March 14, 2023
By Jenn Smith
SAMMAMISH — On the morning of February 8, Maanit Goel donned a white T-shirt and black blazer, turned on his computer screen and faced the state Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee.
As a constituent of the 45th District, he was testifying in support of proposed legislation to require large fashion retailers and manufacturers to disclose whether they’re offsetting carbon emissions and taking other steps to mitigate environmental impact.
The high school student was making time to do what he loves most: advocating for ways to better protect our planet.
Goel, 17, an Eastlake High School junior, is involved in more than half a dozen environmental initiatives, locally, nationally and globally. His testimony supported the work of the Washington Legislative Youth Council, of which he is a member. The fashion industry bill is one of two pieces of legislation the council is championing this session.
He works on two other conservation passion projects: raising awareness about the impact of dam systems on salmon, orca populations and Indigenous people, and showing young people the environmental harm caused by deforestation from the palm oil industry.
Goel doesn’t come from a family of earth scientists or environmental activists. He hasn’t spent years researching climate change impacts or environmental protection policies. And when he heads to college, he says he’ll likely study computer science.
But he’s gained momentum for seeking solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems, and he’s helping to educate and mobilize people around those solutions.
“A constant value that was instilled in me at a young age is that my role here is to help uplift the communities around me. So I was really just looking for any opportunities that I could plug into,” he said.
Getting people involved
Goel’s main strategy for getting people’s attention is asking them to be creative and to care.
On Jan. 13, he rallied more than 100 youth and community activists on the Capitol steps in Olympia to support breaching four Lower Snake River dams. Environmentalists believe breaching the dams would help protect native salmon and orca populations.
A couple of weeks after the Senate hearing in February, he brought up the Lower Snake River dam issue with the youth ocean advocates at Seattle Aquarium on behalf of the Washington Youth Ocean & River Conservation Alliance. Goel is WYORCA’s president.
After a rainy Saturday morning shift among squealing children and densely packed crowds of visitors, the young adult advocates took their seats in a semicircle of stacking chairs in an aquarium classroom. Like most of them, Goel wore a youthful Pacific Northwest ensemble: a relaxed graphic T-shirt layered beneath a lichen-green zip-up jacket, blue jeans, black and white sneakers. His crown of dark, curly hair bobbed as he greeted everyone with a bright smile and upbeat tone.
Within his 30-minute time slot, Goel bounced between slides at a fast clip, pacing and hand-talking his way through explanations of how the dams adversely impact salmon migration, the food supply for orcas and Indigenous land and fishing rights, as well as the cost of conservation efforts and how WYORCA wants to map out tentative solutions regarding Washington’s waterways.
At the end, several teens snapped photos of the last slide with Goel’s contact information and WYORCA’s Instagram handle. A couple of them chatted with him afterward.
He’s presented this topic with classmates across K-12 classrooms and often gets questions about what happens when a dam is removed and what could replace it.
“I love seeing that because it shows that they’re listening and they really care about the issue and want to see action,” he said.
Solutions and humor
Perhaps Goel’s magic lies in the fact that he doesn’t underestimate the power and influence of his generation. They’re the ones who mobilized more than a million strong globally in 2019, striking from school to demand government action on climate change. But after the strikes, Goel said the youth movements came to a crossroads.
“There was a feeling that this is the big, landmark environmental thing which suddenly enters the mainstream. And then nothing really came of it. We didn’t see any major legislation passed. And I think that was really disheartening for a lot of people, including myself,” he said.
While the rallies were waning, the environmental warnings were increasing. He sought alternative ways to take action.
Goel started his freshman year at Eastlake remotely due to the state’s pandemic protocols. Instead of school-based clubs, he got involved in various groups virtually. This included the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit EarthEcho International; he now serves on its Youth Leadership Council. The children of marine explorer Philippe Cousteau Sr. founded the organization, honoring the family’s legacy in ocean exploration and marine conservation.
Half the world’s population is estimated to be under age 30, and “it’s critical that we have opportunities to build the support for young people to engage in ocean protection and animal conservation work at an early age,” said Sean Russell, EarthEcho’s associate director of youth engagement and partnerships.
Russell and Mina Adabag, a 16-year-old Youth Leadership Council member from Minneapolis, said Goel is particularly effective in empowering students to demand change in spaces where they’re often the youngest people in the room.
“He just has an infectious level of enthusiasm for this work that brings people along with him in the movement,” Russell said.
Adabag remembers meeting Goel when they were preparing to co-moderate a session at a climate summit. She told him she was nervous about the presentation.
“And he was like, I am, too. And then he started sending me inspirational quotes from Dwayne ‘The Rock’”’ Johnson,” she said with a laugh. “He really just injects joy into the group.”
Maintaining humor and energy in the movement matters. Young people face multiple barriers in environmental activism, including ageism and the challenge of traveling to conferences and hearings while balancing class schedules and school commitments.
Technology and social media, however, have made it easier for young activists to connect, collaborate and educate.
In talking with legislators across states who want to pass laws for global supply chain transparency, Goel learned how they struggle to get such bills passed. The urgency to take action can get lost on voters, especially when they don’t see a direct impact locally.
That’s why Goel wants to pursue digital strategies like gamification in the conservation movement, to deliver information directly.
Goel created Pokok-Ed, an online game to teach kids about environmental ethics and the dilemmas around palm oil plantations. Most plantations are located in Malaysia and Indonesia; he hopes the game brings the issue closer to home.
“In the game students are playing as palm oil farmers so they can see why things like deforestation and child labor rise out of necessity versus ‘I want to go kill forests.’ They can learn about and understand the complexities,” he said. “One of the things you have to do in order to have people contribute to environmental solutions is to have them understand the solution, why they’re doing it, what the issue is and why this is the solution that works.”