As humans, we sometimes find ourselves in positions that change the way we view the world, or how we fit into it. This week, as we focus on recruiting students for the Greenpeace Semester, I want to share some examples of how my own time in Washington, DC three years ago led me to many of the most profound and exciting experiences I have lived through.
Let me start backwards: I do research for Greenpeace’s PolluterWatch project exposing the lies of the bad guys. Think Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Duke Energy, and other coal, oil, chemical and industrial interests. In order to protect their relentless pursuit of wealth, power and prestige, the people who lead these companies bankroll a network of propagandists to hijack our perceptions and our politics. I was introduced to this network as the climate denial machine, although their corporate agenda includes everything from cracking workers unions to suppressing voters to privatizing education.
The Greenpeace Semester led me into a climate denier conference in New York City organized by the Heartland Institute. I looked into the eyes of men who hate what I do. I shook their hands. I listened to them gripe about Greenpeace’s work to hold them accountable. I made small talk…and mischief. We documented what people on the streets of New York had to say about the cabal of climate science deniers who were meeting in the Times Square Marriott to develop their plans, practice their PR and celebrate their obstruction of climate change solutions.
Exposing climate denial was one experience as a Greenpeace student activist that led to my current work, but there were many others. Shortly before confronting climate deniers in New York, we helped turn DC-area students out to Power Shift 2009, a youth climate conference attended by 12,000 people. I got to chat with NASA’s James Hansen about coal power after a mass protest at the Capitol Coal Plant here in DC. We urged officials at the Japanese embassy to hold a just trial for Greenpeace Japan activists who exposed illegal trading of whale meat.
We traveled to my home state of Vermont to bolster public support for clean energy as an alternative to Vermont Yankee, an old nuclear plant that is infamous for endangering region. I learned the details of deforestation, overfishing, and toxic chemical production from experts on staff, and the solutions they work tirelessly to promote.
We need more people like that. If you’ve read this far, you probably realize that already, so let me get real with you.
The world is in bad shape. This isn’t news. Some of civilization’s largest compounding crises are starting to spiral out of control–global climate change, endless wars, economic inequity and population growth all come to mind. Overwhelmed by these problems, those of us with the privilege of relative comfort often tune out until we’re directly threatened. Yet the more we idle, the worse things get. A report commissioned by twenty governments found that climate change already contributes to nearly 400,000 deaths each year, mostly from developing countries that bare little responsibility in creating the crisis. The current annual economic cost of climate change hovers around $1.2 trillion ($1,200,000,000,000).
Let me admit something–I cannot even conceptualize a consequence so vast, and I can’t stay on top of all the news, all the issues. How can the mind withstand it all? One Bill McKibben article a month is enough to make me want to retreat into the woods and let the mistakes of humanity take their course…
…yet that is not what I have chosen to do. Surrender seems selfish. Lazy. Immoral. Those are the deplorable qualities of our opponents, the forces that distort the priorities of humanity to continually serve a very select elite. I’m thinking of groups like the Heartland Institute, whose conference I described above. People are literally dying from climate-related disasters as these industry apologists tell us the problem doesn’t exist. Why would they make a career of such horrible work? How many of them know better? Are they just greedy, or does ideology blind them of their privileges, their impact on living people? Perversely, those most impacted tend to have less money, less education, and less opportunity.
People like myself, with a stable upbringing, a good education and supportive friends and family, are lucky. With that unearned luck comes responsibility.
This is why I’m willing to get arrested on a 400 foot coal smokestack to highlight the crisis of global warming, why I’m willing to infiltrate commercial shoots promoting oil industry propaganda, why I helped pressure companies to stop supporting the salaries of apologists at the Heartland Institute who lie about the consequences of climate change, tobacco smoke, pesticides, or anything else they’re paid to.
The Greenpeace Semester gave me the organizing and campaigning experience necessary to confront those who do wrong to our planet and the people who inhabit it. It led me to motivating victories as well as the tough lessons that informed smarter work afterward. I met people who understand the need do so and have made a career of it.
I met some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
If you are a student who shares the vision of a world where our energy sources don’t taint our air, water and health, where our “natural resources” are valued for more than their exploitation, where conservation is common sense and where peace is a goal rather than a dream, check out what the Greenpeace Semester has to offer and apply. Read what Cassady Sharp and Carson Chavana have to say about their experiences as Greenpeace students. You will learn to work with others and organize with people who also share that vision, who will be the next leaders of this movement, and who will push for the changes we need. You will meet smart people who have years or decades of experience as environmental advocates and activists who are excited to teach you, train you, and in turn, learn from you.
Check out some of these pictures for a few moments of my Greenpeace Semester experience, and the internship I did to help coordinate the following Semester.