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New Generation of Green Activists at US Colleges

WASHINGTON - The new face of the U.S. environmental movement might well be Thomas Hand, who studied economics and auto repair at Vermont's Middlebury College, the better to refit cars to run on used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuel.

Or it could be Maura Cowley, who organized a 25-hour sit-in at Penn State University's administration building to press the school's president to talk with activists about cutting greenhouse gas emissions on campus. Unlike sit-ins of old, she blogged about the protest as it unfolded.

There's also Billy Parish, who left Yale in 2002 after five semesters to devote himself full-time to organizing students and others into a network that works to counter the effects of global climate change.

"I think it's clear that global warming is already impacting our civilization in many ways, but we have the most at stake," Parish said in a telephone interview.

Is that because baby boomers will be gone soon enough, leaving an environmental mess for the current generation of college students? "Exactly," he said with a laugh.

"It's frustrating for us to see our parents' generation making irresponsible decisions about our future and so I think we have an opportunity to organize and sort of be a conscience for our decision-makers," Parish said.

Rather than the local anti-pollution and conservation efforts that characterized the grassroots environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, these college groups focus on worldwide problems and often work with campus administrators.


The Internet is a key organizing tool for college environmental activists, and the goals are ambitious. For example, the Web site seeks nothing less than "a complete transformation of our economy and society" to stop global warming.

To that end, Parish recently sent an e-mail that was posted on the Web site praising three schools -- Bowdoin College in Maine, University of California-Santa Cruz and Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina -- for agreeing to buy all of their energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

Another school, Central Oregon Community College, got kudos after students voted to buy 75 percent of their power from clean sources.

But environmental action has to be fun or students won't bother participating, said Hand, who has converted about 10 cars from gas to used vegetable oil and drives a veggie car himself.

So when Hand and others organized a 40-mile bike ride from Burlington to Vermont's capital, Montpelier, to show support for a bill requiring a certain percentage of power to come from renewable sources, they ended with a party on the statehouse lawn.

And when students at Middlebury had a contest to see which group could lower energy use the most, they came up with several tricks, including unplugging vending machines and unscrewing lightbulbs in hallways that couldn't otherwise be turned off. Prizes were pizza, ice cream and raffle items.

Williams College in Massachusetts had a similar contest with an arresting name: Do It In The Dark. To cut down on consumption, organizers urged contestants to turn off lights, hibernate computers, take shorter showers and "ask friends to do it in the dark with you!"

"This is an entirely different world that we're living in than 30 or 40 years ago," Hand said by telephone. "If you turned on the news 40 years ago, maybe the focus of the news was the pollution of a local river ... and you turn it on now and problems are regional, national, global. And I think the environmental movement is going the same way."