This is a copy of Sonja Smerud’s speech, SustainAbilities Coordinator this year, from the MN Environmental Congress. The Congress took place on March 15th and was primarily organized by Ellen Anderson, a former member of the U.S. Senate and advisor to Governor Dayton. Over 300 Minnesotans gathered in Bloomington to discuss Minnesota’s environment and energy future, with a primary objective being establishing goals for future action of the Environmental Quality Board. Part of the Congress also included a presentation of the youth voice, organized by the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network (MNYEN). Sonja was tasked with writing about why we should care about the environment, but youth presented a number of other opinions. Check out more results from the Congress at

“I grew up in Finland, Minnesota along the North Shore of Lake Superior. As a child, I saw a mother moose and her calf walk right through my yard. Driving Highway 1 to see moose was no big deal – we saw them at nearly every sunset. Going home now, I rarely see moose, and I know I’m not the only one. My generation is experiencing a Minnesota that is changing at an unprecedented rate. If something so iconic to This state is experiencing a population decline that baffles researchers, I am concerned at what else we may be unknowingly affecting. I’m concerned about Minnesota’s future.

I first recognized my affinity for the environment in the wild places of the Quetico-Superior region. Through my time at St. Olaf, I have come to recognize how much wild places can teach you and how important they are as we move forward in community. Strong communities like the rural town I grew up in are one of Minnesota’s claims to fame. The story of Lake Wobegon would never exist without a powerful community narrative, a narrative fostered by a connection to the land. The environment I fight for, that so many youth fight for, is more than the land under our feet. It is more than our backyards – it is our neighbors, our friends, and our family.

To me, preserving the ecosystems I love is a no-brainer. I want to see a secure future for ecosystems where there is no endangerment of key species. I know this isn’t a unique perspective. There are many Minnesotans that have an outdoor ethic like mine, that have spent time searching for moose on Highway 1, deer hunting with their dad in November, or paddling the lakes of the Boundary Waters. There are many Minnesotans who have spent time organizing for sustainable behavior on college campuses like I have – I saw them at the Next Generation Environmental Congress a few weeks ago. All of these Minnesotans value the land – they have an outdoor ethic. And the outdoors will directly feel the environmental decisions we make today. Aldo Leopold once said he was glad to “never be young without wild places to be young in.” Right now, I am terrified Leopold’s fears were justified – I’m scared the Boundary Waters I knew will someday have muddy waters, Lake Superior will fail to yield native fish, the Norway Pine will have migrated to higher latitudes, and the native prairies I’ve come to love while in college will have turned to dust. I’m terrified my children will never connect to the wild places of Minnesota like I have. To me, an outdoor ethic IS an environmental ethic, which IS Minnesotan. We’re one community that is ultimately fighting for the same thing.

The youth of Minnesota have an environmental ethic, but we are not delusional. I’m holding a smart phone that required mined copper. I drove here in a car. We’re aware we need these resources to function in society. Like many youth, I have an intimate connection to the idea of our land as a resource. At home, debates make jobs and the environment appear mutually exclusive. At school, I’ve seen farming and the environment conceptualized as stark enemies. We clearly see the importance of economic stability and preservation. But as much as I care about the resources we utilize now, I also want an environment that we can continue to find value in when I’m 65. The unprecedented rate of change we’re currently experiencing won’t just impact future generations; it will acutely impact our lives in this generation. We want to preserve Minnesota fodr the future, but we also want to preserve it for the present.

As committed as i am to this movement, I’m also scared any action I make isn’t going to make a difference. At some point, legislators and those at administration levels need to make greater steps than small behaviorial changes – someone else needs to care too. Because this isnt just about behavioral changes. This isn’t just about climate change. This isn’t even about the Boundary Waters. This is about being Minnesotan, and how we treat other Minnesotans. We treat this state, this planet, as if we have another to go to. Who wants to mess up their own community once they know what they’re doing is wrong? Because the apathy I see applied to Minnesota’s environment is wrong. We are interdependent with the environment, not separate from it, and how we treat the earth is ultimately how we’re treating ourselves. I believe I fit a lot of Minnesooootan stereotypes – generous, passive-aggressive, self-deprecating, Minnesota-nice. And I wouldn’t consider our current environmental actions as Minnesota nice.

Despite my fear for Minnesota’s future, I am encouraged by our dedication. More so than most generations in this room, the youth of Minnesota have grown up experiencing unprecedented yet now commonplace behaviors that benefit the environment: recycling, reusable grocery bags, and Energy Star appliances are all I’ve ever know. I am encouraged by these steps, and have felt empowered by Minnesota in many ways. And although I continue to be inspired by my love for this place, what really keeps me motivated is fear – fear Minnesota will fall to pieces. I want to know that the Minnesota we as youth have experienced will continue to be around. It is Minnesotan to care about the environment. It’s the land of 10000 lakes, the star of the north, and a treasured resource of our nation –we have a responsibility to protect it.”

This is why I care about the environment. Here are some more voices:

Kristen, Age 19

“We have discussed environmental issues for a long time now as “important,” but now is the time they are truly becoming urgent. We don’t have the flexibility to deal with environmental issues later, especially when our society is starting to see the effects now.”

Dominique, Age 21

“I am a descendent of the Assiniboine tribe of Native Americans, and I feel connected to my ancestors that lived on this land and shared the environment in solidarity. I think now more than ever is an ‘inflection point’ in worldwide sustainability, where the success of the 7th generation really depends on every decision we make. I hope here at the Environmental Congress, we collectively choose to make not only good, but great decisions that will make the future generations proud and inspired.”

Sarah, Age 18

“This country needs to invest in renewable energy now. My fear is that we will not be competitive with other nations if we continue to rely on dirty fuels – especially oil, which we can no longer afford. Our economy has been unstable for too long, and I don’t see a way out unless we change our outdated approach.”

Melinda, Age 25

“I don’t want you to look at me and see an environmentalist. … I want you to see a PERSON with CONCERNS FOR MY FUTURE and the future of my 1-year-old daughter.”

Andy, Age 24

“It makes us embarrassed that the US is holding the rest of the world back in combating climate change. We don’t want to be the villains in this story, but we are right now, and are perceived as such internationally. As young Americans, we want to improve our global standing by committing to strong climate action.”


Why do you care about the environment? Let us know via a comment below or on the SustainAbilities Facebook Page.