Four years ago, a handful of college students travelled to West Virginia. In the heart of the Appalachian mountains, they saw two things: the destruction wrought by the fossil fuel industry, and the ongoing resistance of communities that have lived alongside it for generations. Returning to campus, these students made the choice to leverage the power of their institutions by calling on their colleges and universities to divest from another apartheid, one less defined by a legal regime of segregation than a legacy of poisoned air, extracted labor and stolen land. Since then, fossil fuel divestment has spread like wildfire to over 500 campuses worldwide, changing the narrative around where responsibility for the climate crisis really lies. By naming fossil fuel corporations as the main barrier to climate justice, this student-led divestment movement has already begun to shift popular opinion and put oil, coal and natural gas executives on the defensive.
We know that the climate crisis is not some far-off apocalypse, but a current ongoing fight for survival in communities here in the United States and around the world. It is a crisis whose symptoms are ecological, but whose root causes lie in an economy structurally ill-equipped to respect land, labor and human dignity. We know that now is the time for all of us to make a choice – between a dirty industry and a just future; between young people and the billionaire CEOs dismantling their futures and so many others’ present lives. This semester, by committing to escalate their campus campaigns through nonviolent direct action, students are acting on the knowledge that another world is not only possible, but necessary and within reach. Those on the frontlines of extraction and climate change have understood this for generations; weathering the crisis, for all of us, will take learning from these experiences, and catalyzing a movement more creative and collaborative than any yet. In this, climate change presents both a challenge and an incredible opportunity to re-define the terms of debate.
“By committing to escalate their campus campaigns through nonviolent direct action, students are acting on the knowledge that another world is not only possible, but necessary and within reach.”
In the early 20th century, the Coal Wars–between union miners and coal company bosses–birthed a song and a message, emergent from the same mountains and deep lineage of struggle that inspired the first campaign for fossil fuel divestment: “Which Side Are You On?” Today, as a new generation joins the fight against the fossil fuel industry, those words mean more than they ever have. In failing to divest, college and universities stand on the wrong side of history. By taking strategic action this spring, students are posing a similarly crucial question to the public and their institutions’ leadership: whose side are you on?
Despite the guise of climate denial, the industry executives’ side understands that the tides are rising—but believes that money can serve as a life raft. Through austerity measures, wars for oil and a prevailing narrative of scarcity, they are already working towards a future where fewer people control more money. Operating on the assumption that some lives matter more than others, their side—over the last forty years—has pursued reckless economic policies that have led us headfirst into crisis, with those already impacted hit hardest.