Seven-day activists

By Claire McNear

Last week marked my 978th consecutive week on Earth. Much like the previous 977 weeks, it was characterized by the beleaguered existence of the Amazon Rainforest, ice in Antarctica, and 1,196 species of geckos; unlike the other 977 weeks, last week this mattered, but, in true U of C activism style, only in big, not-so-active ways: It was Earth Week.

I suppose that it was a good week for the Earth. The sun shined, it rained some, a couple of tectonic plates had their way with Reno, and a few sharks reminded us of where we humans stand in the grand scheme of things (eaten). So although the actual holiday is Earth Day, this lone day offered just one-seventh of the environmental revelry provided for the duration of an entire “Earth Week,” and, considering the ever-worsening state of global affairs, it was as good a week as any for the Sustainability Council to offer a slew of Earth-related activities to the University community.

The trouble here is that, judging by the University’s prompt and unaltered return to business as usual, Earth Week did not have the lasting effect that its organizers presumably hoped that it would. Looking over the schedule of events, which ranged from a Hyde Park tree tour to seminars on sustainability and recycling, the intentions were obviously good; to further this, the events were all very well publicized via listhosts, signs, and flyers. Why, then, hasn’t the student body responded with an influx of solar panels and locally grown produce?

The problem is that the Sustainability Council and its cohorts seem to have misunderstood one of the most powerful forces currently active on campus: apathy. The average U of C student is unlikely to read about—much less attend—the workshops outlined on the placards placed on tables throughout Bartlett and Pierce, however brilliant or well intentioned those workshops may be. Instead, most students encountered, perhaps, one or two stray aspects of environmentalism during the week that, in their isolation and pettiness, did little more than embitter previously indifferent students.

Take, for example, the trays. The environmentally minded planners kicked off last week’s hoopla by covering the stacks of trays in the dining halls with garbage bags and signs advising diners to ditch their trays and carry their food solo, ostensibly to save resources.

Overall, this tactic became little more than a nuisance for most students. Many spent the week hugging water bottles and apples to their chests as they balanced sandwiches and bowls of soup on free arms; others resorted to digging trays out from under the trash bags with a grimace at the Earth Week signs that beseeched them, in vague terms, to “remember the Earth.” Perceptive students openly griped about this move, pointing to the abundant laminated notes that had been created and hung excessively from every possibly appropriate surface and wondering what, exactly, they were conserving—the glossy notes offered no clue.

This confusion, the general inconvenience, and the lack of apparent reasoning clashed with the typically lackadaisical attitude of students to create the opposite of what Earth Week aims to accomplish: It made students feel both alienated from and antagonized by progressive environmentalism. The trays are just one example, but the point applies to the other stray eco-events that filtered into daily life: The average U of C student is not looking to save the world, however much RSOs may equip him to begin doing so; for the most part, he hopes only to get through the next Sosc paper. This is not to say that students here are selfish, just that we’re preoccupied.

If the Sustainability Council is looking to make a difference, it needs to make more of an effort to avoid simply preaching to the choir and step into the lives of the wider community in a way that is at once easily comprehensible and less of a hassle. During Earth Week, the Sustainability Council brought the horse to water with the best of intentions, but, despite all this, the horse was decidedly not thirsty. What the Council and other activism-oriented organizations need to do is find a way to make the student body thirsty in lieu of just bringing it expectantly to the trough. And forcing students to juggle their food alongside their classes and personal lives is not the best technique.

Claire McNear is a first-year in the College majoring in international studies. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.