When I returned from Washington, D.C., after having been arrested for tying myself to the White House fence in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline, people were shocked. While some found it admirable, they admitted they would never do it themselves. Reasons varied from “too risky for my future,” to “not my cause,” to “it won’t make a difference.”
While Yale has maintained some semblance of activism on campus for the past few decades, students seem less willing to make sacrifices for causes larger than themselves than previous generations. News of injustice is usually met with just a Facebook post raising awareness. Students are politically aware but do not act powerfully on their opinions. Where is the anger that led students to dramatic, conspicuous actions like daily protests on the New Haven Green during the 1970 Black Panther trials, or Beinecke Plaza shantytowns in the 1980s, demanding divestment from apartheid?
The most recent on-campus demonstrations, MEChA’s Gourmet Heaven protests, were meaningful and impactful, yet were only done by a small group of student organizers. Most other students were apathetic. Why was MEChA not joined by others fighting for justice, as has happened in the past?
Today we have cause to be furious. We now face the increasingly harsh reality of global climate change, a problem that we have brought upon ourselves. It threatens our existence as a species on this planet; the situation has never been more urgent. An IPCC report from this week reaffirms that the planet is warming at an alarming rate with dangerous implications.
Fortunately, we know a root of this catastrophe: the enormously powerful fossil fuel companies (the most profitable industry in history) and their relentless extraction. They currently hold over 2,765 gigatons of carbon in reserves and plan to burn it all, despite the United Nations statement that only one-fifth of that amount is safe to burn to avoid the most catastrophic climate change effects. This industry is treacherous, and it must go.
That’s why I joined Fossil Free Yale (FFY) as soon as I got to Yale. Thus far, FFY has drawn up a convincing policy proposal for Yale’s Corporate Committee on Investor Responsibility and has invested much time and energy into securing private, exclusive meetings with corporation members. Although FFY has made a great deal of progress with the administration by gaining influential allies, this seems to be the extent of the tactics FFY is willing to take.
Unfortunately, its conservative approach is holding us back.
When I and other students returned from XL Dissent, the action protesting Keystone XL, Fossil Free Yale refused to associate with it. It decided not to support the action because it was seen as a radical threat to fragile negotiations with the administration. The decision is understandable, but alarming, proving that the institutional approach is FFY’s priority. They emphasize this instead of other important tactics like coalition building with other justice organizations and building solidarity with frontline communities (those who live near extraction sites). With the exception of FFY, the action was endorsed by every other participating school’s divestment campaign.
Fossil fuel divestment is powerful not because it will financially harm the companies, which it probably won’t, but because it damages their reputation. If Fossil Free Yale is concerned primarily with getting a “yes” from the administration, specifically through private conversation and delicate word choice, it will not cause the social damage that is needed. Taking an institutional approach will probably get a “yes” faster, but we must not do so at the expense of not effecting real change on campus. It will take more than sitting in a boardroom to make a real difference; the “yes” is meaningless if the public’s mindset has not shifted.
We should respectfully negotiate with the administration, but we cannot hesitate to antagonize the Corporation members if we want them to make decisions they are uncomfortable with. We also need a sizeable and strong coalition of determined students to be respectful and even formal in certain settings, but also to prove our willingness to make real sacrifices to get what we want — and ultimately, what we need to have a future on this planet.
Finally, our varied approach must include more radical strategies. FFY’s lack of bold action only reflects what has become the student body’s general attitude. Let’s attempt to foster a Yale where students feel compelled to act regarding issues they have strong opinions about — I’m looking at you, the 2,369 students who voted “yes” on our referendum. Tuesday’s action demanding divestment is a great start. The risks of climate change are scarily real, so we must start taking risks of our own. If civil disobedience in front of the White House seemed risky for your future, it’s nothing compared to what lies ahead.
Alexandra Barlowe is a freshman in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .