(by Jonathon Meeks, Alabama Chapter Chair) The Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign has recently filled the Senior Campaign Representative position. The campaign representative is responsible for Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. For those of you not familiar, “The Beyond Coal campaign’s main objective is to replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built." As your Chapter Chair I feel privileged and elated to relay the wonderful news that the new campaign representative will now be headquartered in Montgomery, and that Sierra Club has chosen one of Alabama’s native sons, Stephen Stetson.
Stephen grew up in Troy, Alabama. He spent much of his youth as a Boy Scout, camping and appreciating Alabama’s natural wonders. As he came of age, he grew tired of his state “being first in everything bad and last in everything good.” He noticed that many of his smart friends moved away, largely because they felt they had to. “It becomes a self sustaining problem, a cultural issue, when so many of our best and brightest move to cities like New Orleans, Nashville or Atlanta for economic opportunity or for the more progressive folks to find more people like them.” Stephen couldn’t help but notice the ongoing struggles of the state he loves so much.
Stephen left Troy for the University of Texas in Austin where he studied journalism. He didn’t stay away for long, and returned after graduation to work for the Troy Messenger. During his time at the Troy newspaper Stephen grew frustrated that many people wouldn’t call him back or tack his calls, impeding his efforts to do well researched, hard hitting journalism. This frustration led him to law school at The University of Alabama, where he honed his research and writing skills. Stephen never wanted to work for a big law firm; he used his time in law school to study anti-poverty, criminal justice and human rights issues. He also had the opportunity there to gain a lot of public policy experience and work on his debate skills. After law school, Stephen joined the team at Alabama Arise where he remained for the next nine years.
For Stephen, environmental issues have always been in the background. He read the book “Beyond Beef” by Jeremy Rifkin in 1992. In the book, the cost of a McDonald’s hamburger is measured in acres of South American rainforest. This comparison turned on a light regarding sustainability for Stephen. He describes his intellectual evolution as the moment he realized the intersection of environmental justice with the ecological paradigm, the realization that the most dire ecological effects are realized by communities that are seen as disposable. Stephen’s intellectual revolution let him build his career on the inseparable issues of health and environment. Working on electricity rate issues at Alabama Arise is what really brought clean energy to the forefront of his mind. He realized that fuel choice and the prices that people pay for electricity “are one and the same.” Stephen believes that this epiphany, along with his electricity rate work at Alabama Arise, are what helped his candidacy to become the new Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign representative.
While Stephen has spent most of his working life indoors, he concedes that “in the policy world, you stare at a screen way too often.” Stephen is also on the board of our partner Alabama Rivers Alliance and enjoys their retreats and meetings which tend to happen in wilderness areas and are often outside. “I love when my phone says ‘no service’” is another phrase that illustrates that his office work is more about protecting Alabama’s beauty than escaping into the air conditioning. “It’s clear to me from traveling to other states that Alabama is one of the most beautiful, and worth protecting,” he said. This attitude is what led Stephen to the discovery of the Montgomery Sierra Club group where he’s recently become a member. “I’ve been excited to go to meetings and learn and see the huge infusion energy into the local club” said Stephen during our conversation. He also pointed out that Montgomery was lucky to have our former Alabama Chapter Chair Dr. Bob Hastings leading the Montgomery group.
I finally asked Stephen what his goals were for the Beyond Coal Campaign in Alabama. “There is a lot of building to do in Alabama, but that means that Alabama has the most room for improvement.” I think he’s aware that this will be no easy task in Alabama, and though we’re behind (again) he seems to gain hope from the progress in our neighboring states. Mississippi has a new Public Service Commission and Georgia Power has a couple of older power plants that they can transition to cleaner energy. Stephen thinks the southeast is “ripe for investment in solar.” While Stephen did point out how far Alabama is behind in creating a responsible regulatory environment for energy companies, it’s easy to see that he’s hopeful and encouraged that we will make headway on these issues here in Alabama.
The Beyond Coal Campaign Representative position was originally to be based in Atlanta. While he considered moving there, he said “staying in Alabama was so important that it was almost a deal breaker for me. I wanted to be here, where I know we have the most potential, and have made the least progress.”
It’s clear to me that Stephen Stetson will be an asset to Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign and the Alabama Chapter. I received this comment from Cindy Lowry, the Executive Director of Alabama Rivers Alliance which echoes that view point: “Stephen has been a force in progressive public policy advocacy in Alabama for years now and has been an active volunteer in the environmental movement as a board member for the Alabama Rivers Alliance. We are excited to have him join the movement as a staff member for Sierra Club. Having a presence from National Sierra Club will only strengthen our movement and our ability to protect Alabama's environment.”