There’s something amazing happening on campuses in Michigan… and I am not a part of it. It’s called Power Shift, a student initiative promoting energy efficient policies. The more students that get involved, the more impact the organization’s actions will have. But just as difficult as changing environmental policy is, there’s another difficulty that student groups like Power Shift have to overcome, and that’s getting students to show up in the first place — busy, neurotic students. I chose not to show up for a Power Shift event on Wednesday night and I’m regretting it already.
I had good reasons for saying no — it’s practically finals time, for God’s sake. I had an exam to study for, a paper to write and honestly didn’t feel like being in a car for two hours. But when I turned down a ride to Wednesday’s public hearing to expand a Bay City coal plant, I didn’t say any of those things. I just said, “I can’t.”
It’s not that I misunderstood the importance of the event, either. Burning coal accounts for almost 30 percent of the United States’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fly ash from coal plants contains toxic substances such as arsenic, barium, boron, lead and other heavy metals. Although the latest buzzwords in the industry are “clean coal,” coal remains one of the most carbon-intensive energy sources available. It’s poor planning for the future as carbon emissions will be regulated by the time capital mobilizes such factories to be built. It’s a waste of money and a myth. Science-based policy like electricity generated by wind and solar power can create safe places for our families and futures.
The group behind Power Shift, the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition, attracted my attention some time ago. It was founded in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the students of four Michigan colleges. This is the same group that brought 430 Michigan college students to Capitol Hill last winter to lobby our representatives. They are a group on campus that thinks big and chooses events where our policymakers are already listening.
I was already on board with this cause. The fliers I’d been seeing about the rally — “Say NO to coal in Michigan!” had caught my eye for weeks, but I never stopped to consider them.
I was just, you know, busy.
I found out through friends that this rally would take place at a public hearing about whether to let the biggest coal plant in the state quadruple its emissions. I was impressed that the rally would have an audience with policymakers, but stayed home anyway.
I ended up missing out on seeing more than a hundred college students from each major Michigan campus show up in Bay City that night. About 75 were able to address comments at the public hearing. Their message? The 800-megawatt allowance (as big as coal plants come) would be throwing money into an antiquated, destructive technology. Consumer Energy’s changes to its plant would allow it to emit approximately 19 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other pollutants every year for the fifty years it would remain standing. These brave students joined the ranks of union ironworkers, electricians, boilermakers, steamfitters and bricklayers in raising the call to bring renewable energy jobs to Michigan.
Missing out on this event made me think about the ways it mobilized me personally as a concerned citizen of Michigan, an environmentalist and a potential job applicant for the positions we’d create with green job policy. All of a sudden, I realized that a degree wasn’t the only thing I wanted in the long term. I realized that I wanted to make a difference now for the sake of creating a greener future.
By deciding to believe in these student movements, these students make them something worth believing in. Sitting it out, I realized that the results of these decisions impact me as much as everyone in the state. Being an involved activist requires better planning, but believing that such efforts are worthwhile is the first step. Actions on a university, local, and state level are the best place to begin because we have direct access to our policymakers. Armed with the belief that change is possible, I’m going to make more time to be a part of it.
Meg Young can be reached at email@example.com.