Environmental Politics, Think
The Reluctant Activist
The line between passion and activism is a thin one, yet one that takes energy to cross. The quickening pulse when one perceives an injustice to a living thing or the threatened desecration of a sacred place—this is passion. The raised voice in a group of friends talking about some indignity —this is passion. But most of the time the pulse calms, the voice moves on to friendlier topics, and ultimately, activism is left to others.
But which others? I have always felt a complex mixture of personal guilt combined with respect and even reverence for those who work to make the world better for you and me. Was it a struggle for them to cross that line, to turn cynicism to optimism, lethargy to energy? What was the secret?
A chest x-ray gave me the answer.
In December of 2012 I began noticing signs of breathing problems. Sitting in my living room, reading, I could not get a satisfying breath. I was winded climbing a short flight of stairs. Some days I could breathe in fully, but the air didn’t seem to be making it to the rest of my body. My chest burned, and I felt pressure on it.
I went to see my GP.
“You have the lungs of a heavy smoker or a severe asthmatic,” my doctor pronounced, as he reviewed my x-ray.
“But how could that be?” I countered. “I’ve never smoked, and, well, it’s true I’ve had some problems with asthma in the last few years, but for most of my life cats were my only trigger, and I’ve avoided them.” He shrugged, mentioned second-hand smoke, toxins in everyday life, and, most significantly, the seasonal poor air quality in Salt Lake City.
“But I went backpacking two months ago,” I argued. “I had no problem.” I was having trouble believing this. My doctor pulled out a pad of paper and drew a squared-off figure 8, with the top portion noticeably smaller than the bottom. “This is your lung,” he explained. “The top part is your reserve capacity. Most likely you have been incurring damage to your reserve for several years. But now the damage is down here,” he went on, tapping the bottom blob. “In your vital capacity.”
This was sobering. I am an outdoor enthusiast. I was drawn to Salt Lake City 16 years ago for its proximity to unparalleled opportunities in hiking, cycling, rock climbing and skiing. Now I was one of those people for whom exercising outside on yellow air-quality days, of which there are seemingly zillions, was a no-no, plus I was at risk for all kinds of bad things in the future.
“What can I do to help myself?” I asked my doctor.
“If I had your lungs and the means,” he responded, “I would leave town during bad-air periods. This is no place for someone with sensitive lungs.”
Leave Salt Lake for months at a time? I’m retired, but my husband isn’t, my friends live here, my season’s pass is at Alta, and my “means” for that length of time would likely feature camping. Leaving was a poor option. But then sitting inside all day long was not much better.
As last winter’s inversion clamped down and my wheezing began in earnest, an email arrived from SignOn.org, a branch of the liberal action group MoveOn.org. It asked if there was anything I would like the governor of Utah to take care of.
Well yes, actually, there was. In a burst of spontaneity, I followed SignOn’s simple instructions and developed a petition titled “Governor Herbert, clean up our dirty air,” added a blurb about my personal situation and why clean air matters, and sent it off via email to five friends.
A day later, I got an email from SignOn saying I had 50 signatures. Wow! I was pretty excited.
Next I heard from Carl Ingwell, a University of Utah student with an inborn flair for activism. He had a Facebook page focused on getting folks to call or email Governor Herbert on a specific day, and someone had forwarded him my petition. He posted the link, and the names started rolling in. Each day I heard from SignOn: you now have 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 signatures. SignOn managed the petition, storing names, any comments, and zip codes; I could access the list and email the folks on it at any time. SignOn also sent me tips for expanding my base, sample press releases for news media, and other helpful instructions.
By now Utah Moms for Clean Air and Heal Utah, two local nonprofits that work tirelessly on clean air and other environmental issues, had caught wind of this. At a meeting with Carl and me, Cherise Udell from Utah Moms and Matt Pacenza from HEAL Utah suggested we hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building on the day Carl had targeted on his Facebook page—only three days away. Cherise and Matt sent out a press release to the media, with contacts for Carl and me. It was four days since I had sent my first email to five friends; my petition now had nearly 5,000 signatures.
The next day I went to Alta to escape the muck; I was in the parking lot when I got the first media call. Channel 2 TV wanted to interview me that afternoon. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I am at Alta.” No problem, they countered, we will come to you. So at 3 p.m. I stood under the shining blue sky of Little Cottonwood while TV cameras framed me against the brown-gray inversion below. That night began my 15 minutes of fame.
The next call came the following day, when I was on my way to Rockreation, an indoor climbing gym I frequent during winter. “I’m so sorry,” I told Channel 5, “but I am at Rockreation.” No problem, they countered, we will come to you. At least that time I didn’t have helmet hair.
In the meantime I was getting a crash course on the talking points from the city’s true activists and the scientific community. The more I learned about PM2.5 and PM10, the more concerned I got—and not just for myself. The implications for fetuses, babies and children are far more serious than for adults—and they don’t have the “means” to leave town when the air is not good.
The next day was the rally, and by the 3 p.m. start the energy was electrifying. More than 300 people braved the cold and murky air to line the steps of the Capitol Building; dozens more had emailed me that they wished to be there but their health prevented them from being outside in the red-air day. Speakers rallied the crowd and led them in chants. At a pre-determined time, I took my petition, now boasting well over 8,000 signatures (printed, it weighed in at 800 double-sided pages), to the Governor’s office. TV cameras in front, the crowd behind—I was not expecting this! —we made our way to the office and delivered the big box of names.
Certainly not all activism happens this way. We made a big, spectacular splash during a one-week period of intense energy. Did we make a difference? Certainly we gained huge media coverage, and I would posit that we got the conversation going in a way that it hadn’t before (the long stretch of bad air last winter aided our cause).
The legislature was in session. Before our rally, no one was talking about air quality. After, several legislators attempted to move bills through committees—two bills actually made it to the floor (more on this in the December column). And KUER and KRCL started reporting on air quality daily, keeping the stats up front where people can stay aware of them.
It will be a long, slow road, one that requires lots of attention to detail and perseverance. Do I think changes will occur in time to benefit me? No; much as I love Salt Lake, I will most likely move to a place with better air. But I will continue this work that seems to have chosen me, in a behind-the-scenes way that best suits my personality and talents (see sidebar for my series of CATALYST columns on air quality). If I have learned nothing else, it’s that even reluctant activists can find suitable waysesn’t have to end at passion.
Follow Marjorie’s column over the next four issues:
November: A primer on PM2, PM10 and ozone: What are they? Where do they come from? How do they affect your lungs and other organs? How can you protect yourself?
December: Legislative primer: What happened in the last legislative session regarding air quality? Which legislators have your back? How do you lobby a legislator or make your voice heard? Who else is working on this?
January: It’s inversion season! What can you do as an individual citizen to reduce the pollutants in the air?
February: 2013 Legislative Update. What’s happening? Who to lobby?