Oberlin Blogs

When nature calls, students organize. Part 2.

November 25, 2009

Sam Jewler ’10

"Every generation has its cause," said Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, OC '73, on the last night of the Power Shift conference in Oberlin two weeks ago. The cause his generation fought for -- or against, as it were -- was the Vietnam War. "Years later the cause on many college campuses was apartheid," he continued. "And that brings us to today. Your planet. Our planet. In many ways it's the greatest cause there's ever been."

Fisher entreated the crowd never to let go of its passion, saying that when he goes back to his college reunions, "everyone has that same sense of economic justice, but not everyone has stayed on the field. They've gone back to the stands."

The audience was receptive to this encouraging rhetoric, but when the question and answer session began, the tone in the room quickly grew critical. Fisher talked about how he supported doing more research on "clean coal" technologies because so much of Ohio's economy depends on coal mining and energy, and jobs are his primary focus.

The environmentalist crowd -- skeptical of how the words "clean" and "coal" could go together -- broke out in a chorus of boos.

Then a woman in the front row stood up, and implored Fisher to halt the coal mining in her native Meigs County of southern Ohio, where her family is unemployed and facing health problems from the heavily polluted water supply. She was sobbing. The crowd was applauding. The Lieutenant Governor couldn't ignore her emotional plea.

Fisher handled the situation with an appropriate aplomb. He said he was touched by her emotion and could tell that to her the issue is deeply personal, while for most politicians it's more distant and theoretical. While he made no promises to change his policy on coal, he said he wanted to visit the woman in Meigs County, and after his talk he met with her to talk with her more in private.

After Fisher talked with the woman from Meigs County, I got to interview him for the school paper, the Oberlin Review. Among other things, I asked him if he'd learned anything or gained a new perspective that night. Being a politician running for an upcoming election, he wouldn't go so far as to say yes to that question, only that it's always important to keep an open mind.

But what he learned is not important. The several hundred other students in attendance and I were moved, and learned quite a bit. The woman who spoke after Fisher was Elisa Young, an environmental activist from Meigs County. She talked about how she and almost everyone she knows have had cancer, including a neighbor who died of lung cancer despite having never smoked.

She said that there are four power plants -- including the largest coal fired plant in the country -- in her county of about 12 square miles, and there are plans for as many as five more to be built.

People there can turn on the tap, fill up the sink, and light the water on fire. The air is so toxic that it's corroding away the engravings on gravestones, in a cruel twist of ironic erasure.

The government sells public land to power companies to make more money for itself, which has led to morbidly oxymoronic sights like this plant looming over a playground:

Elisa Young's speech was so moving that when Elizabeth Kucinich -- wife of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and an activist in her own right -- followed her, she vowed to have Mr. Kucinich launch a congressional investigation into the environmental hazards being imposed on Meigs County by the coal industry. And she was more than just talk. The next morning many of the Power Shift activists held a rally to culminate the weekend's activities. And, lo and behold, Congressman Dennis Kucinich showed up to give a speech!

I can only imagine how that phone conversation must have gone.

Elizabeth: Dennis! You gotta get over here to Oberlin! These students are so passionate about climate change. I think they're really serious about this activism thing!

Dennis: What on God's green earth are you calling me now for, Elizabeth? It's 2:30 in the morning!

Elizabeth: Oh yeah, sorry... I just got back from the Feve. I was talking with some students there. They're really serious about this activism thing.

Dennis: Are they? How can you tell? I know how excited you get about environmentalism after you've had a few beers...

Elizabeth: Oh, behave! There's just an excitement in the air. It's intangible, but if I had to say what it felt like, I'd say urgency and teamwork. These young people are the real deal. Besides, they love you, Dennis.

Dennis: Ok, Ok. You're right. I'll see you in a few.

Elizabeth: Aw, you're the best. Just don't bring up UFOs this time!


Dennis Kucinich was later seen eating lunch with students at Fairchild Co-op. Coool.

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