Population Growth and Climate Change 2013!

This fall, the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment program  (GPEP) awarded me with a fellowship opportunity to study and share connections between the earth’s growing human population and the global climate crisis. After bringing the two-dozen or so other youth fellows, as well as some older activists, to my home city of Washington, DC for a training conference featuring experts on reproductive health, demography, and social justice, the program organizers challenged us to creatively encourage conversations around the issue in our own communities, offering a grant to help us build our projects.

I was in D.C. and available for the program in the first place because I had taken a semester off from working on my undergraduate degree at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, and I immediately began considering ways I could take advantage of the connections I had made there during my freshman year. During that year, the student activist organization on campus worked to divest the college’s endowment from fossil fuels and other destructive industries, which the administration agreed to just before the school year ended. During that campaign, we met with other local colleges who were involved in divestment struggles, and even made a trip down to D.C. for the Forward on Climate rally, where we were able to connect with students from across the country.

As I thought about how I could spread messages effectively about population growth, I realized that these connections that had begun to form were an important asset I could tap into. By communicating with other active college students, I could make sure that the information that the GPEP was working to promote would reach individuals and groups who care about climate change and were actually seeking more tools and perspectives to better create social change. Within a week of the training session that began the fellowship, I began contacting friends and fellow activists across the northeastern U.S.

The form that this project would take was further solidified when the executive committee of the Virginia Sierra Club invited me to present what I learned from the training session at their monthly meeting. I wrote up a presentation covering the main points of the curriculum the GPEP had presented us with and added my own two cents in the form of further research into an angle I was personally interested in-how environmental racism impacted social movements’ approach to population growth-and tested it out in front of the George Mason University environmentalist student group, who expressed a lot of interest in the connections being drawn between environmentalism and other issues of social justice. I checked in with the Sierra Club program directors and received some great advice on how to improve my presentation, then took it down to Charlottesville to present to the executive committee. They asked me great questions, most importantly how they could best address gendered and racialized prejudices in their own activism. Fortuitously, the next presentation on their agenda was a workshop on addressing white privilege, and the connection appeared very natural. Overall, the committee was engaged and totally supportive, and I felt that the idea of bringing this presentation to my friends up north might be possible after all.

My first stop was hosted by the environmentalist student organization at Boston University, which a friend from high school attends. We had a great discussion after the presentation about their divestment movement, during which we shared experiences, tactics, and thoughts about next steps for student movements. It was also the first time that I began with a values exercise borrowed from the GPEP program. The exercise consisted of controversial statements such as “Women should only have children if they can afford to support them”, which participants responded to by standing in different places in the room to represent how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement. The students I spoke with afterward were excited to learn about how the Sierra Club was working to build a movement that addressed the intersections of these issues. The comment I found most interesting was from one student, Alex, who moved from Athens, Greece to Boston to attend BU. Alex believed the message still lacked a critique of political and economic structures rather than individual policies.

That night, I found out that my second planned stop, at the University of New Hampshire, had been cancelled. Although I was disappointed, it allowed me an extra day to rest up after the long drive to Boston and revise my presentation. I wanted to make sure I was leaving my audiences not just educated, but also prepared to take action, so I added to the end of the presentation a short “idea potluck” on ways we could resist climate change and empower women and girls from and on campus. After a relatively short drive across New Hampshire and into the Green Mountain State, I arrived at Green Mountain College, where I will be returning for school next semester. Many of the students with whom I had worked on the previous year’s divestment campaign were still there, including Krista Shugart, an absolutely amazing activist who also organized this presentation.

The following evening, I presented to the Green Mountain College Activism club, complete with preceding values exercise and a discussion of possible campaigns following. Between twenty-five and thirty people came out, which was really great to see out of a student body that’s less than six hundred. Several GMC students, myself included, feel that the college’s sexual assault policy is badly in need of revision. Creating a safe space for students of all genders is an essential prerequisite to making our organizing accessible to all students, and it’s especially important to ensure that women are at the forefront of what many students call “ecofeminist” activism, a header which I feel the Global Population and Environment Program’s work could certainly fall under. We also discussed resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure, specifically the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, which runs through Vermont and is being considered as a possible means of transporting Canadian tar sands to refineries. I thought that the combination of on and off campus focus was important for staying connected as a small, geographically isolated community.

The next stop was Bard College, where I was being hosted by the on-campus vegan cooperative and the community garden. Students at Bard had a lot going on of their own, and turned out the second-largest audience after Green Mountain. We talked a lot of economics at Bard, especially the idea of “climate debt” owed by wealthy countries such as the United States. I listened to the successes they’d had thus far as a divestment movement and shared my experiences of “closing the deal” at Green Mountain last year; as a small college, Bard’s campaign had much more in common with our own than did the folks at BU. Again, it seemed that a significant portion of the students I spoke to expressed some degree of frustration with a perceived lack of urgency or, as one student put it, “seriousness” on the part of the environmental movement when compared to events like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street that we have seen in the recent past. A few students expressed cynicism with large-scale political action in general, preferring to build resilient communities and relationships. It was definitely a lot to take in, and while I didn’t agree with or even understand all of the perspectives I heard, it was incredible to participate in that kind of discussion with my peers.

My last stop was Brooklyn, NY where I spoke with students from the School of Visual Arts and members of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Fourteen people crammed into my friend and host’s apartment where we rearranged furniture to make the values exercise possible. It was the only event that happened off-campus, and it contributed a more familiar tone to the presentation. Even though it was the smallest group, I had the most questions throughout the presentation as we discussed the United States’ often stonewalling role in climate change mitigation and ways we could act as allies to indigenous movements and women in the global south. The political atmosphere was interestingly juxtaposed with my previous stops, as some students pushed back on the more radical interpretations of the program’s messaging I gave, primarily with regard to immigration. However, the overall sentiment remained very positive and nearly all of the attendees stayed after the presentation to talk about issues that didn’t fall under the scope of population growth and climate change.

Finally, it was time to return home to catch up on classes and get ready for Thanksgiving break! The experience overall helped me improve my public speaking skills, built closer relationships between student activists across the region, and got nearly one hundred people thinking about what climate change means for our growing global population in a meaningful way.