Global activism blooms from deep Ky. roots

Next week, one of Kentucky's newest and most well-traveled young environmental activists will join world leaders and experts in Poznan, Poland, for the United Nations climate change conference.

Marcie Smith, a 21-year-old senior at Transylvania University, will lobby on behalf of the 20-something generation as part of a 20-member delegation from the grass-roots group SustainUS.

Their goal: to share young peoples' perspectives as U.N. representatives draft the parameters of a global environmental treaty that will replace the Kyoto Protocol. A summit to agree to final terms of the agreement will be in Copenhagen next year.

But during the Poznan conference between Dec. 1 and 12, world leaders will debate key topics, such as pollution controls and standards, that are aimed at curtailing climate change.

Right there with them will be Smith, whose area of interest is curbing deforestation.

"We want to see a treaty that is bold, that is courageous. It needs to be binding, and there needs to be accountability," Smith said. "And we want to see U.S. leadership, which has been lacking."

The United States, for instance, did not agree to the Kyoto Protocol.

To describe Smith, who grew up in Richmond, as an advocacy-minded and active student is an understatement.

She has founded a campus environmental group and has interned in Congress and for a think tank in The Hague, Netherlands. She has studied in Madagascar off the coast of Africa and hopes to spend next summer in France after graduating with a double major in international relations and French.

But to call her a citizen of the world shortchanges her strong and deep Kentucky roots.

"I've just basically been given a very strong sense of family history and of place, and I can't divorce myself of that," said Smith, whose family dates back roughly two centuries in Kentucky.

Smith has a knack for balancing.

Her family and those she's worked with describe her as a rare blend of global ambition and parochial passion, theoretical "wonkishness" and practical application, realism and idealism.

"So many people in progressive politics are naïve optimists, naïve idealists. She is not. She really understands the constraints that doing good must confront," said Jeffrey Freyman, political science professor and Smith's adviser. "Despite being nobody's fool, she still is quite committed."

One subject on which she remains passionate is Kentucky. And although her studies of natural resources, energy and the climate have taken her across the globe, they inevitably lead home.

"If you're looking at what region of the country is going to be laid at the altar of energy independence, it's going to be Appalachia," she said.

Finding a balance between coal mining and environmental protection is one of her interests.

The oldest of three daughters of David and Dottie Smith, Marcie's curiosity about the world was stoked early on.

A Thanksgiving tradition is to debate hot issues in what Smith has dubbed "the War Room."

"She gets more of the political and current events from her dad's side and more of her environmental sensitivity from my side because we were so close to the land," said Smith's mother, Dottie, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Bald Knob in northwest Franklin County.

But the two seminal events that widened her perspective, Marcie said, were in high school when she read New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and two summers ago when she attended a screening of former Vice President Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

At that showing of the movie in Lexington, she sat next to U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles.

She said the film prompted her to examine human consumption and question "the way I live my life."

"So after it, I was asking him, 'So what are you doing about this?' And 'What can I do?'" Smith recalled.

Chandler suggested starting a campus environmental group.

By the fall, she and several others established Transylvania Environmental Rights and Responsibilities Alliance, which has prodded the university to be energy efficient. It launched programs, such as the "Get Trashed Campaign" that required students to carry trash bags for two weeks to show them the amount of waste they generate, and "Hug a mug," which encourages use of travel mugs instead of disposable coffee cups.

Smith later interned for Chandler, where the congressman's chief of staff, Denis Fleming, said she quickly established herself as "a standout," researching foreign affairs and environmental issues.

All her experience has prepared her for her latest adventure to Poland.

"What is neat for me is that I may not have much political capital," she said. "But we represent one of the truest examples of a grass-roots movement that the world has ever seen."