At Northwestern, it's not easy being green

    Being constantly cool can be exhausting. Everyone lets their nerd flag fly from time to time. When that happens, Vince FitzPatrick will be there. Delve into the quirky obsessions and secret passions of NU students. These are the Nerdwestern chronicles.

    In May 2008, as a soon-to-graduate high school senior, I decided that it was time that I saved the environment. I  hopped on a coach bus and headed down to Washington DC for a climate change demonstration. Activists from up and down the East Coast gathered on the front lawn of the US Capitol building. We shouted loudly to no one in particular. We heard speeches from other activists and green-leaning representatives. And then, at the end of a long day of chanting green slogans, holding up signs and dancing with a guy in a polar bear suit, I…went home.

    Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made a difference at all. We’d shown the people on Capitol Hill that there were Americans who wanted change in US environmental policy -– didn’t they know that? We’d made it clear that we were willing to turn out in droves to support our cause –- did anyone care? If I’d learned anything from my little voyage into the world of environmental activism, it was this: saving the environment is hard.

    Of course, Northwestern is no stranger to hard. If you’re not taking 5 classes and and juggling a half dozen student groups, you probably consider yourself a slacker. So where are the Northwestern students who, unlike me, have marched on against adversity, pushed away the cloud of disillusionment, and tried their hand at saving their world? Who are the Nerdwestern environmental crusaders? I decided to find out.

    On a rainy Monday afternoon, I head over to the Norris south lawn to check out Wild Roots, a student-run herb-and-vegetable garden. Unfortunately, I arrive just in time to find out that gardening is cancelled for the day. Not, as I thought, due to the inclement weather, but, hilariously, due to rabbits.  A young bunny was found sleeping in the warm depths of the group’s compost heap. This was straight out of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, except instead of Mr. McGregor angrily chasing Peter out of his garden, the kind souls of Wild Roots decided to let the little creature and any of its siblings that might be hiding further down remain in their cozy den.

    Fortunately, I’m not missing out on much. The garden, like the rest of campus, has only just emerged from an excruciatingly prolonged winter, and the roots and stems that remain are dried up and dead. Planting will begin soon, but in the mean-time, I get a sense of the fruits (no pun intended) of Wild Roots’ labors by checking out their blog. Eggplant, asparagus, mint and rosemary, heirloom tomatoes and hot peppers are among the many kinds of produce produced by the students of Wild Roots and funneled (whenever possible) into Norris kitchens. What amazes me most about the garden is the scale: over the past two years, they turned a regular grassy lawn in the middle of a university campus into an edible Eden. And yet this grand project is based on a simple ideal: if you want to build a more sustainable, healthy, socially just future, you have to go back to basics and do the dirty work yourself. The kids in Wild Roots aren’t scared to get their green thumbs dirty.

    The next stop on my green adventure is the Students for Ecological and Environmental Development.  On Tuesday night, I slip into a packed room on the second floor of Norris. The meeting runs like clockwork. There are introductions, announcements of upcoming events, and reports on past undertakings. Aside from leaning particularly far to the left (the lone Republican was particularly proud of his underdog status) the members are indistinguishable from those of any other group. That SEED should be like any other student group doesn’t seem that surprising, until a few SEED activists stand up to present on trip to Powershift, a conference for college environmental activists with a focus on clean energy on college campuses. The NU attendees had made a short video chronicling their road trip and the conference, and it helped make two important points: one, environmentalists go ape-shit when Al Gore is announced, and two, some environmentalists are raging stereotype factories.

    They have unrealistic expectations and ideas. They talk about opponents of the movement as if they’re involved in some dark conspiracy. They rarely shower, wear exclusively hemp and tie dye, and seem to think that the legalization of weed is the first and most important step towards a world-wide utopian hippie state. These people, the SEED members point out, exist on college campuses across the nation, and they may be why the movement has not made much progress in a lot of places. Yet there aren’t any of these counter-productive mega-hippies in SEED. Where are they?

    It may be one of the strengths of our school that even our idealists are pragmatists. SEED members know that yelling isn’t the best way to convince people to recycle; talking is more effective. They know that not everyone comes into the conversation on environmental policy with the same beliefs; they’re willing to educate and explain what they believe in a logical, coherent manner. That’s the only way they get stuff done. And they most certainly get stuff done. In one meeting they covered an invasive-plant-clearing field trip, a campus recycling education initiative, a conference, a concert, and a green festival. Then they broke into groups to brainstorm more ideas in environmental education, advocacy, service and events. You can’t have that many irons in the fire without focusing on pragmatic solutions to serious problems.

    It’s that same kind of focused, pragmatic drive which I see in the members of Engineers for a Sustainable World. I have a soft spot for engineers: they are often quietly creative, remarkably forward-thinking and devilishly intelligent. So it’s no surprise to me that a group of McCormick undergrads are determined to use their engineering know-how to design green solutions for local and global problems.

    Yet ESW members have their own set of stereotypes to battle: those of engineers. Like true NU students, they tear down those stereotypes with the ferocity of a hungry, giant-headed wildcat. At their exec meeting, they talk about their recent summit focusing on environmental justice. They were elated, they say, that so many speakers noted how unique it was to find a group of engineers that cared about environmental justice. And of course, this is true. We don’t normally think of an engineer as someone who takes time away from redesigning rockets and pens to think of novel solutions in sustainability and environmentalism. We never expect them to ponder on the finer ethical and communal implications of green causes. But at Northwestern, our preconceived notions of what an engineer ought to be are useless. They know that you can’t just fix global warming with a new wind turbine, and they’re not going to sit back and let those non-engineering issues be someone else’s problem.

    At President Schapiro’s inauguration last year Thomas Friedman, the author of Hot, Flat & Crowded, insisted that it was important not to be good at just one thing, but more than one thing, if we want to make an impact on the world. Of course, being good at more than one thing is hard. It’s easier to be an idealist with no pragmatic drive. It’s easier to rant about our unsustainable food industry without being willing to get your hands dirty. It’s easier to focus on the finer details of an engineering project without focusing on the broader social changes that must occur to allow that project to become a reality. It’s easy to want to change the world. It’s hard to actually do something about it. But for a Northwestern student, hard is nothing.


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