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3 Teens On the Importance of Environmental Writing

In celebration of Earth Day, our April writing competition inspired teens from around the world to advocate for environmental justice and use writing as a tool for change. "Writing has immense power to flood light onto environmental and social issues," says Matthew Heur, winner of second place in the competition. "It all starts with simple ink on paper."

Read on to learn more about these emerging writers, and the awareness that they seek to spread in their work.

Maya Broeks, Winner:

Maya Broeks

In your winning personal essay, you wrote about living in the Sonoran Desert and the importance of preserving nature in all its forms. What main message or call-to-action do you want readers to take away from your piece?

The degradation of the earth is the degradation of ourselves. In parallel, the healing of it is also the healing of ourselves. We are not detached from our environment or the world we live in. 

The resources we use are in constant flux but the pattern by which we use them never changes. Recycling items that will just quietly end up in a landfill elsewhere is celebrated instead of developing and distributing wide-spread biodegradable alternatives to plastic. We divert rivers to mine for the resources needed for electric cars but do not divert funds or use these precious materials to create reliable public transport. My point is not to say that things like recycling and electric vehicles are unimportant, but rather the things that we are being offered as the solution are not the solution. It is painting the same picture with a different mix of paint. Green-washing, a marketing ploy to sell things as sustainable when they are no different from their compatriots, runs rampant. 

I suppose my main message and call-to-action is that there is a quiet theft happening, all over, of water, of health, of livelihood, of food, of land, of the options that the future holds. The perception of what paths there are to take in the future is narrowing, and this relates to climate change, but is also deeply knotted up with legislation and financial greed. The mine that was opened in Patagonia, Arizona is the first mine in the United States that would be opened with the federally designated critical materials, zinc and manganese, used to power electric vehicles. These materials promise a “low-carbon” future without commenting on the fact that it is taking place in a town that relies on local wells, or one of the few remaining permanent rivers that runs through the area. The ecosystem and the inhabitants of the town stand at risk. 

My submitted essay was not an academic response – it was based on personal observations and experiences in Southern Arizona. I was angry when I wrote it, and anger is difficult to channel directly into meaningful action: it needs to be filtered, reviewed, and questioned. I think for that piece it is important to view it as simply what I saw growing up in the Sonoran Desert and what I took away from it.

What writing or creative projects are you currently working on?

I am slowly putting together a literary novel as well as working with Alliance for Self-Directed Education on creating a Youth for Youth resource packet.

Matthew Heur, Runner-Up:

Matthew Heur

Guest Judge Jennifer Sahn commented that your piece "inspires readers to consider how family, community, and planetary citizenship are linked." How did you explore this connection between personal relationships and global environmental issues?

I am so grateful that the guest judge saw my effort to link both the microcosm and the macrocosm of human relationships and nature. I tried to explore this connection between personal relationships and global environmental issues by looking really closely at the Korean concept of jeong (deep emotional bond between friends and family) which is not just Korean but human. It was clear to me that jeong extends to nature as well and I couldn’t understand why people were blind to that. It became really personal to me when nature’s diversity and biochemistry through Han-yak helped me overcome a lifelong ailment of asthma, directly triggered by climate change-induced wildfires in Southern California. If one has this love for nature, the rest of environmental conservation efforts will naturally follow, just like if you love your grandpa, you will do whatever it takes to help him and protect him. 

Do you think writing is an important tool for social change?

Writing can truly be an important tool for social change. We have so many great examples in the past that attest to this, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and its impact on the anti-slavery movement to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and its role in the modern environmental movement. Writing has immense power to flood light onto environmental and social issues and, most importantly, inspire change as a result. That change starts with reading those words, sparking empathy and connection which may result in small actions that add up to global ones. It all starts with simple ink on paper.

Claire Tang, Best Peer Review:

Claire Tang

What drew you to review this piece?

I felt a personal connection to the piece I reviewed, from the author's views on materialism to the evocative and beautiful descriptions of the natural world. Because I felt such a strong connection to this piece, it was easy for me to structure my commentary in a more conversational manner. It was also easier for me to develop ideas of how I believed the piece could reach its full potential, helping me as I tried to provide actionable and specific feedback.

Do you find that giving feedback to other writers helps you develop your own craft? Why?

Each time I share feedback with another writer, I definitely feel more confident and inspired in terms of my own literary craft! I believe this is because when I am really focused on analyzing someone else's work, making mental notes of the literary techniques I loved and those I didn't necessarily connect with, I gain a wider perspective of my own writing style as a whole. For example, while giving feedback on a short story I may ask myself: Why does this character come alive beyond the page? Or, why does this character feel more two-dimensional? When I notice the literary building blocks of dialogue, description, figurative language, and syntax as I read someone else's story, I often find myself noticing and assessing the building blocks that make up my own work.

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