A successful fight for safer school buses offers hope for global warming action
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. In her poem, hope flutters into—and out of—our hearts, it clings to its perch through the heaviest storms, and it asks for nothing in exchange, not a crumb. Hope has been very much on my mind this summer. Every single day we learn more about the deteriorating state of our planet—the dying ocean, the melting glaciers, the disruptive, unusually severe weather patterns. Then we ponder the sorry state of our political process with respect to climate change. Where’s the hope?
My weary friends say the battle against climate change is overwhelming. The issues are too large. The battle must be global in scale and the solution has to be as large as the problem. But it is doubtful we can institutionalize international change fast enough to avert disaster. Time is not on our side.
So we retreat to our homes, and think of tending only our gardens and raising our children. It is autumn, and for most of us, no matter how old we are, an internal rhythm kicks in: back to school! Back to serious matters! We buy the crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes for our little ones, and send them out the door to board those bright yellow buses, just as we did when we were in our brand new fall oxfords. We send our children out into that very large world—the one from which we want to retreat.
About a decade ago, we began to learn that those school buses we waved our children off in posed an unexpected environmental risk. Despite being the safest way to transport children to and from school, buses produced diesel fumes that can cause respiratory ailments, exacerbating asthma, and damaging lung tissue. The problems were aggravated every time the buses stopped to open their doors to pick up more passengers; more particulate pollution streamed in and entered the children’s lungs, bloodstreams and brains. Because children’s lungs are not fully developed, they are especially vulnerable. To make matters worse, idling at pickup time at the school doors added to the pollution both inside and outside the bus.
When the information surfaced, it led to aggressive action across the country. New York City, Washington state, New Jersey and California instituted mandatory emissions controls programs, setting aside funds to either retire old buses quickly, or retrofit them to filter the pollution.
In states such as Texas, where EDF went to work on this issue, the programs were voluntary, but millions in funds have been made available through the legislature. EDF’s efforts, primarily in Houston, generated a great deal of local and national media attention, which helped educate other communities about the problem. EDF also created this educational video at www.cleanbuses.org/texas to encourage grass roots action in other cities:
Along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association threw its weight behind the issue; so did many PTA organizations. Things have begun to change. Progress is slow, and sometimes frustrating. Some fleet managers are more concerned with bus routes and schedules; some legislatures are unable to find funds to buy new buses or retrofit old ones. The retrofit costs ranging from $1,000 to $8,000 are a small price to pay for our children, and the sort of thing many companies could underwrite in an “Adopt a Bus” program.
Incredibly, some people fail to give a child’s lungs and heart and brains top priority. But over and over, we have seen that things happen most rapidly and effectively when the people who do care—the parents—mobilize to demand change, and champion it through the planning and implementation stages. EPA reports that across the nation, bus retrofit programs are growing and getting better. Ten years later, district by district, across the country, our children are breathing cleaner air as they ride to school. And fortunately, even in places where nothing is done, the old, dirty buses will eventually “age out”, and be replaced with new buses designed to run more efficiently and cleanly.
Which gets us to that matter of hope. Of course there are times when hope fails us. We abandon it, or it abandons us. But the only alternative to hope is despair, and no one thrives with a heavy heart. To be human is to hope. The thing with feathers is small, but it is also nimble. Sometimes, when the big picture is overwhelming, it helps to zoom in tighter. Look at the ways in which we have made large changes for the better in our own small neighborhoods. Look at the successes we have had—and be reminded that we can change things for the better. The fight against global warming is not like the fight against school bus pollution; the crisis is too pervasive, for any individual action to make much difference. We need significant legislative change. But it is up to us, as individuals, to rally around transformative efforts—for our own sakes, and for the sake of our children.
Sometimes, hope is the thing with a backpack—that small, cherished creature, innocent and expectant, we send out into the world’s hurly-burly. I have to believe that, one way or another, we will continue to change our ways for those children—a new generation whose own hearts are filling with hope as they pick up the fight. We are like those buses. We will age out—and we will, I hope, be replaced by our children, people who have cleaner energy on their minds. In the meantime, it helps to understand that hope is a gift, a blessing, a visitation, a grace. But it is also a choice.
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