BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Back in 1994, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) faced a tough choice: vote to end a filibuster on the California Desert Protection Act, which would create the largest national park in the lower 48 states, or go on vacation to the Caribbean. .
Much to the consternation of the bill's sponsor, Sen. Diane Feinstein, Kerry chose the latter. Feinstein called Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, and asked him to help change Kerry's mind.
Pope turned to his heavyweights: the 30,000-member Sierra Student Coalition (SCC). This national group of environmentally active college students was experienced in "dorm storming," in which SCC volunteers encourage their peers to lobby legislators. The first 200 callers were told the senator would not be voting. The second 200 callers were told his staff was looking for the senator and he might be changing his mind. The third 200 callers were told the senator would vote. He did and the bill passed.
While often dismissed as members of a generation of apathetic "twenty-nothings," college environmental activists continue to demonstrate how young people can influence the political process. Thanks to their willingness to commit free time and labor to causes in which they believe, an "indifferent" generation has proven to be more impassioned about community service than past youth activists. Indeed, studies show young people today volunteer at twice the rate that baby boomers did when they were younger.
Making use of new technology, the SCC has found a way to allow young activists to help set the environmental agenda. By using the Sierra Club's World Wide Web page, students can lobby their representatives on pending legislation or policy issues. For example, the SCC, using dorm storming, played a key role in campaigns to protect the Arctic Refuge and defend public land from destructive mining practices.
Recognizing the rise of youth influence, the Sierra Club has undergone a dramatic changing of the guard. Last year, 24-year-old Adam Werbach took over as its 46th president. He has begun to tailor the Sierra Club's message to his MTV-influenced peers, employing catchy print ads, a new clothing line and even a Sierra Club album with prominent recording artists.
"We need to be able to sell messages of substance in the same way Nike sells shoes," he explains.
Of course, flashy ads are not going to change youth attitudes overnight. A recent Media Studies Center/Roper Center survey found that only 15% of younger voters followed last year's presidential campaign "very closely." This lack of enthusiasm was reflected in their voter-participation rate: Fewer 18- to 29-year-olds voted than any other group. And expecting to sell political activism like shoes seems to be an unrealistic goal, especially because of a cynical attitude among young people toward advertising.
Still, if there is one thing college environmental activism can do, it is to alter the public's perception of the younger generation. Rather than focus on body piercing and cigar smoking, the public might discover some of the accomplishments of this generation. The Adam Werbachs are coming to power. It's just a question of when America is going to notice.