By Rachel Ohrenschall
As a campus full of intelligent students dedicated to fighting for what they believe in, it is no surprise that there are many avenues for environmental activism here at Bryn Mawr, such as the Campus Greens and the newly formed Earth Justice League. However, many students have found an outlet for their wish to inspire positive environmental practices off campus as part of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT), a dedicated environmental action group, according to its website. “Earth Quaker Action Team is a new group of Quaker Friends and friends of Friends who join millions of people around the world fighting for our threatened planet. We understand that the primary cause – corporations and nation-states – will continue their practice of business-as-usual: this was confirmed at the Copenhagen world climate conference – until strong movements using nonviolent direct action force them to do otherwise.”
This tie to Quakerism is something not found in campus environmental groups, and one that Karen Leitner ’14 loves. She is “struck by the community aspect, it’s the thing that keeps me coming back.” The meetings are run along the lines of a Quaker meeting: time is reserved for silence, people are very respectful of how others feel, and they often ask to make sure people feel comfortable. Attending a meeting for the first time in the Philadelphia Friend’s Center, this author agrees with Leitner that there is something special in how open and friendly the group is. Leitner also pointed out that some people tie the group to their spirituality, the organization was founded because the founding members felt spirituality led to work for positive change in the world and that it is “powerful to think of spirituality as part of social movement.”
EQAT is also different from other environmental groups because it focuses mainly on finding a balance between environmentalism and industry and environmentalism and job creation. This complaint is standard among non-supporters of environmentalism, that it takes away jobs and cheap sources of energy. However EQAT is an organization “dedicated to a sustainable and just economy through non violent direct action. We pick campaigns that are about the intersection of economic justice and ecological justice.”
Only a few years old, EQAT was founded in the fall of 2009 and is now focused on a specific environmental issue, mountaintop coal removal. Its current campaign is called Bank Like Appalachia Matters (BLAM) and their focus is getting PNC bank to withdraw financial support for mountaintop coal removal. This is another aspect of EQAT Leitner appreciates: “the group has a specific clear goal and the people in the group have tactics and tools to get there.” A long standing, yet questionable, method of coal retrieval, mountaintop coal removal is a form of surface mining that requires the removal of the summit of a mountain in order to access the coal. After the coal is extracted, the soil lying above the economically desired resource is either put back onto the ridge to approximate the mountain’s original contours or dumped elsewhere, often in neighboring valleys which interferes with rivers and often pollutes them with heavy metals. This has lead to frustration within the Appalachian community, as this process is still allowed though it has been shown in studies to harm people because of the damage to water supplies. EQAT is calling on PNC to cease financing companies that engage in this practice. PNC bank is the target because it is the number one financial source of mountaintop coal removal in the country and has already accomplished much in its campaign.
Johannah CordonHill ’14 is another member of EQAT who joined because she wanted to be involved in “something big;” she felt energized, empowered, and uplifted by EQAT, and “I felt like it was feeding me, I just couldn’t stop.” Some of this energizing ability is surely due to the success that EQAT is seeing based on the pressure it is putting on PNC with its various actions: “PNC bank openly declared that they were not going to invest in companies that got the majority of their coal from mountaintop removal.” PNC has also not advertised itself as a “green” bank as much as it had done before. PNC has also shown that it is listening to some of EQAT’s requests. Some EQAT members sat in on a PNC bank shareholders meeting last April in Washington D.C. and asked PNC bank to do a flyover of some of the mountains affected by mountaintop coal removal to see the effects of this damaging environmental practice. Instead of ignoring EQAT’s request, a PNC executive did a flyover in Appalachia. EQAT’s actions are working.
But what are these actions, and what does it mean to participate in nonviolent direct action? Nonviolent direct action means standing up for the change one wants to see. One of EQAT’s first actions was singing songs and passing out flyers to educate the public about mountaintop coal removal outside Philadelphia’s 2010 Flower Show, of which PNC is the main sponsor. The actions have gotten more elaborate in time. In Sept. 2011, EQAT put PNC on trial in the lobby of their downtown Philadelphia regional headquarters, holding the “Court of Land, Communities, Air and Water.” Four members of EQAT risked arrest to stay inside after being ordered to leave, and demanded that PNC send a representative to the Court to respond to the charges. Both Leitner and CordonHill enjoyed this aspect of EQAT, because it is a more direct and aggressive way of asking for change. According to CordonHill, “Nonviolent direct action is able to come in when more traditional means of change are failing.” More traditional means such as lobbying or attempting to get laws passed can be slower and less effective, whereas nonviolent direct action, as CordonHill adds, “can be scary but also empowering, putting yourself in the place where it matters.” Nonviolent direct action, however, is not a means to replace our current systems, such as government. It is instead a way to work with them to speed up the process of change.
Nonviolent direct action is a powerful process, one that has worked time and time again. This is the same idea that liberated the nation of India under the leadership of Ghandi. This is the same practice that has made our country more just, used by the fair labor advocates of the early 1900’s and by the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Those who say that nonviolent direct action is not enough, that policy change is really what is needed, can learn from the successes of these historical examples and the recent success of EQAT to realize that nonviolent direct action can make positive change happen. With something as precious as the future of our earth in the balance, EQAT is exercising its right to appear and working to see a healthier planet in the future.