Winds of Change

Coal, Kansas Politics, and The New Activism

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It's another overflow Monday evening at the Free State Brewery, and they're wobbling like bowling pins out on the patio. In a ritual instigated in large part by bargain-priced beer, townies of all stripes gather in number on this night to jostle, slosh on, and holler at each other. The din of the place is a physical presence and the tap handles move like metronomes. Hippies hang with lawyers and students debate professors, boundaries blurred by conviviality and a torrent of Copperhead Ale.

Tucked around a table, somewhere in the hubbub, an activist group called Free State Mondays holds its weekly meeting.

Tagged by the mainstream media as the "New Activists," the members of the Mondays group are a clean-cut, educated bunch: informed, composed and well-spoken. Most are in their 20s, and all are actively trying to change in the world-primarily via climate and energy issues, and mostly here at the grass-roots level.

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Free State Mondays in one of their meetings.

The Revolution Will Be Downloaded

They are a breed evolved from the long-haired, placard-waving, establishment-frightening revolutionaries of the '60s and '70s. The New Activists are as effective with a Blackberry as Abbie Hoffman with a bullhorn. They are equally at ease in the boardroom as in the community center. And, thanks to the internet, likely much better informed.

The New Activists employ social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter to mobilize people and propagate campaigns-it's little wonder they reap far more mainstream media coverage than their predecessors.

But the New Activists are sometimes criticized by pundits and even by some of their own kind-by those who believe that commitment to a cause means standing up in public to be counted. They say that the New Activists' non-confrontational tactics smack of laziness and apathy, of a video-game approach to life-and-death issues.

The members of the Mondays group are puzzled by such criticism.

"You don't see the same level of public demonstration, but there's a lot more effective organizing. We need legislators in there who understand the issues," said group member Brian Sifton, who's also on the city's Sustainability Advisory Board.

Audio clips

New Activists

"We'll get to demonstrating when we need to," continued Juliana Tran, a KU student and coordinator for KU Environs, "but we'll try everything else first."

Paul Hohnen, a former political director for Greenpeace, proposed in May that the brave new world requires a new kind of activist: "Chaining yourself to a tree belongs in the awareness-building phase, but we've entered the solutions-building phase where this kind of treehugging might be counterproductive."

For many New Activists, provoking a better future relies less on organizing a good sit-in than in finding a sympathetic investment banker. For James Roberts, a Mondays regular, the low-key profile of the New Activism gives him the edge: "I'm not your cliche activist-that's my advantage. I look like a Republican."

Tipping point

Roberts and Eileen Horn are poster children for the New Activism (indeed, they are on the cover of this week's issue). Both work long hours on short pay for locally based, non-profit groups.

Horn, 28, is the Director of Community Outreach for the Climate and Energy Project (CEP), an offshoot of the venerable Land Institute in Salina. Roberts, 23, is the Director of Statewide Coordinating for the Great Plains Alliance for Clean Energy (GPACE). They are the type of people once called All-American: intelligent and focused, healthy and attractive, their charisma and confidence stoked by passion.

Horn concedes that the New Activism, while by no means apathetic, might be somewhat distracted. "Our attention has been captured by genius marketers. We're told that our society is one of consumerism," she says. "When all your energy is caught up in trying to compete in that world, it's difficult to be engaged with social causes. It's a designed distraction."

Horn thinks leadership is the missing link: "I believe there's some truth that my generation is somewhat apathetic. I don't think we're doing enough. Honestly, many of us are just waiting for a leader to ask something of us."

Roberts wonders where the tipping point lies for the New Activism. "Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King didn't add anyone to their Facebook page," he interjected at a recent Mondays discussion. "What will it take to get us into the streets?"

For these two, fighting to shift our state's energy consumption to renewable sources could be just such a tipping point. Wind and solar power offer achievable solutions for the future, and yet coal is at the forefront of recent proposals for new sources of energy production in Kansas. Despite two vetos by Governor Kathleen Sebelius, lobbyists and lawyers continue to push for building new coal plants in the state.

As the third windiest state in the nation, Kansas produces just one percent of its energy from wind; 89% (net) comes from burning coal. Clearly, coal isn't going away anytime soon. Roberts says GPACE's stance on the future of coal in energy production "is that it's part of the mix. Let's use it responsibly, let's maximize its efficiency, and let's not invest in any more of it-yet-because as of now, it's the biggest risk to our health, our economy, and our environment."

Old King Coal

Every hour or so, a coal train trundles through North Lawrence.

"At least 15 trains per day, every day of the year," says Jay Sayre, who worked as an auditor for the Santa Fe railroad for 38 years. Most of the trains start out in the vast coalfields of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and most pass through town on their way to other locales. But "every two or three days, they roll between 120 and 140 cars into the Lawrence Energy Center just northwest of town," says Sayre.

Each car, fully loaded, holds nearly 143 tons of coal-enough to power some 300 laptops for a year.

On the whole, Kansas uses 19 million tons of coal per year-one thousand coal trains' worth. The U.S. consumes about a billion tons of coal each year, one-sixth of the annual global consumption.

For the New Activists this is a potential lightning rod to affect real change right here in Lawrence. "There's no real competitor in the energy market in this state," Roberts says. "If (most) of our energy comes from coal, not only don't the coal companies have any incentive to clean up carbon and mercury emissions, they have no incentive to maximize efficiency in coal plants. There's information out there that coal plants can produce energy with 40% more efficiency. That's a number I see as a real goal."

State Representative Tom Sloan, a Republican in the 45th District and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy's Electricity Advisory Committee, wrote in an email interview: "Burning coal, natural gas, and oil results in carbon and other emissions that contribute to global warming and health problems. Yet coal and oil also provide the lowest cost energy for the U.S. and the world. Energy supplies, whether to generate electricity or fuel motor vehicles, must be both reliable and affordable." He continued: "Clean coal technologies are expensive to install and operate. Before such technologies are installed, public utility commissions, elected officials, and the public must be willing to approve and pay the higher prices for electricity." (Note: the full email is reprinted in the comments section below)

Clearly pursuing renewable energy sources in Kansas will require more than a reliance on market forces and existing energy producers. The New Activists likely have found a calling.

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Discussion at the Free State Mondays group.

Johannes Feddema, Professor of Geography at the University of Kansas, is an authority on climate and energy. In a recent Weather Underground blog he wrote:

"It is time to see and seize the opportunity before us rather than clinging to outdated energy technologies. I believe we can do better, especially if we listen to the ideas, and act on the hopes, enthusiasm and aspirations of our younger generation."

"Fight the Power" was the chorus of street activists in the '60s and '70s; "Use the Power" is the song the New Activists are singing now. With technological marvels and sophisticated skills at their disposal, with calls for change ringing throughout the land, and with King Coal attempting to expand his kingdom on the prairie, perhaps Kansas' New Activists need only realize that they are the leaders they are looking for. »