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ISSUE 119 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/17/2006

Activism beyond protesting

By Mary Sotos
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 17, 2006

Two weeks ago I, along with the other 230 college students at an environmental conference at University of Wisconsin-Madison, was called complacent by keynote speaker Sowore Omoyele. We had asked him what we could do to improve the environmental situation in oil-rich Nigeria.

“America is asleep; you’re so complacent,” Omoyele said. Especially in Madison, with its history of student activism, we should be out in the streets protesting, gaining media attention – even rioting. While some students were nodding vigorously , I shifted uneasily, and I was not the only one.

Another keynote speakers conveyed a similar message. Activist Steve Kretzman spoke about changing the politics of our oil-dependent situation. He emphasized that national security, climate, war, environmental justice, debt, poverty and indigenous people were all deeply connected to our use of oil. His most recent campaign was called “The Separation of Oil and State;” he argued that the reasons for oil dependency are political, not technological.

Again I found myself engrossed in the topic and stirred to action – but how? How do we effectually stand up to the oil industry? Transportation remains a key component to the oil problem – our construction of suburbia necessitates cars, which in turn require oil. How, then, do we confront suburbia?

Kretzman responded that we needed to make noise, again criticizing American complacency. I agreed: But what did it mean for me, a college student at a comfortable, safe liberal arts college, to “make noise” and stir things up? Are political demonstrations the only way to stir things up? Rallies and demonstrations have never sat well with my personality – they seem to incite visceral rather than reasoned responses; the way they simplify problems and claim they have the only answer; and the way they villainize the “opposition.”

But history reveals that non-violent demonstrations have been vital to social movements ranging from the Civil Rights to anti-war to feminism. Is energy, then, the next issue that can benefit from demonstrations? Would they shake America out of its complacency?

A middle-aged man commented that this conference reminded him of the rallies he had attended as a student. But his generation has abandoned their youthful convictions as they have aged. I wondered what has caused those convictions to change, worrying that my cynical assumptions would be confirmed: Those movements’ demonstrations were, in fact, ineffectual.

The social movements of the 60’s and 70’s pioneered demonstrations, but the new political and cultural assumptions which developed over the last few decades had left much of the generation jaded and disillusioned about the efficacy of such activities.

Later, I talked with my father about whether these assumptions were valid. “If you want to make a difference for the environment, you can go to Greenpeace rallies all you want,” he said. “But I think you’d make a bigger change if you got an MBA, worked for the man, and became a CEO of an oil company. Change the man from the inside out.”

Throughout the weekend, the adults present repeated that our generation was one of hope and solutions. Was that true because we had overcome the disillusion of our parents’ generation, or because more of us were following the suggestion of my father: less alienating and isolated demonstrations, and more integration of solutions into the existing fabric of our culture?

One of the closing remarks of the conference was that we are not just here at the conference; we are the environmental movement, and what we do is the movement. Looking around, I tried to evaluate how we, the movement, would continue to approach environmental problems.

In our midst were enthusiastic political activists, technology nerds, over-achiever-leaders-of-everything, farm kids, neo-hippies and people like me: passionate environmental studies majors, realistic, thoughtful and skeptical, trying to strategize the best ways to make the biggest changes in both American politics and cultural expectations. Today’s environmentalists may share the passion of the original movement, but we have as many methods as we do identities.

Staff Writer Mary Sotos is a junior from Elmhurst, Ill. She majors in environmental studies.

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