A pigtailed, lucent-eyed, idealistic girl recently gave testimony against PFAs (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at the US senate for the PFAs Bill HB22-1345. The sprightly 11-year-old Indian-American has made saving the planet her raison d’etre. Madhvi Chittoor wrote a climate justice letter to US president Joe Biden; the POTUS immediately replied to her in March 2022. In the letter, US President Joe Biden affirmed his support fighting climate change, and promised to keep Madhvi’s letter in mind while tackling the climate crisis.
Witnessing President Biden’s stance to prioritise her plea in the midst of the war against Ukraine, Madhvi Chittoor affirms with deep conviction: “He could have easily ignored it. It shows his commitment to climate change. He also wrote about what he has done to combat it, and affirmed his support for my climate justice fight.”
Weeks later, the bundle of energy was at the PFAs Pollution Seminar with Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. The Jeffco school student’s activism is on point. Her perseverance, exemplary. President Biden’s respect for “my voice even though I am a child,” was hugely motivating for her.
“I fight for children’s fundamental rights to clean air, water, soil, food and great health, for future generations. We have to save our only home — Planet Earth,” is Madhvi’s plea.
Her other alias — #NoStyroFoamNinja — has helped ban 7.5 million styrofoam containers in schools. It began when the Chittoor family saw a CNN documentary Midway, the Plastic Island (2016) on the Great Pacific garbage patch and plastic pollution at Midway Atoll. Witnessing styrofoam balls floating, in pieces due to currents, with dolphins and seals struggling to swim anguished the climate warrior.
“I shuddered imagining if my habitat was polluted,” and she set about researching, then at just age five, wrote Is Plastic My Food? (2016) to raise awareness. It is an albatross’ perspective on climate change, which she even illustrated. Her efforts saw her receive recognition from National Geographic and the US Congress.
Rallying elected officials, and the government, Madhvi spoke to 35 mayors, sustainability teams, and about 40 legislators across Colorado. Was she apprehensive? “I was scared and unsure at first, but my determination carried me through,” she admits.
The tiny lobbyist-activist first reached out to district US Congressman, Ed Perlmutter. “In January 2018 (at six), I worked with him, and the then governor John Hickenlooper to declare April plastic and styrofoam pollution awareness month.” This set her on a path to tackle styrofoam trays at 155 school cafeterias (writing to the ex-superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Dr Jason Glass, who set up a task force which Madhvi led).
Soon, styrofoam trays were replaced by compostable bagasse trays, impacting 86,000 students, eliminating 7.6 million — clocking 20 million now.
“My second signature campaign (2019-21) led to the bill HB21-1162 in the Colorado general assembly banning all styrofoam containers and single-use plastic bags at all Colorado restaurants,” quips the pint-sized activist-lobbyist of the three plastic pollution bills in 2020. A law passed by the Colorado governor on 6 July 2021 where she witnessed the bill signing ceremony, the actual signing pen was given to her. Her moniker #NoStyrofoamNinja, she laughs, is thanks to her black belt in Taekwondo (at former Blue PowerRanger and Hollywood stuntman Master Mike Chat’s franchise).
Raising her voice against PFAS, Chittoor continues her fight. Speaking with state representative Lisa Cutter to bring it up as a bill in the 2022 legislative session, she worked with Colorado governor Jared Polis to declare March as PFAs Pollution Impact Awareness Month. “In February 2022, the bill HB22-1345, banning PFAs in consumer products was introduced,” she smiles.
Making strides in an otherwise hostile environment, Madhvi has been nurtured by a rock-solid foundation in Indian philosophy with simple middle-class immigrant parents who set high standards. Each tentative albeit confident step hides a resolute champion of the earth.
Her small frame belies a vision and tenacity that saw her meet VP Kamala Harris. “Madam VP Harris is genuinely keen to fight climate change. Her Indian background, and being the first US woman vice-president, she is a role model,” chirps Madhvi who presented the Global Plastic Policy to Harris. The meeting was “awesome,” she giggles. Finally, a fleeting glimpse of the child she is, “On March 15, 2021, my mom got a call saying, ‘This is secret service from the White House calling. Can you verify your social security number?’ She just froze, gave her SSN, and on speaker, they said, ‘Madhvi, we are inviting you to meet Madam VP Harris tomorrow.’ I was thrilled and a bit scared. I went to Downtown Denver. I presented my Global Plastic Policy, supported by 75 countries and many signatories — Dr Jane Goodall, VP Al Gore, former Ecuador President Rosalia Arteaga, former New Zealand PM Helen Clark, and others.
