Youth power

The Eco-Warrior Princess’ tribute to a new breed of activists

Welcome to Green Town, a column by Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess, which rotates with Green House, her occasional musings on SN&R’s green building project.

I don’t care much for identity labels, finding them more often than not to be a restrictive way to make sense of the complexities of people and the world (I know, how cliché!). “Youth,” though, is a label I embrace, because it’s typically the youth who propel progressive movements forward with unrestrained intensity, completely committed to a cause, whatever that might be. And I’m proud to be part of that group.

Young people have once again put themselves on the front lines of change, this time in the battle against global warming, as the world struggles to determine how to stay below 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—the safe line before humans cause huge and irreversible damage to the planet.

In mid-December, 20 teenagers and young adults representing youth organizations Energy Action Coalition and SustainUS condemned the lame-duck U.S. administration at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland. This is the fourth straight year there’s been an organized youth presence at these climate negotiations, as young people try to exert a voice in international policy-making. The group called for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 in the United States, a goal echoed by President-elect Barack Obama.

Reaching that target requires a massive economic and infrastructural transformation, but perhaps more than anything it requires a substantial change in thinking. Paradigm shifts tend to be generational and, as philosopher Thomas Kuhn said, intellectually violent revolutions, which means we need young people to play a central role now more than ever.

So this is a tribute to them: To 25-year-old Mattie Reitman (see “Coal hard truths,” SN&R Green Days), a Sacramento native who dedicates his life to community organizing in the fight against the coal industry, and who told me, “Climate change is the most pressing issue, and I very much want to stop it.” There seemed to be, for him, no other choice. When I asked Reitman what he wanted to do when he got older, he scoffed, and responded that community organizing is what he’ll always want to do. Forget money, status, stability; he has no need for those luxuries.

This is a tribute to Levi Benkert, the 27-year-old owner of LJ Urban, the green builder responsible for the eco-friendly Good housing development in West Sacramento. And to Shawn Harrison, who’s catalyzed urban agriculture with Soil Born Farms; to 26-year-old Katy Nicholls of GreenBuilt Construction and Consulting, who proclaims the value of home-energy audits while breaking gender biases in the process; and to Graham Brownstein, the young director of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, who has made the nonprofit organization passionate, relevant and, yes, fun.

And, of course, this is a tribute to the kids who engage in low-impact living and direct actions, who’ll risk getting arrested at protests or chain themselves to bulldozers on a mountain to prevent clear-cutting of old-growth forests or blockade the entrance to a coal-fired power plant.

This is a tribute to the group of young Sacramentans who, on November 14, congregated outside the Bank of America on K Street to protest the company’s funding of coal companies that practice mountaintop removal (along with thousands of other young people across the country for a national day of action). A few weeks later, the bank announced plans to stop financing companies that employ surface mining as their primary method for coal extraction. I heard about this victory from a young woman at a recent green event in Sacramento; she didn’t tell the audience this news to “give us warm fuzzies,” she said, but to show us the power we have to make change.

Now, at 27 years old, I’m on the cusp of no longer being considered a member of the “youth” movement. And I wonder when my time will come to graciously abandon this designation, to make way for the new breed of activists coming through, who’ll unapologetically stretch our thinking and raise our awareness, frustrate us with their never-ending demands and revive us with their passion.

I don’t want this time to ever come, and I wonder if it’s already passed.