"SDS, Jr.: Wrapping Itself In The Cloak of Environmentalism, A New Movement Is Spreading Fast In the Universities. But It Seems Less Interested In Cleaning The Air Than In Bashing Capitalism"

By Martin Kihn
10 June 1991

SDS, Jr.

REMEMBER THE Students for a Democratic Society? Led by people like Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd, SDS scared lots of Americans during the late 1960s and early 1970s into thinking the revolution was at hand. It wasn't and isn't, but SDS garnered publicity and a following on campuses out of all proportion to a membership that never extended beyond 200 campuses. It also spawned a certain amount of nasty violence before sliding into oblivion.

You haven't yet heard nearly as much about the Student Environmental Action Coalition. But you may well. although barely two years old, SEAC claims 15,000 affiliated students on 1,100 campuses from Harvard to Chico State. Last October more than 8,000 students from schools in all 50 states and 11 foreign countries gathered on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urban for SEAC's second national conference.

Jane Fonda, the radical heroine of the SDS, wasn't there, but multimillionaire Robert Redford delivered his boilerplate about the "greed" of the 1980s. According to a report by Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Mongovern, Biscoe & Duchin, Inc., Ralph Nader arrived late and began his speech by saying the "establishment" seeks to launch counterattacks against the public welfare movement, citing a recent article in FORBES as evidence. Present was a Who's Who of radicalism, including Earth First's Dave Foreman and United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez. Jesse Jackson showed.

Once again the talk was of revolution. According to the local News-Gazette, Helen Galdicott, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, surveyed the crowd and exulted: "This is the beginning of the revolution that's going to save the earth."

But the differences between this meeting and an old-time SDS gathering were more cosmetic than real. The emphasis was ot on clean air and clean water and saving the green spaces. The focus was on the evil of big corporations. SEAC's outreach coordinator, Randy Viscio, 23, received a standing ovation when he told the crowd that their main objective should be to do away with all corporations--and even capitalism itself.

SEAC's newsletter, Threshold, published monthly during the school year, leaves no doubt that there is, intellectually speaking, a clear line of descent from SDS to SEAC. Sample line: "The student movement can't, and can't afford to, exclude revolutionaries and communists." Another article spoke about "the insidious nature of the international economic system, capitalism, under which we live."

Some SEAC members deny that their own aims are "radical," but "it's perfectly all right with us if a SEAC member's goal is to end all private enterprise in the U.S. and around the world," says SEAC's national council coordinator, Beth Ising, 21, a junior at James Madison University.

SEAC members frequently go to great lengths to distance themselves from more mainstream environmentalist outfits. Some members tend to believe groups like the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, which have an estimated combined war chest of over $100 million, have sold out. "The National Wildlife Federation lets corporations determine its environmental policies to the extent that I think they've been bought out," says Ising. Unlike mainstream groups, SEAC prefers direct action to cooperation. Ising points to a demonstration in April 1990, when 300 SEAC members invaded a House subcommittee hearing on the Clean Air Act chanting, "Air was sold to industry!" "Being an environmentalist to us is not writing out a check once a year," she says. Her motto seems to be: In your face, capitalist pig.

SEAC's definition of environmentalism is a good deal broader than that used by mainstream groups. It encompasses "anything that has any impact on any living organism," in the words of Eric Kessler, 19, a group coordinator at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In SEAC's lexicon, trade unions are environmentally good, but Hydro-Quebec is not. SEAC is very, very politically correct, and thinks the rest of the world should be as well. SEAC's Randy Viscio says: "Corporations have to overcome their male-dominated side and become more nurturing."

SEAC began at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, when a student placed an ad in Greenpeace magazine for people interested in forming a national coalition. In the fall of 1989 the group had its first national conference. Roughly 1,500 people attended. After the October conference in Champaign-Urbana, SEAC hired five full-time staff members at its Chapel Hill headquarters.

Who foots the bill? You do, in part. SEAC's $15 to $35 membership fees will be supplemented by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. SEAC divides the country into 17 regions, each with its own organizers and campaigns, and regularly holds meetings of the national council, which represents all regions.

At the national council meeting in January, SEAC approved three specific corporate targets: Coors, British Petroleum and Hydro-Quebec. Coors stood accused of dumping toxic waste, British Petroleum of encouraging "spiritual death"--meaning a poisoning of the earth--and Hydro-Quebec of flooding out the natural homeland of the Cree Indians.

During a meeting in March with Coors management, the students were surprised by the entrance of Coors' chairman, Peter Coors. "We were wondering how seriously they took us," says Beth Ising, who attended the meeting. "It turned out, very."

SEAC got Coors' attention with a tactic that will undoubtedly be used against other businesses. Members wrote to a Sbarro's restaurant in New Jerplaining that it served Coors. The Sbarro's manager contacted his Coors distributor, who alerted Coors management. "The National Toxics Campaign and Citizen Action have been trying to get a meeting with Coors for years," says Ising. "The difference is, we hurt them. Students can stop buying Coors." (The National Toxics Campaign and Citizen Action deny requesting a meeting.)

SEAC's constituents are the children of the children of the 1960s, brought up by one of the most rebellious generations in U.S. history. At the national council meeting this month, a sing-along is planned. One featured tune: "Down With Corporate Pigs Against the Environment."

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