Energized by Power Shift — an annual gathering of youth-led clean-energy and climate groups nationwide — UNCA students are hatching an ambitious vision of environmental justice and clean energy for all.
It’s a daunting agenda, but the group is employing some time-tested grass-roots strategies — and learning as they go. Earth studies major Elizabeth Goyer says she returned from her first Power Shift in 2009 ready “to get UNCA completely off coal,” she recalls wryly.
The group’s fervor cooled a bit in the face of hard realities (it’s tough to run a modern research program or a campus cafeteria without electricity), but these young visionaries say they quickly recognized the value of “going for the low-hanging fruit”: attacking the national issues through lobbying, while expanding awareness on campus by encouraging students and faculty alike to think about reducing their reliance on coal-fired power plants.
The oldest student organization on campus, Active Students for a Healthy Environment claims roughly 50 members, and “We can feel the momentum rising,” says ASHE member Macon Foscue, an environmental studies major who’ll be a junior this fall.
Goyer, a fifth-year senior, helped found the statewide NC Student Energy Network this past spring. And at the 2009 Power Shift, Goyer got involved with the Sylva, N.C.-based Canary Coalition “and ended up getting arrested at Duke Power’s headquarters in Charlotte along with 45 others, aged 14 to 70-something.” Back on campus last fall, she realized, “I had gotten shoved into a leadership role because everyone else had graduated, and I figured the best thing I could do is get as many younger students to Power Shift as possible.”
Foscue was one of them. “I turned around and Macon had started this campaign that’s going to take off in the fall,” Goyer reports. Dubbed “Flip the Switch,” ASHE’s multifaceted campuswide energy-conservation crusade will target student dorms. A companion program, “Teach in the Sunlight,” will enlist professors willing to turn off artificial lighting in classrooms with ample daylight. Participating faculty will get their names published on a list, thus scoring “cool points,” says Foscue.
A weekend leadership training in August aims to help young activists “get better at doing things like talking to media, lobbying local officials, asking for money from their [college] administration and fundraising in the community,” Goyer reports. Cultivating relationships with local elected officials, she explains, comes in handy when key pieces of energy legislation need a push.
Looking ahead, a daylong Sept. 24 event will include a concert, silent auction, potluck supper and other activities to raise funds for the Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference later this fall. The September fundraiser coincides with Moving Planet day, the latest series of global events organized by well-known activist and author Bill McKibben and his group, 350.org (see “Building a Movement,” Sept. 14, 2010 Xpress).
ASHE is also gearing up for the Renewable Energy Conference, which will bring student activists from across the region to UNCA Nov. 4-6. Goyer nominated her school as the conference site — and was surprised when it was chosen. “At first it was really scary,” she reveals. “I went to the university and said, ‘We’re gonna have 500 people here.’ It took a little negotiating, [and] we’re still trying to get them to waive the room fee, which is a big part of our budget for the conference.” But it’s an impressive effort for a student group: Meeting weekly via conference call this summer, these young activists pulled together a budget, an agenda and sponsors.
And despite the considerable environmental challenges ahead, Goyer takes some inspiration from Tim DeChristopher, the keynote speaker at this year’s Power Shift, whose message went something like this:
“There is very little about the youth movement right now that suggests we are prepared to cope with the collapse of our society in the face of our lack of sustainability. Reducing emissions is not going to be enough — the damage is already done. But when the collapse comes, it could be our chance to build something better: Green power could be what we base our civilization on. Our job as the youth climate movement is to start over with something different.”
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