This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
For youth climate activists, Earth Day 2020 was going to be epic. Fueled by the global climate strikes that drew millions of young people into streets around the world in 2019, the holiday's historic 50th anniversary held the promise of unprecedented participation and enthusiasm.
Then the pandemic hit. When the ability to hold large gatherings came to a screeching halt in March, just a handful of weeks before Earth Day, events and marches were cancelled. Activists rallied as best they could and managed to pull off an impressive three-day livestream event online, but like everything we've experienced since COVID-19 arrived, it wasn't the same.
Add on climate-focused candidate Bernie Sanders dropping out of the U.S. presidential race in April, and the spring of 2020 was a tough time for youth climate activists. "We just really felt like there was this energy sucked out of the movement," says Katie Eder, 19-year-old founder and Executive Director of Future Coalition. "And there was a lot of cynicism around the election."
Isha Clarke, 17-year-old cofounder of Oakland's Youth vs. Apocalypse, says she was "upset" and "depressed" the following month in the wake of George Floyd's murder. "It was like, I'm already here, stuck inside because of COVID," she recalls, "which is already disproportionately killing Black people and Indigenous people. And it's putting people out of work and making frontline communities even more vulnerable. And I'm missing my senior year, and everything is just crazy—and then this."
Clarke started doing some organizing around Black Lives Matter, which led her to consider the weight of this moment. "I was thinking about strategy and tactics, and I was thinking 'What is going to make this a pivotal moment in history, rather than just a memorable one?' And I think what is going to make this a pivotal moment is this real understanding and organizing around true intersectionality, on really finding the points on which our struggles intersect, and tear down this foundational system that is the root cause of all of these things."
Eder also says that the Black Lives Matter movement helped re-energize and re-focus the youth climate movement. "It sort returned this energy to young people that said, 'Okay, we don't need a presidential candidate to be the person driving this revolution. This is a people's revolution, and so that's what we need to do. So over the course of the summer we saw the climate movement showing up for the Black Lives movement in a big way, with that really being the priority."
Intersectionality—the idea that things like climate justice and racial justice and economic justice are not separate spheres, but rather interconnected issues that need to be tackled together—has become a dominating theme of the youth climate movement. In Clarke's opinion, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism have led us to the climate crisis, and progress on the climate front must include addressing those issues.
"We know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"Climate justice has to be about working to dismantle these systems of oppression in every way that they exist, whether that be through environmental racism or police brutality or our faulty education system or detention centers, or whatever that is," says Clarke. "There are so many ways in which these foundational systems of oppression are harming people."
Eder concurs. "I think we've known this all along, but it's heightened this year, that when we talk about climate justice, we have to talk about racial justice and social justice. That needs to be the leading theme. It's not just about the polar bears and the ice caps—it's about people. That's a people's problem, and that's what we need to keep coming back to, finding the humanity in the crisis that otherwise feels really abstract."
Now, with the election just weeks away, activists are focusing much of their energies on getting out the vote.
Photo credit: Cassell Ferere
Saad Amer is the 26-year-old founder of Plus1Vote, an organization launched prior to the 2018 midterm elections that encourages voter registration and participation by asking everyone to bring one person with them to the polls. Amer, who holds a degree in Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard, has been an environmental activist since he was 13 and has traveled the world exploring different ways people and communities are trying to battle climate change.
"What I found was that there were just consistent barriers to actually accomplishing anything with regard to climate action," says Amer. "And what so much of it comes down to is our elected officials." He founded Plus1Vote to mobilize young adults to get out and vote with the logic that "young people could fundamentally swing the election in a direction of climate champions."
Plus1Vote doesn't just advocate for climate policy, though. It also folds the issues of gun violence, health care, voting rights, and social justice in its campaigns. Like the other activists we spoke to, intersectionality is key to Amer's approach to change—and voting in supportive elected officials is key to facilitating all of it."Whether you're a racial justice organization, whether you're a climate-focused organization, women's rights, whatever it is, there's a clear common denominator in how we can take action on every single one of those fronts," says Amer. That common denominator is voting.
Saad Amer leads climate justice/racial justice march in the summer of 2019.
One quirk of youth activism is that many of the young people in the trenches aren't even old enough to vote themselves. Isha Clarke still has another year before she reaches voting age, but that isn't stopping her from pushing to get out the vote. In fact, her latest collaborative project is a campaign called "This is the Time," which launches in October and includes an action website where voting-age Americans can pledge to fight for the future and to vote for candidates who will too.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that all young climate change activists share the same political views—or even sit on the same side of the political aisle.
Benji Backer is a 22-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, who has been active in conservative politics since he was 10. Growing up in a family where "the environment was the number one value," Backer found himself frustrated with the political divide when it comes to the environment. So he decided to change it.
In 2017, he founded the American Conservative Coalition to make environmentalism bipartisan again, and to put forth market-based, limited-government ways to solve environmental challenges.
Backer says we need both sides at the table to solve the problem of climate change. He testified before Congress next to Greta Thunberg, and though they don't agree on everything, they shared the unified message that their generation was being left behind because of the unnecessary politicizing of climate change.
"Our generation doesn't look at the environment from a conservative vs. liberal angle," says Backer. "They look at it from an environmental angle. And to most young people, there's a deep frustration at the lack of action on a lot of issues, but most importantly climate change, because everyone knows it's a problem."
Backer believes that local, state, and federal governments have a role to play in solving climate change, but that role should be more about incentivising innovation in the marketplace than implementing hefty regulations. "The marketplace has spurred innovation and competition to create electric vehicles, to create better solar panels, to create wind energy," says Backer. "That's the marketplace doing it's thing." He points out that we don't have all the answers to solving climate change yet, and that we need to encourage innovation and technology in the marketplace to help us get there faster.
To show how companies are already playing a role in finding climate change solutions, Backer is currently on a 50-day tour of the country—in a Tesla—dubbed the "Electric Election Road Trip." His team is interviewing 40 companies, sharing their sustainability initiatives in a podcast, and compiling the experience into a documentary that will be released sometime next year.
Benji Backer gets a tour of Michigan University's Nuclear Lab
Credit: Keegan Rice.
Despite their different approaches to solutions, climate change activists across the political spectrum have found ways to work together. "We definitely collaborate on messaging," says Backer, "the importance of fighting climate change, the importance of youth action. And we know that to fix the problem we're going to need as many young people in the streets, voting, and in legislative offices as possible, and so far we've been able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone when there's overlap."
"And when there's not overlap," he adds, "we just go our separate ways for that specific issue."
There's no doubt that the pandemic and political upheaval we're all experiencing pose challenges to youth activists, but these young leaders are adjusting and charging ahead. The digital savvy they possess makes mobilizing and collaborating easier for them than for older generations, and they certainly aren't going to let a global virus outbreak stop them. The most striking thing about these young people is how their environmental knowledge, activism know-how, and ability to express themselves feels far beyond their years, without exception. While they're having to endure the uncertainty of the moment while navigating a pivotal stage of their own lives, these youth continue to provide a hopeful perspective and vision of the future—one that the world desperately needs.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."