The Brower Youth Awards annually highlight the top environmental youth leaders from across North America. Award recipients undergo a rigorous application review process and represent the best, most creative, young environmental leaders of today.
Chloe Maxmin, 21, of Nobleboro, Maine, a regular writer for StudentNation and an undergraduate at Harvard University, was one of this year’s Brower Youth Award winners for her long history of environmental activism. Maxmin has a history of starting movements—she founded the first environmental club at her high school and built a student sustainability movement that continues to this day. At Harvard, she’s keeping up the momentum as co-founder and coordinator of Divest Harvard. She researched Harvard’s endowment and past divestment campaigns, and led the first campus vote on fossil fuel divestment in the world. She is also the founder and sole contributor of the online youth environmental network, First Here, Then Everywhere, which she hopes to build into a thriving hub of discussion and support for young environmentalists.
Maxmin sent us her acceptance speech, given in San Francisco on October 18 in which she outlined three new institutional responses to climate change and divestment.
Combating Climate Change
On October 1, another Divest Harvard activist and I sat in the office of Harvard’s President, Drew Faust. It had been over a year since we launched our movement. We had the support of over 3,000 students, over 170 faculty, almost 600 alumni and countless community members.
The frustration in the room was palpable. As I continued to press our arguments, President Faust interrupted me and asked: “Chloe, if you were president, what would you do?”
Two days later, I checked my e-mail and learned that President Faust had released a statement opposing fossil fuel divestment. I wasn’t surprised. It repeated the same arguments that we had been hearing for a year. It reiterated the notion that Harvard is an academic, not a political, actor—which is to say that it somehow stands outside the realm of action.
My aim tonight is not to repeat these discussions. Instead, I want to take seriously President Faust’s question…Chloe, what would you do?
I’d like to suggest the first three principles of a new institutional response to divestment and the climate crisis.
Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright, dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia,was a man whose life combined scholarship, art and politics because he knew that that all derive from the same source: a love of the world. He insisted that we need to reawaken in ourselves what was once known and then forgotten: that the only real hope for us lies in “a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth…”
The farm in Maine where I grew up, the meadows, lake, and trees…these are the roots that have filled me with an inexpressible love for this world, my family, my home, my community, friends, the people I will never know, the people I have yet to know.
Not all of us have grown up in Maine, but we all have places and people that we love.
The climate movement often seems like it’s fighting “against something”—against indifference and political gridlock. But this is a struggle “for everything” that we care about.
This is the first principle of a new response: That our actions as individuals and institutions can be re-founded on love for one another, for all that is alive, and especially for the systems and creatures of this earth who have no voice.
Two years ago, I learned that tar sands could come through Maine and that Exxon owns 76 percent of the pipeline.
Citizens in South Portland Maine recently campaigned to block the flow of tar sands through Maine by passing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The ordinance failed to pass by 200 votes. The opposition (pro–tar sands interests) were out in full force. But I didn’t anticipate the audaciousness of their effort. While the Protect South Portland coalition put $42,000 into the election, the Maine Energy Marketers Association poured almost $600,000 into stopping the ordinance.
This is exactly why I am involved with the fossil fuel divestment movement. The only way to diminish the hegemony and influence of this industry is to draw a moral line in the sand that rebrands it as anti-social.
This is the second principle of my response: Freedom depends on politics. It is up to us to take back “the political” and re-establish it as it was meant to be: a commitment to freedom through action.
So when President Faust says that Harvard is not a “political actor,” I say: By supporting an industry that corrupts elections and coerces society, are you not being political?
But instead of this politics of silence, we seek the politics of courage.
Our society’s institutions and leaders have been complacent in the face of climate change. We have stood by as our government has failed to act, as the fossil fuel industry has lobbied its way to riches, as the Arctic melts, sea levels rise, fires spread, droughts consume and floods erase.
Divestment says: enough is enough. Take a stand. Recognize that our system is broken, and take a step to fix it.
This is my third principle of a new response: People can summon the courage to work miracles.
When we take the first steps towards a better world, we don’t know what will happen. But we can’t be too scared to find out, and we can never be too scared to fight for what we love.
Hannah Arendt, a great philosopher who knew that politics could never be separated from life, wrote that every time an action disrupts the status quo, it’s a miracle.
People can author such miracles because we have the freedom and courage to establish a reality of our own.
With these three principles—love, politics and courage—I say that we are the miracle workers. And we are the miracles.
To echo the words of, Bruce Springsteen, “It takes a leap of faith to get things going. In your heart, baby, you must trust.”