VP Harris said she would support it, and promised that her policy staff would follow up, which they did in April 2021. “They referred me to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s office. Finally, in November 2021, he made the announcement that the US would support the Global Plastic Treaty,” says Madhvi, honoured, humbled and glad to galvanise the heads in the US government to join the treaty which was ratified in the UNEA 50 in March 2022.
Meeting Dr Jane Goodall bolstered her ecological ideology too. “Dr Jane Goodall has a very kind and calm persona. She has redefined species conservation through her ground-breaking work, single-handedly bringing attention to the urgent need to protect chimpanzees — that is inspiring.”
Her clarion call is pollution and its devastating impact. “We humans have triggered the sixth mass extinction, happening at a faster pace. Because of ocean pollution caused by ‘plastic soup,’ the zoo and phytoplanktons are contaminated with leachates. They are eaten by small animals which are then eaten by bigger animals. When humans eat squids, crabs, lobsters, fish, etc, these toxins enter our body and cause diseases,” explains the little activist-scientist.
Pertaining to India, Madhvi busts recycling plastic as a myth: “Plastics can only be downcycled. A plastic bottle can be recycled into a mat, shoe, etc. During this process, billions of microplastics are released into water, soil and air,” says the girl who has spoken with many downcycling plastics businesses in India. “As for governments – stop the dumping of plastics from China into India. Plastic consumerism has increased 10,000 fold in India. Ban unnecessary styrofoam, and oil and gas industry’s manufacture of new plastic. Refuse plastics,” she says.
Stopping the oil and gas industry from manufacturing ‘nurdles’ or plastic pellets, that are “the biggest unspoken ocean pollutants,” Madhvi cites how a ship sank in the Indian Ocean, spilling oil and trillions of nurdles. Clean up is still happening on the coast of Colombo.
A robust philosophy, entrenched in Indian values, and “simple and disciplined upbringing,” Swami Vivekananda’s teachings guide the 11-year-old. “Swami Vivekananda is my greatest inspiration. His words are golden and timeless. When I was five, my mother compiled all his sayings into a paragraph — ‘How to Build Character’ which I narrated out of memory — and it still resonates.
Her mother (Telugu), born and brought up in Chennai and her father, a Tamilian born in Calcutta, who grew up in Delhi, lived in Mumbai and Bengaluru, are “kind, compassionate and helpful, volunteering at my school and community. They inculcated honesty, kindness, respect and above all to be grateful,” chirps the activist who is fluent in Telugu, a smattering of Tamil, and reads and writes Hindi and Sanskrit.
From her mother, Lalitha, she learnt the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, shlokas, Indian traditions — like the Shodashopachara pooja, lighting the deepam, and offering naivedyam — while also embracing American festivals.
Battling governments and influencing policymaking aside, Lalitha calls her prodigious. Not just for her credible activism and knowledge, but for her impressive arts repertoire. The Guinness World Record holder for the Youngest Professional Music Producer, a Bharatanatyam dancer, Carnatic musician, she chants Sanskrit prayers with such ease — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Sarve Janaah Sukhino Bhavanthu, Aum Shantih Shantih Shantihi. For Madhvi, the Upanishads resonate in invoking peace.
Author of six books, the young climate warrior has created change when most others would have given up. A gargantuan task. “I may be a child but I have learnt that through determination and persistence, I can make things happen on a global scale though it may take time,” she says.
An advocate of Indian ancient values, she says, “No culture has done as much in-depth research and study on the human psyche and being.”
At four, Madhvi started learning the piano, soon composing music snippets. Her innate ability to play music by ear, she has since turned to the violin, cello, clarinet, recorder, trumpet and guitar. I am... Princess Genius with her 12 best compilations (2019) received social media recognition from Lorne Balfe, Hans Zimmer, Ron Howard and Nat Geo Genius.
Working on an album to be released in 2023, Madhvi’s teachers Mary Fraser (piano), Sue Mogan (violin) saw her as the only student to finish the entire Suzuki book-1 in three months.
Harmony With Nature (2017) is Madhvi’s longest composition.
Her simplistic plea is that humans respect and heal the planet; her organisations Madhvi4Ethics and Eco Ethics rally this cause. And she is far from done yet.
The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.