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Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL

Environmental activist, Bill McKibben, works with members of Chicago-based groups to show the amount of reserves fossil fuel companies have is beyond what our planet can handle.

Standing for change: student environmentalists motivated by McKibben’s talk

by Alicia Swanstrom
Nov 29, 2012


Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL

The "Do the Math" tour has been collecting supporters' signatures on a banner since their first stop on Nov. 7.

Environmentalists’ bleak predictions for the planet – scorching temperatures, flooded cities and mass food shortages caused by droughts - could leave your average young person feeling hopeless. But some Chicago-based college students are encouraged by the message of one environmental activist.

Bill McKibben, founder of the international non profit, is attempting to rally the nation around the idea of a society that no longer relies on fossil fuel companies. He described the possibility he believes to be attainable at the 16th stop of his organization’s “Do the Math” tour in Chicago.

He envisions a world in which reserves of oil, coal and natural gas stay in the ground, one powered completely by decentralized renewable energy sources instead of giant fossil fuel companies. One, he said, that is still livable.

He hopes for “a planet like the one we were born into,” he said to a sold-out crowd at Athenaeum Theatre Wednesday.

The talk fired up students from Loyola University, the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

McKibben campaign asks the younger generation to organize and demand their schools rid their portfolios of investments in fossil fuel companies like Exxon, Mobile and BP. The goal is to not only weaken the companies financially, but also to send a message. He said people want fossil fuel companies to pay “to take out their trash,” the carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere when their oil and coal are burned to produce energy.

Kelly Hof, a sophomore studying environmental sciences at Loyola University said while the frequent message that the world is ending can be depressing, she was motivated and ready to act after hearing McKibben’s ideas.

“Events like these help us spur a movement,” she said. “They’re a source of encouragement and give us an opportunity to reorganize and refocus.”

Hof also took part in the Global Frackdown in September, an effort to stop the drilling of shale rock. She actively uses her Facebook page to promote petitions and is a member of the Student Environmental Alliance at her university.

Hof and a fellow member of the Loyola group, Jessica Immelman, said because of McKibben’s efforts, they have started conversations with investors at their university to look at the possibility of divesting. And they won’t stop there. They hope to organize with other groups, as McKibben suggests.

“Solidarity goes beyond the university and the nation,” said 21-year-old Immelman.

Another environmentalist and support of McKibben and his movement, Richard Louv, says a shift to what he calls the new nature movement might attract new participants.

“It brings old people and young people to the cause that aren’t there because they’re so discouraged, depressed or there’s nothing there that excites their imagination,” he said.

Louv, who wrote “The Nature Principle,” defines the new nature movement as one that looks past mere sustainability and creates an idyllic picture of the future.

“We can’t dismiss, for a second,” he said, “everything that the environmental movement has accomplished. But we now have to expand it.”