Over 12,000 students gathered from across the nation in Washington D.C. from Feb. 27 to March 2 to advocate an increased awareness of environmental issues and clean energy possibilities. Four UTSA students and members of the Green Society (GS) attended the event billed Powershift ’09.
The conference was the largest convergence of environmental activists in United States history, drawing university students from every state in the country, and approximately 20 foreign countries.
Powershift ’09 has its roots in Powershift 2007, which drew a crowd of over 7,000 people. Among the Texas educational institutions participating this year were UTSA, Texas A&M, University of Texas and various community colleges and private institutions, such as Austin Community College and St. Edward’s University.
This year’s conference aimed to convince elected officials, namely the Obama administration, to pass legislation that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create 15 million “green jobs” and renew engagement with the global community to solve various climate change, energy and economic crisises.
The movement also aimed to increase an attitude of accountability for environmental problems among government officials.
Green Society President Lacy Guaderrama said that the organization learned about the opportunity to attend the event from former GS president Lillian Cameron.
“Everybody thought this was a great opportunity to learn more on how to make the campus a little bit better,” Guaderrama said.
The GS members themselves financed the trip to the convention, but they hope to be reimbursed by a Student Government Association program that refunds expenses to causes they deem will enhance the campus. By attending Powershift ’09, GS members hoped to bring back new and creative strategies for spurring interest in promoting environmental concern, as well as making UTSA a more environmentally friendly campus.
During the first three days of the conference, various panel discussions and speeches were held to discuss a wide range of topics. Film screenings were also held.
Senior biology major Eric Botts participated in a panel discussion on the effects of uranium mining to fuel nuclear energy.
“(Uranium mining) doesn’t give off greenhouse gas emissions, but the process of mining for uranium releases radioactive material over a very large area. Many areas of the southwest, particularly New Mexico, are badly radiated.
“They still don’t have a place they consider safe enough to dispose of radioactive waste, so right now a lot of it is just sitting in pools of water at the energy plants or nearby facilities. They’re actually running out of space to store this stuff,” Botts said.
Not all of the panel discussions dealt with issues such as this; some were designed to teach strategies for community organizing and promoting “green” operations on campus.
“It wasn’t just work and learning; it was also really fun,” Guaderrama said.
The GS members and other participants in the event also had the chance to hear from environmental activists such as Ralph Nader, who made a last-minute appearance, and Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy.
Exposure to new people with similar concerns about the environment, and new information about issues already familiar to the attendees was a main theme of the conference. Botts described how he learned of the human element of various environmental concerns.
“In New Mexico most of the uranium mining sites are on or near Native American reservations. On top of just areas being made uninhabitable, there’s a huge increase in cancer in a lot of these areas,” Botts said.
On the last day of the event, participants met with elected officials on Capitol Hill to push for the legislation they desire. Guaderrama admitted that some of the legislative proposals activists have suggested are unrealistic, or at least unattainable in the short term. However, the general purpose of the legislative movements remained to make conditions better than they currently are.
A rally on the Capitol’s West Lawn that day, produced the only recognizable unpleasant experiences for the GS members. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to speak during the rally, but failed to show up.
“I was there, but she wasn’t,” Botts said.
However, the group was able to meet with Congressman Charlie Gonzalez’ staff to discuss his commitment to the environment and San Antonio’s environmental policies.
Botts believes that at the very least, the issues Powershift ’09 address are now seeing a prominent place in public thought.
“There’s more momentum now than there’s ever been, I just don’t know if the kind of changes we need to make can be made fast enough,” Botts said.
The GS will host a number of events throughout the remainder of the academic year to promote environmental awareness.
The “ReEnergize Texas” environmental summit takes place in Austin March 28- March 29, and the GS is planning a San Antonio forum on climate change, “Focus the Nation” April 18. Students may register for ReEnergize at the GS booth near the Sombrilla March 24 – March 25.