Max Harthorne was the president of the school’s Sustainability Squad this past year and is a recent graduate of Newton South High School.

As president of the Newton South High School Sustainability Squad, Max Harthorne makes sure to stay true to his unconventional optimism for climate change and sustainability. His faith in current climate change efforts has led him and the rest of the Sustainability Squad to create the very first Earth Day festival at Newton South. Read on to find out more about what drives Max to do all of his amazing climate work.

What do you know about climate change?
I’ve been involved with the Sustainability Squad since my junior year. I started out as a student government ambassador to the environmental club not knowing much about climate change previously. All I really knew was that even though there were a solid five environmental groups at NSHS, they weren’t getting anything done. They were so busy basically competing with each other that they only existed in name only, so that people could be presidents, but there wasn’t a lot of action going on. I helped conglomerate two or three clubs into the Sustainability Squad, and from there, we all took off!

Can you elaborate on the Sustainability Squad?
Our first project was about getting the school to recycle more efficiently because the school had been putting everything in the trash. We put up posters in every room, had lots of conversations with custodians and administration. I wouldn’t say that we fully changed everything, but I do think that the school is becoming much more efficient with its recycling practices now than it ever was before. Now, we are trying to organize the first Earth Day in NSHS’s history.

What do you have planned for the Earth Day event?
The idea is to bring together a dozen or so student and professional groups around Newton for a sort of festival celebration of just the earth with a specific sustainability and environmental action lens to it. We are hoping to organize it like a fair—lots of tents with booths, carnival games that are environmentally themed, etc. For instance, we had the idea of a game where players have to throw either crumpled pieces of paper or plastic into the recycling or trash, and they have to figure out which item goes into which respective bin. We’re also organizing a raffle for some environmentally minded products, and then hopefully, we’ll get some speakers from local groups, as well as students.

How have you or your friends at school felt the effects of climate change? What do they know about climate change?
Our generation is pretty aware about climate change, generally just as an issue that is happening. I’m gonna say that I’m really surprised at how few students there were at the Sustainability Squad at first, especially when I got there. I think a lot of people weren’t really aware of the things that they could do in their everyday lives to improve things. Climate change was viewed and is viewed as this kind of big issue that doesn’t have a clear solution for the individual, which is why something that we’re hoping to build the Earth Day off of is this idea of each person that leaves Earth Day with a specific concrete action that they can take within the next week. Some ideas are very simple, like carpooling to school or being more mindful about what they’re recycling right away, or trying to take shorter showers. Overall, we’re trying to get people to be more aware of those smaller actions.

You said people don’t see climate change as solvable–could you elaborate on that?
Sarah and I say we’re sort of the two opposite parameters of the Earth Day planning. Sarah is an absolute pessimist about sustainability, and I’m an absolute optimist. Personally, I think that pessimism is scaring people off, along with really aggressive activism. People don’t want to be associated with groups spraying orange paint onto the Mona Lisa, so while drastic action does bring a lot of attention to the issue, I think it’s actually scaring people away. Instead, the sustainability initiative needs to rebrand itself as this optimistic, forward looking movement.

As for how people at South feel about climate change, here’s a good example: A few other students and I were planning out the recycling pamphlets—we had posters that said what you can and can’t recycle. We were asking teachers at each classroom for permission to put those posters up in the classroom, and had a lot of really interesting interactions with the teachers. I always started the same way by saying “I don’t know if you’re aware, but is the recycling often going into the trash? Almost every single teacher told me that they’re 100% aware that yes, few people sort out the recycling, and nothing is ever done about it. So what are you going to do about it? Rather than the students who feel like they’re powerless to change it, the teachers just have been in the system for so long that they seem to be pretty pessimistic as well, except for a few teachers like Mr. Kozak, who’s my sustainability teacher. Generally, however, there’s a common acknowledgement of the problem among teachers.

Are young people any more optimistic?
I’m hoping that they are! We’ve spent the past thirty years emphasizing the problem and proving it’s existence, so now it’s really time to focus on emphasizing the solution. People being aware of the problem isn’t going to change things, but people being aware of what they can do and what actions they can take will.

How have you personally felt the effects of climate change?
I’ve probably started noticing this more ever since I joined the Sustainability Squad, but winters just aren’t cold anymore—people in Massachusetts are not going to be feeling the effects of climate change as much as someone living in Queens, New York, or anywhere in Chicago. However, I do remember interviewing one of my teachers that lives in Boston, and he had some interesting things to say about how the weather is always colder in Newton because of global warming that bubbles in cities with very few trees. When he drives out to Newton, it suddenly is much colder, and he has to kind of adjust the way that he dresses, which I think is really interesting and significant.

Feelings about climate change in one word?
Excitement. Ultimately, sustainability is going to change a lot of the ways that we see our lives and the way that we live our lives, and I think that it’s leading us to a really exciting place. We should be really excited about that!

Anything else to add?
I think the types of people that are attracted to the climate change movement are really interesting. There are a lot of artists, so a lot of the Sustainability Squad is made up of people who are really good at design, people who are really interested in film, and people who are really interested in drawing—and it’s awesome because many sustainability groups get to create all this amazing art, like some of the art we’re doing for South’s Earth Day!

Author Bianca Mints is a student at Commonwealth School.