A contradiction immediately came to mind as I spent more time at the hotel, going to workshops and being treated to served dinners and glass elevators. The conference seemed to exemplify consumerism at its best. The Hotel was expensive, the food was meaty, and just about everyone had to fly to reach the conference. Is this modern day environmentalism? Do environmentalists get to discuss options and express grievances while simultaneously participating in the system of consumerism that is the root of so many problems? I couldn’t help but feel hypocritical. I definitely was not in Portland anymore. Where were the composting and local food options? Where was the simplicity of Tryon Life Farm?
I realized that the kind of environmentalism that I was experiencing was born of brutal political engagement. One speaker who was representing the EPA referred to the political battle over coal currently waging in West Virginia as a “war with the enemies.” I realized that in circumstances when people’s livelihoods and values clash with forces like the coal industry, the kind of inclusive environmentalism practiced at Tryon Life Farm or even Portland at large is not possible. The Blue Green Alliance (http://www.bluegreenalliance.org/) is a branch of the Sierra Club that has a partnership with Steel Worker Unions to fight for environmental justice and safe conditions in the workplace. I met a woman from South Carolina who had been diagnosed with brain cancer after being exposed to a chlorine gas repeatedly in the workplace. She was at the conference to fight for her right to work in a healthy and safe environment; she was there because in a way, she had to be, unlike myself.
I used to have the vague opinion that the Sierra Club was just the coffee table book of environmentalism, or that all they did was host their fancy conferences and never address the heart of environmental issues. I have realized that just because they don’t focus as much on the local issues, they are the ones funding and pushing for political policies that will make environmentalism effective on a national and ultimately global scale. However, finding a balance between National Environmental Conferences at the Marriot Wardman Hotel and isolated community action on a local scale is the key to making any lasting environmental impacts.