The Road to Detroit


Residents
of Detroit, Michigan have always taken their cars seriously, so
they were understandably baffled by the latest contraption rolling
down Eight Mile Drive: a school bus painted with corn rows reading,
“Crusin’ ain’t easy at three dollars a gallon. Oil
is over. Drive the Future.” And then, above the rear wheels,
“Biodiesel.” 


According
to Jamie Henn, the 21-year-old co-organizer of the Road to Detroit
campaign, the slogan embodies an underlying logic: “We thought,
cars are the major contributor to global warming. Cars are made
in Detroit. We’re going to go there.” 


The
Road to Detroit’s mission is multifaceted. “The Road to
Detroit crew spent the summer talking to farmers, Republicans, and,
most importantly, labor,” says Sarah Connolly, a representative
from the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a
non-profit sponsor of the bus trip. The common denominator uniting
these groups: indignation over the wasteful behavior of the “big
three” Detroit-based automakers—Ford, Daimler-Chrysler,
and General Motors. 


The
Road to Detroit crew doesn’t shun the wisdom of existing environmental
organizations. On the contrary, they’ve taken an important
cue from RAN’s “Jumpstart Ford” campaign by addressing
their 15,000-citizen-strong “Clean Car Pledge” to the
Ford Motor Company. “Ford has had the most fleet-wide greenhouse
gas emissions five years running,” says Boeve, making them
an ideal high-profile industry target. Road to Detroit also teamed
up with San Francisco-based Energy Action to create a media-savvy
campaign that managed to sustain the romance and idealism of a college
road trip. 


Drive
the Future Weekend, the culminating event of a long, greasy (their
bus runs on vegetable oil as well as biodiesel) journey, felt predictably
eclectic. On Saturday, August 20, the eight-member bus crew, along
with an entourage of friends and like-minded activists, descended
on suburban Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise. They rumbled
down Woodward Avenue all afternoon waving to children, spreading
the word on alternative fuel technologies, and voicing concern about
a stagnant, inefficient U.S. auto industry. “You just have
to let people know that there are alternatives and they’ll
be excited,” reflected Mike Gregor from Macomb, Michigan. 


On
the following afternoon, the bus rested outside the First Unitarian
Universalist church in downtown Detroit while its passengers hosted
an all-day educational symposium on alternative fuel. “Movements
start with visions and profound questions,” declared Rich Feldman,
an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) veteran, longtime autoworker
union activist, and author of End of the Line, an oral history
of the U.S. automobile industry. He encouraged the assembled crowd
of students and concerned local citizens to take their political
cues from such varied sources as Martin Luther King, the Zapatistas,
and anti-WTO protestors in Seattle. His talk portrayed the Road
to Detroit as the vanguard of an alternative vision for a town that,
with rising oil prices, encroaching foreign competition, and job
flight, has been forsaken by the U.S. economy. 


As
director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation
at the nearby University of Michigan, Walter McManus released a
study in July on the potential effects of higher gasoline prices
on vehicle sales and the U.S. auto industry. Among his findings:
were oil prices to rise from August’s $67 per barrel to $80
or $100 per barrel, even patriotic Americans would stop buying U.S.-made
cars. Consequently, Detroit would bear the brunt of the impact on
the economy in the form of 465,000 automobile and support industry
jobs lost. 


But
McManus’s study also looks optimistically towards economic
recovery: “While high oil prices do put American jobs at risk,
I think there’s still time to do something to combat these
risks.” Specifically, he has found that “fuel prices matter
to new vehicle buyers.” Last year, over 95 percent of SUV  drivers
claimed that fuel prices would factor into their decision to purchase
a new car, a statistic that suggests car buyers would support an
auto industry shift towards production of more fuel-efficient vehicles. 


True
to its expressed commitment to the city of Detroit, the conference
also featured a host of local artists. “The city has left us
shattered and broken,” sang Joe Reilly, a Detroit-based folksinger
whose music addresses industrial decay, pollution, and human resilience.
Later, students from the local Matrix Theatre Company performed
skits mocking auto industry CEOs and a local chapter of “Raging
Grannies” led participants in a round of climate-sensitive
children’s songs: “The people in the street go cough cough
cough….” 






Perhaps the most
surprising guest of the event was Reverend Charles Morris, pastor
of a catholic church in nearby Wyandotte, Michigan. With a reference
to Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,”
he detailed his efforts to “walk the walk” to make his
own parish more environmentally sustainable. As director of Michigan
Interfaith Power and Light, a collection of energy conscious religious
organizations, he has helped his congregation to reduce its energy
use by 60 percent. 



By
late afternoon, the assembled crowd had broken into groups to discuss,
among other things, the next stage of the student climate change
movement. Billy Parish, a 23-year-old organizer for Energy Action,
has organized a “campus climate challenge” in which he
hopes students on 500 campuses will petition their Administrations
for better energy practices. 


His
exuberance was coupled with a pragmatic sense of political expediency:
“Imagine 1,000 student groups across the continent working
to transform their campuses into sustainable communities, organizing
enormous unified actions, and joining together in state, regional,
and national student summits. This is the grassroots energy the
global warming movement needs.”  


Riding
a surge of grassroots energy and artistic inspiration, the Road
to Detroit tour bus and its entourage made its last stop outside
the former Model T assembly plant in downtown Detroit. In an appropriately
austere ceremony, Henn delivered the Road to Detroit’s clean-car
pledge to Bernie Rickey, vice-president of the UAW 600 Union. 


Weeks
later, Katrina’s effect on gas prices would bring the Road
to Detroit campaign into sharp focus. 


The
prospect of a new global climate order being enacted in December
suggests that the type of collegiate activism embodied by the Road
to Detroit will not only be relevant to today’s climate change
debate, but perhaps even stand as a political force to be reckoned
with. Their biodiesel fuel, after all, at least compared to gasoline,
is inexhaustible, organic, and U.S.- grown. Their movement may last
longer than the big three auto-makers assume it will. “The
future can be frightening or it can be a renaissance,” says
Sarah Trapido, a crew member who plans to stay plugged into climate
change happenings on returning to campus this fall. “We opt
for the latter.”
 




Mike Ives is
a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. His last article, “On
Corn and Culture,” appeared in the June  2005 edition of
Z