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.]
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."