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The Boston Globe

Opinion

bill mckibben

Student activism is alive and well

I met with students at Northeastern University recently, and they were gung-ho about going to work on climate change: They’d gone way past their old focus on recycling to start demanding that the college divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. They were nerving themselves up for a real fight; it was fun to see. But once the formal session was over, a student lingered by the edge to ask me, somewhat timidly, a question.

Ralph Nader, it turns out, had been there not long before. And he’d said that today’s college students lack “fire in the belly.” Indeed, according to published accounts of the talk, he’d said, “It is harder to get a rise out of college and university students today than any time in my 45 years of activity.” Did I think this was true, she asked. Was it all hopeless?

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I’m certain Nader was trying to inspire, not discourage — why else would he still be out on campuses? But, in my experience, it’s not true. At least in the climate change movement, where I’ve spent the last decade, young people are the leaders, and they’re doing a powerful job.

They’ve convened huge We Are Power Shift gatherings — not just in the United States, where they’ve drawn 10,000 young organizers at a time, but in many other countries. They’ve convinced more than 700 college presidents to sign a pledge to make their campuses carbon-neutral. And, in just the last few weeks, they’ve launched far more difficult divestment drives on more than 100 campuses. I find myself inspired by young people all over the planet. At the same time, I am disappointed by the failure of older people to exhibit much concern for the planet their kids and grandkids will inhabit.

But I do have one small concern as this fight heats up. Which is that, unlike their predecessors, today’s youths are used to the idea that their elders are responsive and benevolent. Far from not trusting anyone over 30, they may trust them a little bit too much. And why not? Today’s college kids have generally found that their professors and deans — and their parents — have tried hard to be their friends, smooth their paths, treat them respectfully.

What will happen, then, when they make necessary but hard demands of their elders? Divestment is the perfect example. Universities could play a crucial role in the fight against climate change if they were willing to sell their stock in oil companies — if they were willing to help turn Exxon into the next Philip Morris, and sharply limit its political power.

But that would mean rejiggering investment strategies, making portfolios less diverse, standing up to rich people — all the things that boards of trustees and college presidents have a hard time with. Indeed, it’s beginning to play out. Just before Thanksgiving, Harvard’s student body voted 3-1 to demand the college divest its fossil fuel stock. But a few days later, the university’s chief spokesman said, “Harvard is not considering divesting.”

In the climate change movement, young people are the leaders, and they’re doing a powerful job.

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That’s entirely predictable. It’s what will happen almost everywhere. And it’s the crucial moment. Will students say right back: “Okay, we’re going to need to do more than ask. It’s time for candlelight vigils and teach-ins and sit-ins and all the other tools that movements, for many decades, have used to demand moral action”? Will they realize that adults can be — often are — blinded by self-interest and stuck in long-established ruts, which they need young people to help them break out of? Or will they say “Mother knows best,” and go back to their studies?

I don’t know about Nader, but I’m betting it’s the former — I bet they fight. Politely, without the crazy rhetoric of the ’60s, and always calling on the best instincts of those in charge. But firmly. The Crimson began its story about divestment with that dismissive shrug from the college’s spokesman. But it ended with this quote from sophomore Alli Welton, which sums up the spirit of her generation: Harvard President Drew Faust is “going to have to change her mind, because we’re not changing ours,” Welton said. “Climate change is a matter of life or death for millions and millions of people. We’re going to do whatever we can to change her mind over the weekend or the next couple of years.”

Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org.
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