In this cross-post from Dwight Hall at Yale’s blog, Sam Bendinelli reflects on his year as President of YSEC.
Last month, I entered the Dwight Hall Library for the first Yale Student Environmental Coalition meeting of the spring semester. After grabbing a slice of lemon cake—the person in charge of food had decided to forgo the traditional offering of donuts, perhaps out of respect for many of our recently-minted New Years’ resolutions—I chose an inconspicuous seat away from the draft-prone windows and listened to people introduce themselves.
It was the first YSEC meeting in nearly a year that I had not begun; as the group’s former president, I had been used to arriving early, plucking a spot front and center on the deep-set sofa, and rehearsing that night’s agenda in my head as people trickled in. Recalling the well-worn Wednesday evening ritual, it felt nice not to have the floor.
YSEC, Yale’s largest undergraduate environmental group, was founded in 1988 with the mission to support sustainability at Yale. It was a pretty novel idea: Recycling had yet to come to campus, and composting was something practiced in the backyards of hippies, not in Ivy League dining halls. Most people wouldn’t even find out about the environmental issue du jour—global warming—for another year. (1989 saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s End of Nature, the first general audience book on the subject.)
Since its inception, YSEC has seen its influence wax and wane, depending on the year you choose to look at. By 2011, when I took over as president, I was happy to find a solid core of enthusiastic members. This was a welcome sight, because though Yale is now more sustainable than it ever has been, the challenges confronting the environment are no doubt greater today than in any generation that’s come before. It can be easy to lose your spirit when fighting deforestation, dirty power plants, undue corporate influence, commercial carbon emissions, unsustainable lifestyles, and a list of other issues so long I would have to resort to using my toes to count them.
But through YSEC project groups, which generally tackle specific, local issues, the coalition has been able to boast an outsize impact over the past two and a half decades. Indeed, many of Yale’s most prominent environmental policies, including the Office of Sustainability, have grown out of YSEC initiatives.
Occasionally, YSEC has been able to be a part of something even larger. Since I’ve been involved, at least one project group each semester has been dedicated to a regional or national issue. This past term, our politically-oriented project group decided to team up with the entire coalition to fight the construction of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would ship tar sands from Alberta, Canada, down to Texas for refinement. James Hansen, one of the planet’s most esteemed climatologists, declared early last year that building a pipeline the scale of Keystone XL would be “essentially game over” for the climate.
As the 2011 YSEC Board began its term, many of our initiatives focused on developing and strengthening partnerships with other environmental groups. Through increased collaboration with student clubs, the Yale administration, local New Haven leaders, and other Connecticut colleges, we figured we could better forward our goals of sustainable policy and environmental justice. Some of YSEC’s organizing efforts were pointed inward, too: As the first board not to comprise three co-chairs, we and the previous board reasoned that YSEC could be more efficiently led through a traditional board with clearly-defined positions. (Quite by happenstance, then, I found myself as YSEC’s first president.)
Our five-person board hit the ground running, and in September, we participated in Moving Connecticut, a major climate rally on the New Haven Green, connecting with other schools in the process. At the rally and at a social gathering afterwards, we fortified our ties with Wesleyan’s dynamic environmental group and started coordinating a joint trip to Washington, D.C., for a day of national protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline.
It is by now worth admitting the well-known fact that environmental victories don’t come easily, and as a movement, there haven’t been many moments to celebrate in the past several years. Fuel efficiency standards stagnate before tiptoeing up to the meet an attenuated mpg increase; despite decades of publicity, the same number of U.S. citizens who believe in anthropogenic climate change don’t; and a long-sought-after carbon trading market seems to have the same chance of being instituted in America as does a return to the gold standard.
And yet there we were—25 Yalies and 25 Wesleyan students—on a bus headed to the capital at the cruel hour of 5:30 am. It was a sunny but crisp November morning, and 5,000 people were supposedly rendezvousing in Washington, D.C., to voice their collective disapproval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. But if we were bleary-eyed boarding the bus, we weren’t as we got off: A sea of people, armed in vests and signs and conviction, surrounded a stage so far off I could only hear the voice of McKibben as he implored Obama to shelve the Keystone XL Pipeline. (Because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, it can only be built with the president’s approval.) As McKibben listed off the reasons why the pipeline was a folly—it poses a tremendous spill risk, its product results in disproportionate emissions of greenhouse gases, its building requires swaths of deforestation, its job-creating claims are wildly exaggerated, the State Department’s official review has been tarnished with signs of corruption—the crowd, borrowing a tool from the Occupy movement, repeated each phrase in turn through the “people’s microphone.”
It was an organic response befitting the people who would soon form a human chain around the White House. Our goal was to interlock arms entirely around the president’s enclave, but there wasn’t enough space for everyone, so we encircled the White House a second time. And then a third. Cars honked as they drove by, and a parade, featuring a giant mock pipeline, wormed by the thousands of links in the human chain. For a moment, all we could do was soak up the energy of the movement.
Four days later, after word had gotten out that the rally wasn’t composed of 5,000 but 12,000 boisterous participants, the president decided to postpone a decision on the pipeline until after the upcoming election. And so YSEC turned an eye to more domestic matters. We started compiling an alumni network, finished work on the YSEC office, and made a few choice additions to the burgeoning YSEC library. Then, in December, our term nearing an end, we fielded applications for the 2012 board.
The funny thing about environmental issues is that even when they’ve ostensibly been “taken care of,” they always manage to reappear. It’s as if they’re back from the dead, which is why YSEC has taken to categorizing a number of them as “zombie problems.” Naturally, the Keystone XL Pipeline resurfaced in an unctuous congressional showdown, with Republicans forcing Obama’s hand through a provision attached to the payroll tax cut extension that demanded a decision on Keystone by the end of February. Being seasoned environmentalists, we’ve learned to take setbacks in stride, though none seems to hurt any less than the last. But being seasoned environmentalists, we’ve also grown accustomed to looking on the bright side. The beauty with zombie problems then, is that because your work is never quite over, you end up making friends that last as long as the issues do themselves, and sometimes even longer.
For this very reason, I found myself at the second YSEC meeting of the semester, once again taking an inconspicuous chair away from the windows against the wall. They might as well label it ex-president, because it’s where I’ll be the rest of the semester, as well as next semester, as well as the one after that. The discussion that night was to be on the pros and cons of eco-tourism, though we didn’t spend too much time on the subject. That’s because earlier that afternoon, President Obama announced that he would reject the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline—two months simply wasn’t enough time to complete the thorough review that a project of its scale required. Against all odds, the environmentalists had scored a W. The victory hadn’t come easy, but in the end I suppose that only made it sweeter.