Environmental activism can be a lonely and seemingly futile endeavor, especially as an undergraduate student at a major university.
Advocates for any movement are always the minority trying to sway the majority; the few fighting to change the habits of the many. And change can be a scary thing, so it’s no wonder that it takes so much energy and time to implement global, national, or even local policies that go against the norm.
Student advocates feel the weight of these challenges greatly, as they are often on the frontlines of progressive movements and change advocacy.
Whitman Constantineau, a sophomore studying environmental conservation and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire, explains how discouraging it can be to rally other students to the environmental movement:
“I am committing my entire life to sustainability, and when people shrug off efforts it can be a real downer.” He goes on to say, “One of the things that I have learned is that sustainability can get really depressing, because there are so many issues and it’s hard not to look at the problem and say “We’re screwed, how did we do this?”
How do student leaders within the environmental justice movement cope with this exhaustion and discouragement? Students from across the Northeast gave me their feedback and shared their projects, ideas, and mindsets in short informal interviews. The resulting themes revolved around collaboration, achieving balance, and finding hope.
Ari Moscone from the University of Massachusetts is pursuing a graduate degree in Sustainability Science with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, Communication, and Advocacy. Her latest project, that has evolved into her master’s thesis, is a zero-waste program called ‘New2U.’
Ari described the project as being dropped into her lap, as the preliminary stages had been in motion for a while. Ari stepped in as a junior undergraduate student and learned how to do everything from organizing, communication, and logistics planning, quite an undertaking as an undergrad. But as Ari continued to explain what the program entailed, her enthusiasm and devotion to the project shined through.
New2U is a zero-waste initiative where students at UMass can bring the items that they would normally throw away during move out to a collection site instead of throwing them in the trash. Over the school break, volunteers of New2U restore these items, and then at the beginning of the following semester these re-purposed items are sold back to students at bargain prices.
This created what Ari called a “revolving fund” for sustainability projects on campus, in addition to a significant reduction in the amount of waste created at UMass and increased awareness throughout the student population about re-use culture and waste reduction.
This conversation sparked an idea which has now spiraled into a full on pilot program here at the University of Buffalo. By partnering with the national organization PLAN, Post-Landfill Action Network, student leaders at UB have begun to create our very own zero-waste initiative called UBReUse, providing a perfect example of how important it is to share ideas and collaborate with the leaders around you.
Brian Stuhlmiller, a Buffalo local, assistant director of Environmental Affairs for the Student Association of UB, and program leader for UBReUse, has the goal of using his position to bring student groups together:
“I try to connect with the environmental clubs on campus and make sure I am a resource for them. Ego needs to be left at the door, as I am not one voice, but many voices with a direction and a focus. I try to facilitate that direction and connect people to each other. The reason I created the Students for Sustainability Council was because each club is doing great things, but without collaboration they weren’t really taking off. With a little communication and teamwork they can make bigger things happen and create even more progress.”
Finding a balance in educating a population about the environment without coming off as a pushy, tree-hugging, hippie can be a seemingly impossible task.
Lily Mason, a sophomore Environmental policy major at Champlain University in Vermont, describes what she finds is the most important aspect of educating people about the environment:
“It’s about connecting the dots, everything is closely related in inter systems, you have to make students understand their own impact, let people know there are other options. Empowerment is key. People have to know that they have to be the change they want to see.”
Education and engagement play a vital role in creating a sustainable mindset throughout college campuses and society as a whole. Holding educational workshops and tables for students was a common practice among the student leaders that were interviewed. It seemed each group of students had a selection of projects that they focused solely on to raise awareness within their university; topics ranging from waste management, conflict minerals, recycling, food waste, and student/community engagement efforts.
“The way I look at it, there’s this old Native American way of thinking – whatever you do now, you have to consider the consequences of seven generations down the line,” Whitman said, Whenever I finish a can of coke, even if the trash is closer, I take the extra steps to find a recycle bin. I’m not here to save the world, I’m just trying to change the behavior of people on campus; get them to appreciate the beautiful landscapes, the environment.”
Max Bass, president of the University at Buffalo’s professional environmental fraternity, mentioned a very similar concept to Whitman’s Native American way of thinking:
“I don’t think I can change the world, but maybe I can be a part of chain reaction. I believe it’s like a creature, that over time, and as a generation, needs to evolve. I mean, we’ve made a ton of progress thus far.”
Over time and with tireless efforts to engage the people, the mindset of a community can change.
Environmental advocates have to be full of energy and motivation on a regular basis in order to empower individuals to lead sustainable lives. And as many of these leaders confessed, it is far from an easy task to accomplish, as we are fighting a majority and a way of life.
Whitman left me with an inspiring message of how essential it is for all the student leaders to find time to reignite that hope and motivation to save the world.
“Take some time to recharge your passion. For me, taking some time to escape into nature, taking a walk in the woods regenerates that passion for me. To all the leaders out there: You are fighting the good fight. Take some time for yourself to appreciate what you’re doing.”
I often wonder why it is I do the work I do. Why put in so much energy when I often don’t see any return? Is this really worth my time, my energy, my life? On a bad day, I would answer “No, fuck it. I’m watching Netflix.”
But on those good days (and thankfully they outnumber the bad) I understand why this fight is so critical. We are the future. There simply will not be any change if we don’t take matters into our own hands. This isn’t a scenario where we can wait for someone else to pick up the slack or save the world. We have to do this. Not that kid studying environmental engineering or that dirty hippie who refuses to let those trees get cut down, it has to be you, me, us.
This is a collaborative effort and we have to take a collective responsibility to save our planet, and all of the miraculous creatures that inhabit it. So as Whitman points out, go rejuvenate yourself in the great outdoors.
Take some time to remind yourself how meaningful and necessary this war is – and do not ever, for one second, think you are fighting alone.