On Aug. 4, 2019, 10 people died in my backyard, and I haven’t forgotten about it. In the aftermath of the Dayton, Ohio shooting, the national political dialogue turned to gun regulation. Tweets were sent, bills were drafted and funds were set up for those injured or killed. Progress was happening, until it wasn’t happening anymore. Slowly but surely, Dayton, like El Paso, has drifted out of the American conversation. Unless something changes, the climate movement seems doomed to the same fate.
Americans are overwhelmingly addicted to fad activism. The phenomenon is most obvious in gun violence, but its most dangerous ramifications are evident in the disturbingly cyclical nature of environmentalism. By now, we as a society are very good at complaining about the climate crisis, so let’s go a step further. It’s high time for us, as college students, to become the leading edge of a new environmental movement and to put the “act” back in “activism.”
The throng of students who gathered on Emory’s Cox Bridge last Friday to demand action on the climate crisis made a strongly positive contribution to the national conversation, but their success warrants a word of caution: simply participating in dialogue has never been enough in the past and is not now, either. Supported by the Emory Climate Analysis and Solutions Team (ECAST), students made posters together, led a demonstration and attempted to project a message of strong, unified action. Roughly 4 million others worldwide did the same, and the media noticed. On Emory’s campus and elsewhere, Americans increasingly care about preserving the climate, but global protests like those occurring last week are far from revolutionary.
Environmentalism isn’t a new phenomenon in the U.S. Theodore Roosevelt helped to usher in the first wave of ecological concern during the Progressive Era, during which Congress passed the Antiquities Act and John Muir founded the Sierra Club. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns about overpopulation, air quality and water pollution became salient. The third wave, beginning in the late 1980s, confronted the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect. After Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” sparked yet another surge in the early 2000s, the current swell of activism began in 2018 with Greta Thunberg’s school strike and the Zero Hour youth climate march in the U.S.
Such hollow advocacy is not inevitable. While in the past, we have protested, shouted and complained about the government’s inaction, students should now prioritize being educated about potential solutions to the climate crisis rather than simply being aware of its existence. After arming ourselves with that information, we must pursue substantive, individual action to enact the necessary change.
Education and action are inseparable if we mean to accomplish substantial change. Little can be achieved by simply educating people about the nuances and etiology of environmental issues in a vacuum. And pure action, unfortunately, can easily end in Unabomber-style tragedy.
We need both, and Emory students are increasingly recognizing that reality. When asked about ECAST’s objectives in hosting a climate strike event, Undergraduate Co-President Jaylan Jacobs (20C) stressed “getting people to understand they can take action” and highlighting “feasible thing[s] that people can do in their individual lives.” As vehicles of the educational component of environmental activism, events like the Emory Climate Strike are invaluable in that they both raise awareness of the specifics of the issue and demonstrate concrete, substantive choices that people can make to further the cause. The responsibility to fight the second half of the battle–to actually make those choices–must then fall solely on us as students and as citizens.
According to ECAST Graduate Co-President Emily Strahan (20G), possible steps in that direction include “eating a plant-based diet” and “being [both] an educated voter … and educated consumer.” She also recommends that students conduct “an energy audit” of their lives. Switching to paper straws and deciding not to eat a burger now and then is all well and good, but it distracts from the larger problems in the system, which range from the emissions-heavy meat and fossil fuel industries to politicians fixated on inaction. In other words, smaller-scale action on straws and the like should not take the place of advocacy on the more macroscopic issues of business and politics.
As college students blessed with a sustainability-minded administration, we are perfectly positioned to forestall that by engaging actively, substantively and with the necessary background knowledge.
So vote. Call your representatives. Join ECAST or the Emory Climate Organization. Work with the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. Change your diet. Recycle. Follow the example set by the Climate Strike; do something and don’t be afraid to talk about it.
This is our last chance. If we allow ourselves to forget about the climate crisis again, the planet may not survive long enough for us to remember.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.