Where Have All the Student Agitators Gone

When America advanced in civil rights, when it freed itself from the Vietnam War, and when it gave birth to an environmental ethic in the 1970s, it always had one dynamic group on the streets and in the vanguard: our college students. We have always been able to depend on the passion of youth to change society. Now that the world is threatened by global warming, where are the students?

According to Billy Parish, an energetic and effective college organizer, they have arrived. Parish is the director of the most important new arrival on the political scene, Energy Action, a coalition of forty-one national student networks that has succeeded in putting together 464 student groups on college campuses to advocate for clean energy. In a brief four years his network has convinced forty-two colleges to adopt climate neutrality pledges and persuaded twenty college presidents to work on the rest of the nation's college presidents. Energy Action's leadership in launching the Campus Climate Challenge has brought all of the major student environmental groups together to organize under one big tent.

Since there are 4,000 U.S. colleges and they are responsible for 7 percent of U.S. carbon emissions,13 Parish's group has the potential for remarkable impact, both directly, through cutting emissions, and indirectly, through organizing and education. In just one month—February 2007—the network had each member of Congress adopted by a student, held 560 college screenings of An Inconvenient Truth, and hosted conferences on clean energy in all ten regions of the nation. That is some effective organizing

The boat needs rocking, and Billy Parish and his coalition members are rocking it. Parish helped found the coalition following a summer away from Yale when he met scientists in the foothills of the Himalayas studying the retreat of glaciers that provide 40 percent of humanity with water. "It became clear to me we had to act. After seeing the drought and melting glaciers in India, I came home and started to organize students to push for action. It is my generation's responsibility," he


Parish's seminal experience was unique, a point he makes about his fellow agitators. "Everybody has their own motivation. My girlfriend is a Navajo, and she is motivated because a dirty plant is wrecking her home country. But we also have 500,000 members from the Future Farmers of America, who come at this from a very different perspective. We have the group Restoring Eden, a group of students at evangelical colleges, too. Our challenge is to craft a message that unites us all.

"Maybe the biggest thing that unites us is that people want to believe they are part of a movement, something bigger than themselves.

Billy Parish and the Campus Climate Challenge are raising the stakes on college campuses with effective organizing for clean energy.

Now we are working to use social networking technology on the Internet, as well as grassroots campus organizing, to build on that motivation," he says.

Parish is young, but not too young to have worries. He worries that under Bush, Congress will adopt weak measures to deal with global warming that will stymie the real progress we need to make. "Weak measures may be worse than none at all because they could retard real efforts when Bush is gone," he says. "What is tough enough to be worth it? That is a tough question." Those in the 110th Congress who are pushing for real progress in clean energy are faced with the same tough question during the last two years of Bush's term. Congress must avoid the temptation to do the minimal and then declare victory. In this case, the imperfect can be the enemy not just of the perfect, but also of meeting the demands of the basic science of protecting the climate.

Parish also worries that we may not be sufficiently aggressive in leading Americans to accept some changes in their lives. "We might have to make some changes in our lifestyle to really get to where we need to go," he says. "We have to figure out whether we should talk about sacrifice, or focus on all the positive potential for making progress so that people do not get discouraged and give up the ship early."

There are, indeed, some tough questions. But we have a clear answer to the question of where the students are. They are with Billy Parish— and us.

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