A mass of college students marching though downtown Philadelphia, chanting “More power to the people.” This was not your average weekend.
In preparation for Earth Day’s 30th birthday in April 2000, student environmental groups around the country participated in the organization and activation of ECOnference 2000. According to participants, between 2000 and 3000 students attended the event at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on October 15-17.
According to the official ECOnference webpage, the primary means by which environmental groups found out about the event, the goals of the weekend were to “make Earth Day 2000 and Election Day 2000 the springboard for a green millennium; build campus environmental groups and strengthen their networks; and train the next generation of environmental activists.”
The website lists speakers, including the Honorable Jesse Jackson Jr., consumer advocate Ralph Nader and author Jan Schlictmann, who wrote A Civil Action. The agenda announced five one-hour workshops and gave participants a choice of over 60 issues, including Religion and the Environment, Boycott Targets, Socially Responsible Investing and Rainforests. “The workshops were primarily intended to give students the political skills necessary to mobilize grassroots efforts and thereby alter the power relationship between corporations and the people,” said Mike Levien ’01, co-leader of the campus environmental group Purple Druids.
The website also touted the parade scheduled for Sunday afternoon in downtown Philadelphia, which included floats of a Smokey Bear, an Exxon Valdez, an SUV and an Endangered Salmon. The webpage promised that the parade would “end in a rally that will send a resounding message: this is our millennium, not polluters’.”
Michelle Ruby ’02, who attended the conference, shed a different light on the parade’s focus. “We were protesting PECO (Philadelphia Energy Corporation), but what exactly they were doing that we didn’t like, I’m not sure. One of the organizers told us that we were going to protest them, but she couldn’t explain what they were doing that was so bad. The march also turned into a march to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. This cause doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with the environment or anything we talked about during the conference.”
In addition, Ruby regretted that she did not get the chance to hear Nader speak. “I hear he is an incredible speaker,” she said, although she said she appreciated the speakers she did hear, including Lois Gibbs and Terri Swearingen. Ruby was also disappointed by the lack of organization surrounding meals. “The morning activities inevitably ran late, so there was a mad dash for food. We probably had about 20 minutes to eat and I had to stand in line for about 40 minutes just to order. We ended up missing half of the next section.”
While the website encouraged students to sign up for free housing, provided by ECOnference organizers, Ruby overheard one conversation that seemed less idyllic. “I was walking behind a girl on the way to one of the workshops who said that she had slept in a windowsill because there wasn’t any other place to sleep at the housing she was assigned to.” Fortunately for Ruby and other attendees, Levien lives near Philadelphia and offered his house as a place for everyone to stay for the two nights.
As evidenced by the webpage and many of the workshop offerings, ECOnference used an unorthodox approach to environmental activism: instead of using legislation, litigation or petitioning, activists hope to influence industries through the job market and through grassroots mobilization. Press releases from ECOnference encourage student groups to launch the Job Boycott campaign, which ideally would “pressure the most flagrant corporate abusers of the environment to clean up their act, or do their business without the assistance of America’s best and brightest.” Organizers hoped to target the most notorious banking, engineering, computer, manufacture and retail sectors. The ECOnference webpage assured skeptics that “without being asked to abandon reasonable career goals, every student can take their environmental convictions from the campus quad through the job search process, and into the labor market.”
The message of ECOnference 2000 has spurred campus environmental group. The Purple Druids to tackle the issue of social responsibility in the College’s corporate investments. “As a fine educational institution, we release two thousand young citizens into the world every four years, and we think the College should not set the example that maximizing profit for personal gain should take precedence over the common good of society,” said Levien. “The College now invests a significant amount of money in Phillip Morris, to name just one particularly bad corporation. Our goal is to interject the criteria of social responsibility into the investment decision-making process,” he added.
In addition, the Druids hope to further the Job Boycott campaign by making information about corporate citizenship more available to Williams students seeking jobs after graduation. “We are also trying to insert more information about corporate responsibility into the OCC so that students are aware of the social behavior of the corporations they might work for. It is our hope that with this knowledge, Williams students will boycott jobs that implicitly contribute to environmental degradation, human rights abuses, discrimination, and the manufacture of harmful products,” said Levien.
Ruby, too, was buoyed by the conference, and thinks it can help her with the project she has undertaken: encouraging Williams to support Free Trade coffee, which is known for treating coffee farmers much better than larger coffee companies, such as Folgers. Despite the disorganization, Ruby had a positive reaction to ECOnference. “[It] was a lot of fun and I met some interesting people,” she said.
Although ECOnference did not earn much coverage in the national news, the march and the weekend was noted by Philadelphia news sources. Since the goal was to encourage and strengthen ties within the collegiate level, gauging on the effects would be difficult. Grassroots organization aside, the future of the movement depends in large part on individual choices.