As a 19-year-old climate activist and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, I have spent much of my first two years in college protesting, planning, and penning op-eds. I have never attended a recruiting event for investment banking, joined a consulting or pre-professional student club, or interviewed for a position in the corporate world. While opportunities to engage with public service careers often seem few and far between by comparison, I have sought out and enjoyed these opportunities where I have found them. Still, the corporate mindset on my campus is hard to ignore.
There’s the growing numbers of students joining the consulting and finance-dominated Campus Interviews Program as they near graduation, a moment in their lives when the anxiety of pursuing a lower-paying and less secure public service or artistic career, while their Goldman Sachs—and McKinsey-bound classmates eye six-figure starting salaries, hits hardest. Others are drawn to the Crimson Consulting Club, created specifically to consult for other student groups on campus, play-acting the jobs they believe will set them up for the most secure future.
As we grapple with the stark reality of the climate crisis, this pervasive corporate culture—one represented so powerfully by former Yale student and gifted writer Marina Keegan at age 21 in her profound essay “Even artichokes have doubts”—has unique and powerful implications today, particularly at our elite universities. Here, students that were promised a bright and successful future are being fast-tracked into corporate careers, usually without a second thought about the value of their work in a climate emergency.
Yet, as young people, the type of employment we pursue and the culture around jobs we create can fundamentally shape our futures and that of our shared planet. With the IPCC warning that we have only a decade to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—preventing catastrophic effects of climate change—the time to harness our labor to preserve our planet, communities, and futures is now.
Seventy-two percent of the Harvard College class of 2018 planned to enter for-profit jobs after graduating, with 23 percent going into consulting and financial services—a figure that has remained relatively consistent over the last few years, even as it has declined overall since the beginning of the decade—according to data from the university’s Office of Career Services. (Keegan similarly pointed out in her 2011 piece that one-quarter of employed Yale graduates were entering these sectors). Notably, Harvard and many of its peer universities have made growing efforts to advance careers in public service and sustainability. Yet, as the data reflects, those efforts still largely fail to rival the allure of the corporate world.
In one sense, the persistent influence of corporations at our most privileged universities—from their intense recruiting efforts to their sponsorship of academic programming—may itself seem a troubling reality for some to swallow. At the same time, however, it reveals an immense amount of potential. The reality is that if we’re going to achieve the radical systemic change necessary to tackle the climate crisis, then we’re going to need a harness corporate responsibility and accountability to do it.
There remain serious questions about the sustainability of our capitalist system itself. But so long as we live in this system—and for those of us working to transform it—we need to critically examine how we can leverage the financial and political tools we have available to catalyze a shift away from exploitative and extractive industry practices toward better alternatives.
For those going into consulting, now is the time to fundamentally challenge how companies conceive of their carbon footprint. Corporate sustainability should not mean “greenwashing” their public image or banking on carbon offsets; it should mean transforming how they operate—innovating ways to profit from working in harmony with the environment and empowering local communities. From the EDF Climate Corps program placing graduate students with organizations in the United States and China to tackle energy-related challenges to Bard College’s NYCLab course putting MBA candidates in yearlong professional consultancies to address organizations’ sustainability-related business problems, there is already evidence of a promising shift toward a green-minded consulting culture.
When it comes to finance, there’s a world of difference to be made. First, businesses must stop financing fossil fuel projects; ending the sponsorship of fossil fuel infrastructure is critical to ending a fossil fuel-based economy. This is the driving idea behind the Stop the Money Pipeline campaign, which aims to stop banks, asset managers and insurance companies from funding, insuring, and investing in climate destruction. Reinvestment in renewable and socially responsible infrastructure represents another vital step for these companies to be not only responsible climate actors but also climate leaders. Already, major financial institutions are moving in this direction.
Last November, the European Investment Bank announced that it will end financing for fossil fuel energy projects from the end of 2021 and open $1.1 trillion for climate action and environmental sustainable investment from now through 2030. Worldwide, over $14 trillion worth of funds has been committed to divestment from fossil fuels—including by governments, universities, pension funds, faith organizations, nonprofit and for-profit corporations. Even BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and a company, which has received heavy criticism for its climate intransigence, has announced a new strategy of avoiding investments that “present a high sustainability-related risk,” with CEO Larry Fink writing that “evidence of climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.” More recently, a leaked report from economists at major fossil fuel financier JPMorgan warned clients about the “catastrophic outcomes” for humanity that could result from continuing business as usual. Clearly, it’s not just the avid environmentalists who are seeing the imperative for change.
Along with reshaping existing industries, young people can proactively employ our labor to build a more sustainable and just future. As more of us enter the technology industry, we can advance and innovate clean energy alternatives. Entering public service to promote bold climate policy is also essential; political will remains a key ingredient in tackling the climate crisis. (Young people are already driving this will as voters—pushing politicians to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and putting climate at the forefront of national political discourse—but we must also pursue elected office ourselves and normalize climate-justice-warrior Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez–style leadership.) Helpfully, the clean-energy sector is rapidly expanding—adding jobs across the United States that young people can help fill—and the Green New Deal promises to create millions of new well-paying green jobs. From finance to farming, there exists the opportunity in every sector to transform and contribute to a greater green revolution.
Beyond the jobs we do occupy, we can also make an impact through the ones we deliberately leave unfilled. We can withhold our labor from companies whose models of business threaten our lives and livelihoods. To start, we can follow the lead of over 20,000 French students and pledge not to work for polluters. We can publicly stigmatize working for “bad actors” that lobby against bold climate policy and fund climate denialism—just as Harvard Law School students sought to do by protesting a recruiting event by the law firm Paul Weiss, which defended ExxonMobil against allegations over its role in climate change—we can threaten to strike when our employers do not meet meaningful climate standards, and we can continue supporting our unions to build a powerful labor-green alliance.
For me, the future remains uncertain. Whatever career I ultimately pursue, I know that I want to channel my time, energy, and skills in a way that contributes to a more equitable and stable world. I have no plans to enter consulting or finance industry—and I urge students who view these careers as a convenient fallback not to give up on their true passions so easily, because the climate movement needs artists and civil servants—but I respect my peers who choose to do so. Their work can prove essential to advancing a brighter future for our generation. To effectively reimagine how society works, we need to engage every part of it. This is not about fixing a broken system; it’s about creating a new one.
Keegan concludes her essay: “I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear—at 23, 24, 25—we might forget.” I, too, feel like we can do something really cool to this world; at 19, I think that we can save it. And I fear—at 23, 24, 25—it will be too late. That’s why we need to start thinking about work differently on a dying planet. And we need to start now.