This article was originally published in the Columbia Spectator and is reposted here with the permission of the author.
What is “student power”? It took me a long time to begin to understand the term, despite being surrounded by people who invoke it often. When we work on divestment, demanding that Columbia and Barnard stop investing our endowments in the fossil fuel industry, we discuss that it is only one of many important tools in the broader movement for climate justice and student power. (Power. It sounds funny when you say it a few times.)
I believe power means that students have the ability to identify problems and solve them in the face of bureaucratic and institutional obstacles. It means setting a goal and having the communication network, the strategy, the physical numbers, and the commitment to achieve it. It means the fair representation of students in political and social issues. It means building the society we want rather than simply accepting the society into which we were born.
Right now, Barnard Columbia Divest and 255 other college divestment campaigns across the country are building student power through work on one goal: destruction of the fossil fuel industry. More than the nebulous concept of “our planet,” it is our people who will not survive the continued action of an industry whose business plan directly pollutes air, dirties water, sickens and kills life, displaces entire countries, and maintains a stranglehold on US and global politics.
It is easy to understand intellectually the industry’s connection to the climate chaos that looms over us. Google and the oft-cited 97 percent of climate scientists who agree on the matter will tell you all you need to know. People who live in frontline communities can tell the personal stories, from the residents of the disappearing Maldives to the residents of Butler County in Pennsylvania, who literally have to ration donations of bottled water each week because their tap water has been poisoned by hydrofracking.
It is easy to learn, but much harder to accept, that the fossil fuel industry is, indeed, destroying the planet, because it obligates each of us to speak out against an institution that pervades our society from the Senate floor to the streets. It’s scary as hell. I’m scared.
Fortunately, we have each other and infinite reasons to unite for this fight. I was at the student divestment convergence of more than 77 schools at Swarthmore College last month, where environmental justice activist Lilian Molina said: “We don’t have the luxury to focus on just one issue.” Divestment is a tool to bring us one step closer to climate justice, the concept that the color of your skin, the money you have, your gender, your birthplace, or any other part of your human identity should not affect your access to clean air, clean water, clean food, and your potential to be happy and healthy. It is very obviously not just about “environmentalism.” Divestment and climate justice are equally about fighting racism, sexism, classism, and all kinds of socioeconomic injustices.
Global climate change’s natural phenomena affect most those who have contributed the least to the problem, and the problem’s factories spew their toxic gases disproportionately into marginalized communities, even in the United States. The Earth Institute hosted an “Adapting to a Changing Climate” panel last Tuesday night. I asked about the University divesting investments in fossil fuels and felt the moderator disliked my question. I would have liked those present to reflect on the fact that Hurricane Sandy left thousands of New York City’s poorest people homeless, while the Earth Institute stood unshaken and continued to be funded by an organization invested in fossil fuels. In the words of anti-mountaintop removal activist Dustin Steele, “When you fight oppression anywhere, you fight oppression everywhere.”
This means there’s a place at the climate justice table for everyone, from the low-income resident of a coal-mining town, to the student who wants to go to school without immense debt, to the Wall Street investor tired of an 80-hour workweek that supports our existing economic structure. It means that our battles are intertwined, from fighting the Keystone XL pipeline to making sure that underrepresented voices get heard in an organizing workshop. It means the erasure of “your” win and “my” win.
So, with climate justice in mind, Barnard Columbia Divest calls upon the student body to recognize the intersectionalities of our lives, passions, and frustrations, and to join the fight for divestment from fossil fuels as an ethically and financially sound decision. And we call upon the Board of Trustees and the administrations of Columbia University and Barnard College either to engage in winning a collaborative victory for the climate justice movement with Barnard Columbia Divest, or to get out of the way. This is student power.