At one point, more than 100 Michigan students attending the weekend-long Michigan Students Sustainability Coalition conference were divided among four rooms.
During the Anti-Fracking Session in the Gold Room, a group of about 20 students learned strategies to oppose the extraction process, even to the point of discussing how to be independent from oil consumption.
“You always hear it about environmentalism: ‘What a sacrifice,’” the moderator said. “I’ve never thought of environmentalism as a sacrifice. What we’re working toward is a better world.”
Next door, in the Isabella Room, was a session focused on tar sands.
The moderator was showing a PowerPoint slide of environmentalist activists perched in trees, disrupting the path of a planned pipeline construction.
“What else can we do to oppose this?” she asked.
In the Maroon Room, a group of about 25 was discussing how to encourage divestment on campus, a growing national campaign to encourage institutions to divest money from fossil fuel companies.
“It helps, in terms of organization, to pick a single target to oppose,” moderator Kelvin Ho said. “It could be a president who is on the board of a fossil fuel company; it could be a person on the board of trustees.”
It soon became clear that the MSSC conference, a weekend-long environmentalist conference that took place primarily in the Bovee University Center, was not merely an educational program, nor was it simply a time to bond with like-minded people. It was about starting a movement.
“Many of the students here already have a firm understanding of the environmental issues we are presenting,” said Mariah Urueta, Waterford junior and an organizer of the event. “We wanted to give them a chance to learn. To learn how to start doing work, to take action on the issues that are important.”
The event was composed of environmental activists from 10 different Michigan colleges, including Central Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University and Eastern Michigan University.
It involved students like Sean Kennedy, a Western Michigan University senior who traded his car for a bike more than four years ago and has never looked back.
“I’m trying to speak out against it,” Kennedy said. “I can’t support it. I’m going to a meeting to speak out against fossil fuels, and I drive there when it’s two miles down the road. That’s just hypocritical.”
Most of Kennedy’s trips are longer, like the 14-mile trip he took to a grocery store: Seven miles there, seven miles back.
“This issue is not an environmentalist issue,” said Ho, who works for 350.org, an environmentalist movement based in Chicago. “… The Earth is going to be just fine regardless of what we continue to do. It will go on. It is we who are affected.”
American environmentalist and 350.com founder Bill McKibben spoke to the students over Skype for the keynote address.
“Very few people in the world can say ‘I am doing the most important thing I could possibly be doing,’” McKibben told the group. “You guys can say that.”
McKibben called the environmentalist movement the biggest moment in several decades, one that embraces a crucial goal and a generational divide.
“When you’re 20 and you’re looking at those rising graphs, the world looks a lot different to you,” he said.
For the students in attendance, environmentalist action is a necessary movement.
“A lot of people are like, ‘But, you’re just a college girl, why don’t you just study,’” Urueta said. “This is the Earth we’re talking about, though. How can I not get involved? I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re obligated to try.”