The Re-Energizer Revival

Students from across state descend upon UT for global warming conference

Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg
Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Nearly 300 college students from across the state convened last weekend at the University of Texas at Austin for the first Re-Energize Texas Summit – organized to address the problem of global warming and find strategies to combat it that will be led by the first generations likely to be forced to live with its direct consequences. On the lips of nearly every speaker came the pronouncement: Climate change will be the modern equivalent of the civil rights movement, and it will be the responsibility of generations X, Y, and millennium.

"Since the Sixties, I don't think we have seen anything as big as this," said UT-El Paso student Jose Herrera during a summit press conference. Herrera said he traveled more than 600 miles with 12 other students to attend. Spiritual, political, and academic leaders – from the charismatic Austin Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus to the CEO of the world's largest organic yogurt company – were on hand both to congratulate and terrify their audience.

The keynote addresses served as vignettes that could be, and possibly should be, included on any upcoming special-edition DVDs of An Incon­venient Truth. Scientists delivered doomsday research about global warming's effect on animal populations and geographical formations. Christian ministers talked of the majesty of God's kingdom. Indeed, the summit's initial address last Friday night, Feb. 8, felt like nothing so much as the spiritually and hormonally charged opening service of a Christian youth revival. Delegates entered a tiered lecture hall in the teaching center near the Perry-Castañeda Library sporting their causes on their sleeves, bags, and hoodies – instead of a Jesus fish, a National Wildlife Federation logo or a "Proud to Be Vegan" patch. (The conference, hosted by the UT Campus Environ­mental Center, was sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, and several other environmental organizations.)

First came testimony from summit organizer Anna Pierce, wearing the room's virtually obligatory dreadlocks. "We're here to show this country and this world that we as students and young people and Texans, that we do care," Pierce said, her voice close to cracking. Suddenly, a voice from the back of the room: "Yes!" It might as well have been "Amen!" Pierce's fierce, fist-pumping idealism was followed by presentations featuring facts, graphs, and bibliographic citations, but speakers were greeted with the kind of spontaneous applause and hollering usually saved for Sunday morning.

Likable millionaire Gary Hirshberg took delegates on a pleasant jog through the story of his incredibly successful organic food company, Stonyfield Farm, but didn't shy away from the scary facts: Carbon emissions must be reduced by 80% by 2050, or the earth will suffer irreparable damage. Then, on to the organic yogurt that made him rich. By the end of Hirshberg's presentation, the audience was not only ready to save the world but to do so by buying abundant supplies of Stonyfield Farm products.

The summit was then turned over to a major downer, from UT biology professor Camille Parmesan, a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Parmesan clicked through slides of lovely birds, butterflies, and frogs all already affected or effectively eliminated by climate change. Yet thanks to Yearwood, a message of hope prevailed. Speaking about his belief in the power of youth to instigate change, Yearwood told the story of a donkey that fell down a well. As his farmer master filled the well up with dirt, the donkey shook off the dirt, stamped it down, and climbed higher. By the time the donkey climbed out of the well, Yearwood had his audience on its feet, clapping and yelling.

Lest they appear to have orchestrated a lot of talking – or clapping and yelling – and not a lot of doing, summit co-organizer Praween Dayananda of the National Wildlife Federation said delegates were sent home with three imperatives to action. First, get the president of their universities to sign an agreement to make their campuses carbon-neutral in two years, eliminating and/or offsetting their negative effects on the environment. Second, encourage local businesses to create "green jobs" in the renewable-energy field. And lastly, work with local businesses to ban new coal plants and nuclear power plants.

Between keynote addresses, students gathered in classrooms to talk about lobbying techniques, campaign planning, and everyday actions they could take to combat global warming. And if it all got to be too much, Zen Buddhist teacher Brother ChiSing led workshops on meditation and spirituality to calm the stressed environmental activist's soul.

For all its revival feeling, from small group discussions to camp-meeting style lectures, the Re-Energize Texas Summit was really hardly a revival at all. The issue of global warming, according to Baylor University sophomore Whitney Petty, hasn't even been alive long enough yet to warrant resuscitation. "No longer do we wait until tomorrow to fix this," Petty said. "Tomorrow is today."

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global warming, Camille Parmesan, Public Citizen, National Wildlife Federation, Lennox Yearwood

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