Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Takes on the “Hard Work on the Ground”
To some students, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference: Getting a student’s promise to be responsible with their computer’s energy. Letting the local Congressmen know of their gratitude. Informing a passer-by of innovative ways to recycle.
They’re all important to the Iowa Student Public Interest Research Group, or Iowa PIRG, a small, student activist group working to solve a large array of society’s most pressing problems.
Iowa Student PIRG is a branch of U.S. PIRG, which is an advocate for product safety, reforming health care, better public transit, and many other issues affecting the public good. U.S. PIRG has state chapters active in 47 different states. State PIRGs began almost 40 years ago. They’re independent and use tactics such as investigative research and grassroots organizing.
Iowa PIRG brings concerned students together to work on hunger, homelessness, global warming solutions, and other issues. Students involved in this organization get great hands-on experience on how to become activists.
I started with PIRG in January 2009. A new semester had just begun, and with that came the need to buy new textbooks. As anyone in college knows, textbooks are too costly for those with limited budgets — the typical student spends an average of $900 per year covering this expense. PIRG decided to raise awareness on this issue.
In mid-January, our group set up an oversized textbook in the Iowa Memorial Union, the center of student life on the University of Iowa campus. Students signed their names along with the amount they spent on textbooks. Many entries were in the $400+ range. While at the table, PIRG informed students of price-lowering tactics that universities can employ, like switching to open textbooks, which are free online. This campaign was featured on KWWL TV’s evening news on January 29, 2009.
During the remainder of the semester, we’ve focused mainly on a wide variety of sustainability issues. During the week of Valentine’s Day, PIRG had students sign heart-shaped cards to send to Representative Loebsack and Senator Harkin. These legislators supported the Economic Stimulus Bill, which pledged a large amount of money toward clean energy, energy efficiency, and green transportation. PIRG wanted to say “Thank You” to these local legislators for their noble efforts, and about 100 students signed Valentines.
Recently, PIRG worked with the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition to promote Power Down for the Planet, which urges students to reduce their computer’s energy use. This initiative promotes ENERGY STAR rated products and the use of Power Management settings.
“One of the primary purposes was simply to raise awareness about ways to save energy used during computing and the importance of doing so,” said Rachel Nathanson, a UI junior involved with the UIEC. “I think we reached some students who hadn’t considered the power usage of their computers and how they can make reductions.”
Universities across the nation competed to get the most student pledges vowing to exercise green computing. Percentage-wise, the University of Iowa ranked third overall but first in the number of campus-wide pledges, at more than 6,000. This total carbon offset would save the UI $157, 815 per year and 1,444,383 kWh per year of energy.
Nathanson sees the benefits promoted by Power Down for the Planet being applied to a broader spectrum by changing the way people think about their use of other appliances. “Practicing green computing will surely help save energy used by computers, but these benefits may extend to energy usage reductions with other electronics as people build habits oriented towards improved energy consciousness,” Nathanson said.
After working with Nathanson and the UIEC, PIRG kept the momentum going by participating in the Expo following the Green Summit 2009, which kicked off Earth Week. Our booth featured a petition asking the state to allocate money toward the Midwest High Speed Rail Network. This would connect Iowa City to the Quad Cities by a 79 mph train.
The Green Summit kicked off its first year this year, the result of an idea that University of Iowa Student Organization Liaison Abbie Gruwell had last summer.
“All of the groups I talked to said they made valuable, personal connections and generated a lot of interest,” Gruwell said. “I believe that it is important for students to not only learn about the scientific, business, and political side of the environmental movement, but also the hard work that happens on the ground.”
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