After the Democrats won back the House in the 2018 midterm elections, Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have expected a victory parade. But as social activist Naomi Klein tells it, she instead got a crowd of young climate activists occupying her office on Capitol Hill demanding congressional action around climate change. That’s what Klein sees as the power of youth organizing around environmental issues.

Klein delivered the keynote at the 20th annual Earth Summit, an event hosted by Enviroslug, a collective of student organizations that explore and support sustainable initiatives centering on student voices and education. Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP) organizer Ailee Arias commented that the concepts Klein spoke on were especially relevant to the context of student organizing.

Enviroslug is made up of three student organizations:
Student Environmental Center – creates a Blueprint for a Sustainable Campus that outlines vision goals and action items, read the 2019-21 here.
Campus Sustainability Council – a funding body that supports student-led programming based on the Blueprint
Education for Sustainable Living Program – supports a series of student-led trainings, research teams, and classes centered around sustainability and social justice

“[Klein] mentioned this disaster collectivism and how capitalism with climate change is going to only make things worse and exacerbate the circumstances that we’re already in,” Arias said. “But that impending doom can also be a really fantastic opportunity for collaboration and for student involvement, for community involvement.”

Earth Summit has become one of the longest running annual campus events. This year’s summit on April 23 was themed and titled “A Green New Future: Reclaiming Student Agency as a United Student Body.” Each year, student coordinators pick a different theme to address the preeminent environmental issues of the day.

With birds chirping in the background, senior art student Sage Alucero performed spoken word pieces “Rabbit River” and “We as the Earth.” Recordings of the performances were shown between the keynote and the student visioning workshop.

“Do not confuse my quiet for silence.
The brook is always babbling.”
-Sage Alucero, “Rabbit River”

Klein is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and activist. Releasing eight books over 22 years, Klein has written prolifically on the connections between capitalism and climate change for a wide public audience. The idea of “disaster collectivism” has been highlighted in much of Klein’s recent work, referring to actions or movements that prioritize community-based support and solidarity in the face of disaster.

In her keynote address, Klein discussed some of the themes in her 2019 book “On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal.” Speaking on her experience with researching and reporting on the historic wildfires in Paradise, California, Klein encouraged the audience to see how collectivism and community organizing can measure up to the challenges of the climate crisis. 

“[Disaster collectivism] is about finding ways of responding to disaster that bring us together rather than push us apart,” Klein said.

The second section of Earth Summit reflected this spirit of collaboration and collective action in climate organizing. 

Valeria Mena, an Enviroslug affiliate and facilitator for the workshop outlined the event goals: to create transparency and understanding around the UC’s plan regarding the Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) and to provide space for students to envision a sustainable campus that supports their needs.

The Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) is a controversial 20-year plan for potential UCSC campus growth dictating which spaces may be used for housing, academics and recreation.

“We aim to challenge institutions to listen to students and community members and invest in their needs and other sustainable practices,” Mena wrote in an email. “We invited Naomi Klein, author and activist, to reinforce our values due to her extensive work within the environmental movement across the nation. At the Earth Summit we wanted to bring awareness and are planning to take action against the LRDP at UCSC.” 

The LRDP will dictate how the university uses its resources to benefit the campus through updates to transportation, housing, natural spaces, among others for the next 20 years. Mena said these plans need more input from the student body, as it will likely impact them the most. 

“At the Earth Summit we wanted to be able to provide this information about the universities lack of transparency and hold a space to learn and take action before it being published without our input,” Mena wrote in an email. “The university takes pride in being ‘the original authority on questioning authority,’ yet it does not allow the space for this to actually play into effect because of their greed. We need meaningful student and community engagement not just having open forums, submission comments and disregarding them without a focus in assessing these.”

From the previous 2005 LRDP, UCSC only built 30 percent of facilities planned despite nearing enrollment growth maximums, Mena wrote. Similarly, UCSC currently has the lowest classroom and seminar space per student of all undergrad programs across the entire UC-system. 

Mena said changes to campus operations from the previous LRDP, and the proposals from the 2021 LRDP that will increase enrollment and on-campus housing capacity by 8,500 students by 2040, will push UCSC— a school that centers itself on its climate conscious efforts— closer to its more financially motivated UC counterparts.

Building off the momentum from the workshop discussions, Enviroslug will continue its work on student education around the LRDP and on the UCSC Blueprint for a Sustainable Campus, an annual student-run guide that details visions and actions around topics in sustainability.

ESLP organizer Ailee Arias said the complexities of youth organizing, especially around existential topics like the climate crisis can take a mental toll on activists. Negative mental health effects within the young activist community have been noted by organizers across social justice issues.

But Arias still finds that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to youth organizing. 

“Someone like myself, being in my mid 20s, and even other people who are entering young adulthood, they have that motivation, and they have that energy to be out there organizing and to be collaborating and talking every day,” Arias said. “Whereas, I think older people are not as energetic anymore, or not as motivated, because they’re kind of used to the way that things are, or their life just moves faster than these visions that we have.”