I spent the last couple weeks learning about the various environmental clubs, groups and organizations on Vassar’s campus. As someone who was never particularly taken with those kinds of activities or that kind of lifestyle, I learned a lot about what goals for sustainability students have, and I met some friendly and interesting people in doing so.
But as I reflect on what I observed, I notice something that seems profoundly wrong with some environmentalists on campus: Many of them simply aren’t as passionate as they say they are. I got the chance to sit down with individuals who told me that their mission in life is to protect the planet from climate change, and that their enthusiasm for confronting such issues spills out into all aspects of their life. I don’t doubt their integrity, and I’m sure many of these people truly feel that way. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, I’m failing to see the actions that give legitimacy to these personal declarations.
Divest VC, for example, has been fighting for some time to rid Vassar’s endowment of oil-tainted money, and for that cause I have a great deal of respect. On September 24, members of Divest VC hosted their Human Oil Spill demonstration on the steps of the All College Dining Center, sprawling themselves out and chanting their goals. While there, I picked up their literature and talked to some of the organizers. I was pleased to find that we agreed on much. But before the hour was out, the Spill had cleaned itself up, and the event just fizzled out. I was confused and disappointed by how short the rally was, given how keen the demonstrators seemed to be. I expected at least a couple hours from a group like that. Even more astonishing was how greatly the awareness rally had failed to live up to its intentions. More than half the people to whom I’ve mentioned the Oil Spill have had no clue what I was talking about. Therein lies the problem with some of our environmentalist groups: Your ideas are well-thought-out and respectable, but your actions are subpar, and far from inspiring to an outsider. How pointless is a rally promoting awareness if a significant number of students not only didn’t see it, but were unaware that it even happened?
It was nice that members of the Vassar community attended the People’s Climate March in New York City. Students’ that went imbibed useful insight from the world outside the Vassar bubble. Yet if attending this protest alone is worthy of a bi-organizational meeting, isn’t that a rather sad indication of what Vassar actually contributes to the beliefs so many of us claim to uphold? Shouldn’t there be something more substantial that warrants its own meeting, or at least something of more tangible success than simply attending a march of 400,000 others?
While learning about green activities on campus, I’ve found that I’m not alone in my thoughts on the inconsistency of the strength of organizations’ opinions and their comparatively anemic actions. At the Campus Chat on Climate Change on September 25, a friend of mine and I were stunned to see pepperoni pizza being served on paper plates, with drinks served in plastic cups, no less, while calls for more meatless days at the ACDC and fewer disposable utensils around campus were applauded. The cognitive dissonance there boggles the mind.
Allow me to clarify that I don’t, despite my previously stated tepidity for environmentalism, disagree with many of the opinions of the people with whom I take issue here. I, too think that divestment would be a great accomplishment and is something worth fighting for. I too think that students should be more aware of what they eat and what they can do to promote a more sustainable community. I’ll concede that my opinions on topics like these are, in all probability, far less thought out compared to those of the people that here I criticize. I am by no means any source of knowledge on these topics, nor would I claim to be. But what I am, however, is exactly the kind of person to whom the leaders of Vassar’s green-minded population must direct their attention, for it isn’t a fundamental difference of ideas that should be what separates them from people like myself, but a difference in how those ideas manifest themselves. If they want to inspire change in the world, they must be as true in their actions as they are in their words.
I know that many will say that I’m not involved enough in the environmental community to make a fair judgment, that I’m only a freshman and my range of experience with environmental activism at Vassar is too narrow. I haven’t been on campus for long, and I’m not driven with the passion that guides others to join the cause. But those that are driven in the ways that I’m not will always find a way to do their part. They don’t need to be pandered to. But if the goal of events like the Oil Spill are meant to raise awareness, why then are they failing to appeal to the majority of freshmen, who, like myself, don’t disagree with their ideas, but will only get involved if they see some conviction that stands on its own, without purple prose or brooding sessions labeled “meetings?” It’s easy to wax poetic about your commitment to the environment, but proving it isn’t. If a lowly freshman can offer his advice to the environmental activists on campus, he’d say that the best way to his heart is through the tangible effects of your arguments, not just the power of your rhetoric.
—Rhys Johnson ’18 is undeclared.