a meal using fresh, local, organic and seasonal ingredients for less than $4 per person. Other topics included biodiversity, the practice of zero waste, GMOs, fair trade organizations, water usage and more.

Project Green Challenge executive director Judi Shils explained, “We as adults have a responsibility to improve the mess we are leaving the next generation. These are our future leaders and they are ready to step up. This challenge gives them the tools, and helps them become aware of the many topics within environmentally conscious living. We all know our planet is in their hands – so we try to teach them well and step back and let these kids improve the world.”

After completing the challenge, Phelps said she’d like to continue to explore the different facets of environmental awareness. “I’d like to create an environmental club coalition for the clubs in San Diego schools and encourage students to carry out their own initiatives on their own campuses to green up the San Diego School District,” she said. “There currently aren’t standards for environmental education in California, I’d like to change that.”

Of the conference, from which Phelps returned a few days before Thanksgiving, she said, “I met so many amazing people and eco-leaders from across the country and they talked about their views on how we can solve environmental issues we’re facing. We got to share our projects and ideas, too.”

Some of the takeaways that stuck with her, she said, were how environmental issues are intertwined with social justice issues, how passion for different things can be geared toward environmentalism, and the power of sustainable agriculture. “People have the misconception that environmentalism and social justice issues are separate … but I learned they’re similar and affect a lot of people,” she said, citing large clothing manufacturers that cut cost corners by not paying their workers a fair wage and use environmentally harmful practices.

Further, she said she met people who plan to use different avenues to help the environment. “One girl I spoke with wants to get her message out with music, another was talking about how chemistry can be used to make organic clothing ... all these people had different approaches to environmentalism and how to implement it in their own way,” she said.

But the eco-conscious practice Phelps “is really into” is sustainable agriculture. “I’ve learned that soil is such an important resource, and right now we only have about 60 years of soil left to farm on. What are we going to do after that? Industrial agriculture is stripping the nutrients in the soil … and putting carbon in the air, which is how the Earth was before humans could inhabit it because we couldn’t breathe. It’s a little scary. If carbon in the soil went up by two percent, it would dramatically reduce the amount of carbon in the air. So composting is way more important than I thought. Composting sequesters the carbon in the soil instead of releasing into the air.”

Despite all the challenges ahead for Phelps’ generation, she encourages them to “be bold,” she said. “Don’t get overwhelmed with all the environmental issues we have to face. We can get jaded by looking at all the negative things going on, but it’s also very inspiring to see all the positive changes going on.”

Phelps’ father Jerry said although he worries about the stress that can be placed on young people as they take steps to change the planet, those steps are vital. “This group of people have seen global issues that are quite large and concerning in their lifetime – global climate change, running out of food, exploitive manufacturing, GMOs — and sometimes I feel concerned about the mental health of our young people because of all the worry … but it’s cool and hopeful for me to see all the positives they are capable of,” he said. “They are the difference.”