Alumnus Jon Hamilton '16 urges AWHS students to become environmental activists

Archbishop Williams High School alumnus and Harvard College freshman Jon Hamilton ‘16, didn’t mince words when he spoke recently to Jordana Churchill’s AP Environmental Science (APES) students about the dangers of climate change and the need for students to take action.

“Remember -  your choices could make the difference for millions of people,” Hamilton said.  

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It was a message that fell upon open ears. “I definitely do realize how one person can make a difference, and how much one person can do to help the environment,” said senior Jack Rega after the presentation, Environmental Policy and Prospects for the Future: What comes Next.  

The urgency of responding to pollution and climate change, Hamilton said, requires students to be “true scientists who don’t accept things at face value, who ask why, and who go beyond simple beliefs to search for fact-based evidence.”  

As a start, Hamilton suggested that the students, “Be cognizant of how you use resources. Turn off the lights when not needed, walk when you can, ride a bike, and use mass transit when available.”

Senior Anne Pham was inspired by Hamilton’s recommendations. “I’ll definitely walk more instead of using a car, at least for the shorter distances,” she said.

Pham was particularly moved by two juxtaposed graphs in the video, A Brief History of US Inaction on Climate Change, which showed a twenty year increase in the earth’s temperature and a corresponding decrease in Arctic Sea ice. “The graphs were really helpful in my understanding of global warming,” Pham said. “They made it clear just how important this issue is.”

Drawing from popular culture to make his point, Hamilton used a video clip from the movie, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,  with its song, How Bad Can I Be, which is critical of environmental abuse. Students also viewed the short video, The Future Starts Now, which was shown at the United Nations. The video highlights the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change and supports sustainable development and activism from the grassroots to the international level.  

Classmate Camden McLeod said the presentation made her aware of how much she needs to learn.

“He talked a lot about what is in the news and the need to keep up with what’s going on, which is something I don’t always do,” McLeod said. “I can see that it is important that I do that now.”

 

Hamilton’s own journey to activism began at AWHS as a student in Raymond Whitehouse’s APES class. “Mr. Whitehouse and AP Environmental Science together have dramatically changed my worldview and my perception of who I am and who I want to be,” he said.

Moving from awareness to action, Hamilton began his first environmental project in the cafeteria.

“Jon honed his environmental activism as a senior here, leading a successful student campaign to eliminate the use of styrofoam in our cafeteria,” said Principal Dr. Michael Volonnino, who as a Harvard alumnus, is especially pleased with Hamilton’s work.” I'm so proud that Harvard has taken what started here and brought it to the next level. Jon is on his way towards making a real difference in this world and it's wonderful to see an alumnus pay it forward by returning to share what he's learned with our current students.”

Hamilton has already put his ideas into action at Harvard, deciding to integrate his study of biology and science with environmental science and public policy. He has also joined three organizations: the Harvard College Conservation Society, which works with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) on special projects; the Council of Student Sustainability Leaders, which most recently has been working to increase consumption of lower impact foods on campus; and the Environmental Action Committee, which is involved in acts such as political protest.

Hamilton advised the APES students to get involved in environmental action too. “Be an activist and don’t be afraid to go against the grain,” he said. To reinforce that idea, he displayed a quote from famed anthropologist Margaret Mead who said,  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Hamilton finds inspiration from Pope Francis who in 2015 issued the first ever environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home, a document which is both a strong criticism of environmental abuse and a warning to humanity of its consequences. In the encyclical, the Pontiff says:

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Pope Francis looks to today’s youth to make a difference.

“Young people demand change,” Francis said in the encyclical. “They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

Following the Pope’s lead, Hamilton understands the connection between social justice and environmental activism.  

“Environmentalism is inextricably linked to social justice, another issue very close to the Pope's heart,” Hamilton said. “As climate change alters the world we live in, the poorest among us will be disproportionately affected the most, while some of the richest will make ever more money off of their suffering. To take combative climate action through regulations, taxes, sustainable development, and so on is to take action against the social injustices of our world. Besides the countless benefits to all life, this reason alone merits environmental action and makes activism worthwhile.”

Churchill was pleased with what her students learned from Hamilton and with their follow-up discussion in class the next day. “There is a huge gap in knowledge about environmental science and how to be sustainable,” she said. “It’s kind of cool for them to see that the knowledge they learned in the class actually applied to the life of someone like Jon, someone who is close to their age and is now in a college environment.”

As moderator of the school’s first environmental activism club, Our World Our Turn, Churchill models sustainability in the classroom by limiting the use of lights, especially on sunny days. Meanwhile, her students work to raise environmental awareness, especially in their implementation of the school-wide recycling program.

“If the students learn how to be sustainable in their own lives, then that is a benefit,” Churchill said. “The environment affects all of us and if we continue to degrade it, it is going to harm all of us.”

Despite the challenges of global warming and concern about what the United States and worldwide governments will or will not do in the future, Hamilton is hopeful, and asked the students to be hopeful too.

“You can embrace hopelessness, or hopefulness,” Hamilton said. “Choose hopefulness!”