By Marissa Peck
On Tuesday, February 19th 2014 over thirty students squeezed into a classroom in the basement of Lippman hall for a Pizza and Politics panel on Environmental Activism. Members from Pi Sigma Alpha- Union’s political science group-the Environmental Club, and Ozone House were in attendance. The panel consisted of Political Science Professor Tony Dell’Aera, Electraical Engineering Professor Robert Smith, and David Higby, the Director of Federal Government Relations of the Nature Conservancy. After a brief introduction by the panelists, Zach Jonas ’14 only had to ask one question, and the students and panelists took it from there for the almost hour long meeting: What is the role of activism, specifically environmental activism, in policy change?
|Zach Jonas '14 introducing the panel. Professor Dell'Aera|
is on the far left, David Hibgy is in the middle,
and Professor Smith is on the right.
Professor Dell’Aera began by explaining that our political system was slow moving and that it is difficult to change the status quo. Policy change must be compatible with the political system, and activism is key in providing a vision of the future that favors policy makers as well as the activists’ mission.
David Higby spoke from his experience as a lobbyist, who does not use money or bribery, but who does represent the values and beliefs of the Nature Conservancy. He used previous examples of policy changes that environmentalists hold dear to their hearts: the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. These two pieces of legislation were major steps forward in environmental policy, and they were made possible by activists. Policy makers responded to public demands for cleaner water and air. These two laws were passed when many people doubted they ever would be, just as many doubted that women would realize suffrage or desegregation would be achieved in the U.S.
|Professor Del'lAera explaining the current political situation|
on Capitol Hill.
Today, partisanship has changed and environmentalism is seen as a ‘special interest’ instead of a general interest topic that crosses party lines. According to Higby, this extreme polarization that we are seeing today on Capitol Hill has to do with widespread gerrymandering, or the (successful) attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party by manipulating district boundaries to create advantageous districts for a certain party. This gerrymandering has created a gridlock, and the push for environmental policy is becoming harder and harder. It is here where local activism can play an instrumental role because districts are drawn by local and state representatives. Higby sees that activism at the local level can be the most effective in changing policy at the national level.
|Higby listing off environmental policy achievements, |
such as the Clean Water Act.
Professor Smith provided an interesting perspective as he mostly works in the research of alternative energies. He has taught the ESPE capstone senior seminar for the past two years. He stated that our society is resistance to change and to learning, and he importantly pointed out the media’s role in affecting the general public. Interestingly, he saw the media’s influence to have positive potential in gathering a critical mass on one side of an issue, specifically on the issue of climate change.
Climate change is a pressing concern, and Higby matter-of-factley stated that “we do not have a generation to wait for congress to change.” Action must be taken sooner. Professor Smith proposed that perhaps the immediateness of climate change might be the exact thing that gathers a critical mass and pushes for the congressional change that we, as a nation, desperately need to benefit not only the environmental movement but also other social movements and issues we face as a society.
|Austin Anderson '15|
Austin Anderson ’15 then asked the question that reflected the motivation of the majority of the students in the room for attending the panel. What can we do, as students and young people, to achieve true strides for America’s environmental policy? Austin described the sometimes frustrating reality that environmental degradation and movements for protection are really out of our control. In response, Higby immediately threw the question back to Austin: “What do you think you can do?” Higby later explained that he did this to show us that we already know what to do and we possess most of the tools to achieve change, we just have to do it.
|Professor Smith answering Austin's question.|
“We expect instant gratification,” stated Professor Dell’Aera. He explained that in our modern world information and communication are instantaneous and we have grown accustomed to this fast-paced return. So, when we do not succeed at something in the same fast paced manner, we consider our work to be a failure. But, with the environmental movement, change is slow and we must be patient. Professor Dell’Aera stressed that we, as activists, must train ourselves to accept small changes and we must pride ourselves in our small feats because it is through dedicated and long-term small achievements that we will realize great change. “Substantial change does not take place without all of the small scale, cumulative success,” said Professor Dell’Aera. We plant the seeds and must be patient while they grow.
|Students listening to the panel.|
What was the take home message of this Pizza and Politics? The political situation today unfortunately is not in favor of change. All panelists believed that the Keystone XL pipeline would end up being approved by the government because, as Higby remarked, “the politics of today are going to win out over the public (and environmental) interest of tomorrow.” However, the panelists were hopeful and looking to us, the students, to continue to be encouraged by the activist environment, which fosters new activists and keeps pushing for change. Not participating because it is difficult to achieve large-scale and quick change is the wrong mentality. We must keep chipping away and always stay true to the facts that we know to be true. Eventually these facts will support the movement and pressure big change (aka: save the planet!)