Here at the University, “changing the world” is a glamorous affair. From the opening exercises of our first year, we undergraduates are praised as future world leaders, or, in the words of President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, “pilots of the rafts on which we travel.” Everyone is a member of the Great Class of Twenty-something, and we’re all presumably in The Service of Humanity. The implication is understood. In order to make the world a better place, one must be intelligent, successful, and powerful — in short, one must necessarily be Great.
The proposed construction of Compressor Station 206 in the nearby Franklin Township is an unsolicited but necessary reminder that changing the world is rarely so sexy. Grassroots efforts from nearby townships and the newly formed student group, Princeton Against Station 206, a subgroup of the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, are pushing back against the development, which endangers our respiratory health on campus and the safety of the nearby community. The success of their efforts will reveal whether we, Princeton students and aspiring leaders, are capable of changing the world, particularly when it has nothing to do with our own Greatness.
According to FERC Docket No. CP17-101, Station 206, a project conceived by natural gas provider Williams, would be a 32,000 horsepower gas compressor station emitting over 200,000 cubic feet of carcinogenic exhaust per minute. This would be just 4.5 miles from campus and a half mile from an active dynamite blasting site. The Station will send highly pressurized gas through an outdated pipeline, across the ecologically vulnerable Raritan Bay and all the way to Brooklyn and Staten Island. Princeton would enjoy none of the benefits, besides the toxic fumes emitted by the Station’s twin smoke stacks and the possibility of a catastrophic explosion.
Preventing this project might be a piece of cake if we were already powerful — if one of our student activists was already the governor of New Jersey, or the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or even the CEO of Williams. This, however, is not the case.
Nor is it the case that the Station will be prevented by the sort of spectacular activism with which our generation of campus dwellers has become so familiar. At this point in the process, the most direct way to resist the project is to register as an intervenor on the Federal Energy Reserve Commission website and to do so before May 15th. This will send a message to the regulatory commissions that either approve or reject the project. Resistance is purely bureaucratic. No walkouts or sit-ins will sway the federal government, at least for now.
Finally, students hoping to prevent the construction of Station 206 must forfeit the role of activist-protagonist. The citizens of the Franklin Township have been fighting the project since 2016, and their efforts only spread to the campus community in the past few months. If this were a movie, we would be extras, at best.
So what are we, as University students, left with? Very little, in terms of personal gratification. We will not be written about in the New York Times, nor offered a postgraduate fellowship for our fearless leadership. We are deprived the opportunity to demonstrate our Greatness.
What we are left with is the opportunity to make change in small and quiet ways. This, after all, is what most people without a prestigious diploma or multi-billion dollar endowment have to work with: minor acts of resistance, unacknowledged sacrifice, strength in anonymity.
The threat of Station 206 could very well be a moment of reckoning for the future leaders among us. In his recent visit to the University, activist Deray McKesson observed that many people our age relish the idea of activism, but not necessarily its reality. By forcing us to resist in ways that challenge our popular ideas of change-making, the threat of Station 206 has decoupled these distinct concepts: sexy activism and concrete results, ideas and reality, process and product.
If resistance to the Station succeeds, life will proceed as normal. Finding a summer internship will still be stressful. You will still have that 8:30 a.m. precept. Little will change. But we will know the answer to the question posed by Station 206, a question that we would do well to ask ourselves more often. What do you strive for: a good world, or your own Greatness?