At 14, Lauren Sawyer, a senior in environmental studies and sustainable development, went on a backpacking trip to Washington. As she drove through the region – which has been hit hard in recent years by heat waves, wildfires and poor air quality required – she began to learn about climate change and its effects. .
It was her connection to nature that first inspired her to get involved in climate science.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always really loved going out,” Sawyer said.
But as she got older, her experiences gave her a more nuanced view of what climate activism can look like. Sawyer grew up in the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of St. Joseph. Next door, just across the Paw Paw River, is the predominantly black Benton Harbor, where the public water system has consistently tested above federal and state limits for lead contamination since 2018.
Sawyer saw how little state and national media covered the Benton Harbor crisis. She was shocked because it took more than three years and passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to get needed federal funds into the city.
“The lead levels are higher than they were in Flint,” Sawyer said. “And that probably wouldn’t be a problem if Benton Harbor was a white town, frankly.”
With this crisis in mind, Sawyer has found herself becoming an activist who views climate issues through an intersectional lens. She believes that more of the conversation on climate change needs to focus on climate justice, with the understanding that a warming Earth will disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities.
In addition to his research in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sustainability, Sawyer interned with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club climate activism organization and completed the MSU-Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and innovation.
At MSU, she is a member of the Student Sustainability Leadership Council, Honors College, Bailey Hall Government, Committee on Undergraduate Education, and the MSU Chapter of the Sierra Club.
She is especially proud of a research project in which she investigated how climate change and natural disasters can drive and affect migration.
Although she has been assisted by many older climate experts in her work and training, Sawyer is certain things are different for Gen Z: Generation will be here for the worst.
“(In older generations) there’s a narrative of ‘well, I won’t be here, so it’s not my problem,'” Sawyer said. “I think a lot of climate stress and anxiety is created among students, young people and Gen Z. They feel like they can’t do anything but recycle except use a reusable straw. And really, it can be frustrating.
Sawyer said his generation is empowered through social media, connected to issues and to each other in ways that other generations might not be.
This spring, Sawyer will be graduating from MSU. Looking back on her time, she said that while she was grateful for the connections to policy makers and experienced faculty, she felt that MSU as an organization could do better in terms of sustainability.
Sawyer said she was particularly frustrated with the board’s response to Sunrise MSU’s divestment campaign, which urged the university to divest entirely from fossil fuels, as it promised in 2018.
Recalling her time as an ASMSU representative, Sawyer sees the divestment debacle as one of many examples of the MSU administration ignoring student voices, a concern echoed by Sunrise organizers.
“I think like any business — and MSU is a business — there is room for improvement, but I haven’t lost faith that MSU is a great school,” Sawyer said. “It has many resources for students to learn more about sustainability so they can take action themselves.”
Like many in her promotion, Sawyer feels much of her Spartan background has been “drained” by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left her especially sad to move on. However, she was optimistic about the continuation of her work.
“I think we all have a role to play,” she said. “I think we all have a responsibility to take care of the earth and right wrongdoings.”
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