When Students Become the Teachers

College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Franci
College students and supporters hold up signs at a rally to support fossil fuel divestment outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Thursday, May 2, 2013. In an effort to slow the pace of climate change, students at more than 200 colleges are asking their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

One of the privileges of spending time on college and university campuses, as I have done for much of my career, is the view they afford into the future. Colleges function something like petri dishes running experiments in which society can glimpse what lies ahead. Many of our most decisive social movements have been fueled by student passions.

As many of us emerge from a winter that gives new salience to the term "climate disruption," it's hard to shake the feeling that it augured trouble: blizzards in the northeast, drought in the west, super storms in the south, polar icecaps melting, oceans rising, species disappearing, all unfolding sooner than scientists foresaw.

At the start of this academic year, in September, the Peoples' Climate March called out the grave threat we now know we humans are posing to Earth's fragile ecosystems on which all life depends. The group 350.org, led by Middlebury's Bill McKibben, catalyzed that march and a "fossil free campaign" to call for divesting fossil fuel holdings from institutional endowments.

At first a handful of mostly small schools began to divest fully or partially, but the students persisted and their campaign is gaining momentum. This week, Syracuse University became the first large academic institution to vote to divest all fossil fuel holdings. Opinion is sharply divided on the merits of divestment as a strategy, but what is becoming increasingly clear is what student activists want.

Urgently, and with respect, they are asking that we "grown-ups" move to address the threat climate change poses to their future. As they watch the world's leaders stand paralyzed before a window that is closing rapidly on the chance to move fast and far enough to avert a horrific disaster, they find themselves caught between "the impossible" (mobilizing action) and "the unthinkable" (a planetary meltdown). What an agonizing place from which to step out into adulthood.

Leaders of educational institutions have a sixth sense for problems that aren't going away, those that keep us up at night. This is one. We can't look away. Many of us hope it can be addressed without disrupting the educational mission. We don't have time for division. The stakes are too high. Of course the future is uncertain, but we have evidence enough. The gun we've given our children for a game of Russian roulette has bullets in most of its chambers, with more on the way.

Advocates of the fossil free movement have done their homework. They have documented a four-decade pattern of "disinformation," funded by vested interests, from DDT, to tobacco, to, now, fossil fuels. These students are fully justified in their outrage that so little is being done to counter the propaganda that has disabled our democracy, discredited scientists, and undermined the values behind serious efforts to get at the truth. They have no illusions that divestment will inflict economic harm on the funders of disinformation, but they don't see other strategies to raise the alarm to decibels at which it will be heard, and acted upon.

Universities are doing much about climate disruption, foremost pursuing research and preparing new generations. The recent speech in China by Harvard President Drew Faust signaled the role they can play connecting with their graduates in seats of power around the globe. MIT's president, Rafael Reif, has launched a year-long campus-wide "Climate Conversation," stimulated by the fossil free movement there and charged with the task of seeking broad input on "how the MIT community can constructively move the global and national agendas forward." Amherst's board of trustees recently issued a far-reaching statement committing the college to a leadership role.

Clark University just held a day-long teach-in titled "The Uncertain Human Future," opening a conversation they hope will both transform their university and inspire others. Yale houses a program on religion and ecology and is writing a new "story of the universe," inviting humans to see ourselves as part of nature in its majesty, not above it in dominion. These are but a few examples close at hand.

The opening speaker at Clark's teach-in, Susanne Moser, read a poem that encouraged the audience to become a "we" ... and "each day [to] mean one more." Today's young people are saying that they need every one of us to recognize the full magnitude of this problem we all share. They are asking us to follow their lead, to summon the intelligence to study the options, the heart to move beyond fear, the will to engage the struggle. We owe them that. At least.

Diana Chapman Walsh is President Emerita of Wellesley College, a trustee emerita of Amherst College, and a member of the governing boards of MIT, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Mind and Life Institute.

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