Catalyst: The Second National Student Environmental Conference

© by Lee Altenberg

Published in The Prism 1 (8): 1, December, 1990.
Chapel Hill, NC

One year ago, students at UNC Chapel Hill decided to create a network of U.S. student environmental groups. They organized a conference, and hoped that with some "big name" speakers they could attract a couple of hundred students from all over the U.S. When the "Threshold" conference began, over 1,700 students had come, from 48 states. The scheduled speakers were almost a side light to the real action of the conference--student activists simply seeing each other in such massive numbers for the first time. This was made clear by the almost rhythmic eruptions of mass, spontaneous cheers from the students who packed Memorial Hall. The power of that mass exuberance was that it meant that the participants could begin to entertain hope--that just maybe there were enough others who cared about the life on this planet to be able to save it. When hundreds of students left Chapel Hill with this kernel of hope, a threshold had been crossed.

Threshold's fruit was that the national Student Environmental Action Coalition became a reality. One of SEAC's projects was a student rally for environmental justice in Washington, D.C.. Afterwards, the students gathered in a pub and talked about the idea of a second conference, and students from U. Chicago and U. Illinois decided to take on the project. The conference would be called "Catalyst", and they hoped that, with good planning, they could gather twice as many students as Threshold.

On the first Friday in October, I and 30 others from Duke and UNC packed ourselves in 2 vans, from which we emerged sixteen hours later in Champaign, Illinois. We didn't know--nobody knew until we all arrived--that seven thousand other students were also on the road, coming from every state in the U.S. and from several dozen other countries. We set up camp, along with several thousand, in the State Fairgrounds near the U. Illinois campus. The plenaries took place in the Assembly Hall, a massive concrete saucer, around whose perimeter were arrayed tables from the plenitude of national and local environmental groups.

Catalyst showed the rapid evolution of SEAC over the year. Threshold was the first political project most of its organizers had ever worked on, and the limitations of political education available to most American youth were evident (e.g. all Threshold's big name speakers were white men). But with the creation of SEAC, the experience and tradition of grassroots activism in America has become accessible to many students for the first time. This is what happened at Catalyst.

Through its democratic process, SEAC set two "themes" for Catalyst: diversity and corporate responsibility. The diversity among the speakers was impressive: a Native American woman working to stop the massive Hudson Bay project, a fifteen year old youth who organized his Bronx neighborhood to stop a toxic waste incinerator, a woman from Earth First!, and others including keynote speakers Jesse Jackson, Helen Caldicott, Ralph Nader and Robert Redford.

In three sessions of 40 concurrent workshops, students shared with each other their experiences in ecology action. Each of the regions met to plan actions for a national campaign for corporate responsibility.

The meaning of Catalyst is that a student movement is again possible in the United States. It is a meaning that thousands of students have now taken home with them to most major universities in the country. SEAC is now the best developed channel that this generation of American youth has for expressing, as one, their aspirations for the future of the planet . For this reason, the future of SEAC may well have significance for the future itself.

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