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A Revolution in the Streets of Boston

In 2060, those of us still alive will look back on the next several decades and, no doubt, see an amazing period of revolutionary change. But will it be enough?
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It's hard to see that you are in the middle of a revolution while it's happening.

Here in Boston, the American Revolution saw more than a decade of vast economic, social and political change. When we look back, though, one has to wonder if the majority of the public saw the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence as part of a revolution. At the time these events were, respectively: a terrible tragedy where 5 people died, a radical act of advocacy led by a few dozen people, and a bold statement from 56 progressive leaders with arguably no legal power to govern.

The lesson? Small events become the sparks for large movements that change the world.

Today, by all accounts, the world finds itself in the midst of a crisis and in desperate need of a Revolution. Seven billion of us are trapped on a planet with dramatically rising temperatures and increasing competition for dwindling resources. In the coming forty years, global population will pass 9 billion and 2-3 billion people currently without access to electricity will come on the grid. The atmosphere that will hold the carbon from the energy production needed to house, clothe, feed and move these people is already saturated and the planet is showing the effects.

The twenty-somethings of today have been told, and rightly so, that they have their professional lives -- between now and retirement at 2060 or so -- to mitigate these problems. To do this they must not only drive a Clean Energy Revolution on the scale of the Industrial Revolution but also lead an unprecedented cultural and behavioral revolution.


Within this historic context, the country's top young environmental, energy and clean tech leaders came together last week in Boston, MA for the 24th Annual Conference of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS), The Power of Law Students. No shots were fired. No tea was dumped. No new government was formed. But the organizers and participants at this weekend's conference seemed well aware they were on the front lines of something big.

The event kicked off on Friday morning, where, under the guidance of national energy law expert Professor Steven Ferrey, six distinguished speakers discussed how the city and state are driving forward sustainable techniques and renewable resources that have the potential to mitigate harmful environmental damage while providing important societal necessities.

David Cash, from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, gave an overview of the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan -- the most aggressive of any state in the country -- which lays out a path for the Commonwealth's 6.5 million people to use 25% less carbon in 2020 than the did in 1990, then ramp up efforts to get to 80% reductions by 2050. Brad Swing, from the City of Boston, followed with an inspiring presentation on how the city is taking aggressive measures to retrofit its existing building stock in an attempt to Spark Boston's Climate Revolution. If we are going to see the type of emissions reductions that the science mandates to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, efforts like these in Boston and Massachusetts will be leading the charge.


With these aggressive, revolutionary plans fresh in their minds, attendees moved across the street for sessions hosted by Boston College Law School on the negative externalities of fossil fuels. The audience heard from a group of twenty-somethings who, in the aftermath of the tragic BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, led by visionary environmental law professor Zygmunt Plater, mobilized to write 20 legal briefs and sent them to the National Commission on the BP Oil Spill. While most of us have now compartmentalized the event as another terrible tragedy that cost lives and caused irreparable damage to an already devastated Gulf Coast, these students' legal briefs will help ensure that the rights of those most effected are respected long after the national spotlight is gone from the Gulf.

According to lead research student Greg O'Brien, "This project took a concerted effort from a lot of students and we hope it will provide a valuable body of research for the Commission. It was an honor to work with everyone involved." Or as lead organizer Eric French puts it, "the research papers provided a unique learning experience for the students who wrote them, and it was great to fee like we were doing our part in response to the spill."

From the other side of the country, a group of Boalt Hall Law students from UC-Berkeley - Stephanie Brauer, Jared Fish, and Nell Green Nylen - followed with a presentation on their efforts to shine a similar light on the exploration for and extraction of natural gas. The students showed the invisible costs incurred - poisoned wells, dangerous gas explosions, millions of threatened residents from Pennsylvania to New York to California - every time we turn up the thermostat during our cold Boston winters.

In the evening, Joan Popolo from the Clean Tech Open spoke to these potential Solar Rockefellers & Edisons about a competition designed to foster the efforts of a new generation of clean tech entrepreneurs. Later, they were joined by veterans of the environmental, energy and clean tech sectors to talk about how to navigate the difficult path of starting a revolution while making ends meet, paying back loans, and getting jobs.

Student lead organizers Justin Elliott and Karen Richards noted their excitement in "bringing together students and professionals passionate about the environment to share experiences, advice, and guidance for becoming a part of the solution."


