April 21, 2011

Rechanneling Energy

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Last weekend, dozens of Cornellians and Ithaca College students joined 10,000 other young Americans in D.C. for Power Shift 2011 — a conference geared towards environmental activism. Forty-one years after the first Earth Day, the conference’s turnout and growing youth support for the environmental movement helped restore some faith in our generation’s ability to care about more than our Facebook news feeds.

In what began as the practice of First Amendment rights to assembly, petition and speech on the third day of the conference, two Cornell students, an Ithaca College sophomore and a group of additional demonstrators faced threats of felony charges after they marched into the Department of the Interior. While Power Shift received the most attention for its most radical outcomes, activism does not need to be — and often is not — radical. The conference’s significance lies in the fact that it drew more than 10,000 young people in support of a single cause.

Such a unified effort goes against notions that our generation is, at large, apathetic and ultimately self-absorbed. Here on the Hill, people often speak of the “Cornell Bubble” and its tendency to insulate students from the problems and realities of the world at large. But in reality, most of us are constantly connected. All the resources of the technological sphere are available in the palms of our hands. Social media like Twitter and Facebook provide information in real time — from the news stories on The New York Times’ front page to what the scene at Rulloff’s is like at 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday.

While some members of our generation undoubtedly fall victim to this stereotype at one point or another, technology is not merely a means of projecting our lives online. Instead, we are presented with an opportunity to effectively communicate — and act — on a larger scale.

Recently, social media have been touted (and refuted) as drivers of revolutionary change — in Moldova, in Iraq, in Tunisia — through which protesters and youth in revolt had a means of communication, and Western observers could take a front seat to history. While the state of activism in America hardly constitutes a revolution, and perhaps barely a ripple in the pond, young people are using their connectivity as a tool to mobilize, spread information and perpetuate social movements. It involves more than just passive clicking.

Power Shift was the product of increased connectivity. It was organized, promoted and reported online. The Power Shift website made organizational details universally accessible; Facebook groups coordinated trips at major universities, including Cornell; Twitter updates chronicled the conference’s events. Such unified action through technology is a notable deviation from our generation’s stereotype of apathy. Though the Internet can be used to create “cyber communities” centered around tagged pictures and witty posts, its tools can also catalyze movements of social change — connectivity leading to productivity.

Climate change provides an opportunity for our generation to participate in its own movement. Its inclusiveness creates a universal interest — regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status or sexual identity — as citizens of the world. In 41 years, the environmental movement has come a long way, but the legwork moving forward is up to C. Wright Mills’ “young intelligentsia,” — as relevant a concept today as it was in 1960.

Significant work remains — from engaging the majority, some of whom may harbor aversions to the 1970s brand of radical environmentalism, to implementing effective policies in the face of political disagreement — and the challenges are endless. But it is important to start developing real solutions today before we are left reacting to real consequences down the line.Today’s youth, instead of becoming overwhelmed by these challenges, can be inspired by opportunity. We are on the crest of a significant wave of social and political change. #Happyearthday.

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