On Saturday, the revolution shifted west to Northeastern University School of Law where first year law student Nathan Band and leading water law expert Professor Lee Breckenridge led a group of dedicated organizers who planned a day focused on water -- a life-sustaining resource already in short supply from Vegas to Manilla. Students heard from local experts on the Massachusetts Public Trust Doctrine -- a legal theory with ancient roots that declares that government does not own natural resources but holds them as trustees for citizens.

Northeastern student Heather Govern, noted that "although water scarcity here in Boston is not an issue (yet), our citizens' access to water for viewing and recreational purposes is. The best way to raise awareness of the Earth's precious natural resources is to expose individuals to the beauty and opportunities those resources offer, which is why the Northeastern Environmental Law Society is fighting for better public access to the Boston Harbor."

Several centuries ago, the rivers of Massachusetts helped launch the Industrial Revolution - turning the wheels in Waltham, Lawrence, and New Bedford that powered the country's first watch factories and textile mills. John Miller from the Marine Renewable Energy Center spoke about today's industrial revolutionaries who are now looking to harness the tremendous untapped power of the world's oceans and the wind that blows above them to drive a clean energy revolution. Ann Brewster Weeks from the Clean Air Task Force followed with a presentation detailing the intricate connections between water and energy - both the use of water in creating the energy we use and the disastrous effects that climate change will have on the world's water supplies.

To round out the morning, Staci Rubin form Alternatives for Community and Environment, Mike Walker from the EPA, and Mary Ann Nelson from the Sierra Club talked about the interconnected physical and human web of water, toxics, energy, climate, and low-income communities - looking at how to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all, while not unfairly punishing groups that often bear the brunt of industrial development because they lack the money and power to make their voices heard.


And then all the listening and lessons learned from graduates stopped and the youth began to speak.

First, a group of young visionaries talked with the audience about the power and potential of the 4,000 campuses in the US and their 15 million students to create change. Mark Orlowski, Director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, unveiled a project to work with students and administrators to generate $1 Billion in revolving green loan funds on today's campuses -- pools of money that fund the energy efficiency and renewable energy projects so desperately needed.

Following him, clean energy activist Josh Lynch, possibly most famous for his brief appearance on the John Daly show's Moment of Zen, and who, by the way, helped launch a 100,000 person youth Power Shift that has created a grassroots network of climate advocates around the country, talked about his work retrofitting homes in the poorest sections of Boston.

And finally, Craig Altemose, former leader of Students for a Just and Stable Future, talked about the hundreds of students who, in a move that would have made Samuel Adams proud, dumped their addiction to dirty energy from fossil fuels last year, and camped out for several nights on the Boston Commons - demanding 100% clean energy by 2020. In the mornings these energy independents rolled up their sleeping bags and headed into the State House to talk with their representatives. Last Summer, they spread out across the state on carbon-free bikes to bring their message back to district.

To close out the sessions, four students from the Yale Environmental Law Association -- George Collins, Daniel Knudsen, Eric Merrill and Stephanie Safdi -- walking in the giant footsteps of Gus Speth and a group of Yale law graduates who founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1970's -- led a discussion on what they see as a bright future for the field of environmental law. This coming weekend, in the midst of future Presidents, Members of Congress, and legal scholars, they will run the first environmental law conference at Yale Law School in nearly 20 years, New Directions in Environmental Law: A Climate of Possibility, at which they will lay out the broad strokes of a Revolution they see coming at the country's law schools.

According to the organizers, "we aim for our conference to help galvanize our generation of law students to see environmental law in novel and complex ways - as reflecting a range of social justice concerns, values implicated in modes of regulatory decision-making, and visions about the kind of sustainable world which we can shape."


In 2060, the young leaders at this past weekend's conference will look back on the next several decades and, no doubt, see an amazing period of revolutionary change. They may well remember the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the sleepout on the Boston Commons, Powershift, and the Yale Conference as moments that helped to galvanize a national and worldwide movement towards a healthier, cleaner world.

The question that future generations will ask them is whether their revolution was powerful and transformative enough to prevent the worst predicted impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. And as I type, they are in the process of answering that question - as they lead a Revolution that is certainly already here and may just save the world.