This is the New Training Ground for Climate Activists

Student organizers on college and university campuses have begun pushing—hard—for institutional endowments and other funds to be stripped clean of investments that support the fossil fuel industry.

Today, a movement that began in the United States is finding global reach. The effort also has moved beyond higher education to challenge other institutions to consider their role in supporting fossil fuel extraction. By the end of 2016, more than six hundred institutions, including seventy-five colleges and universities, dozens of religious institutions, over a hundred foundations, and well over fifty municipalities, together representing more than $3.4 trillion in assets, had committed to some level of divestment from fossil fuels.

Although unlikely to make a big dent in company bottom lines, the divestment push ratchets up the moral stakes. The campaign raises hard questions for fossil fuel companies and for the investments and investors that support their operations.

By the end of 2016, more than six hundred institutions had committed to some level of divestment from fossil fuels.

More than this, the fossil fuel divestment effort has proved an extraordinary training ground for a new breed of student climate activists. The campaign has discovered a way to take the intractable challenge of climate change and to direct the energies of students toward direct, creative forms of action against an identifiable target.

Students are learning what it takes to move stubborn institutions in positive directions, by employing insider/outsider campaigning strategies, by embracing a climate justice framing that broadens the set of constituencies interested in working for divestment, and by radicalizing the very notion of campus sustainability.

The student leaders of the divestment push are suggesting that for a campus to carry the label “sustainable,” it must do more than commit to green buildings and on-campus composting. Instead, these students are saying, a truly sustainable campus is one that contributes to tackling rather than perpetuating the world’s most critical problems.

Colleges and universities remain our principal institutions for post-secondary education and for the creation of new knowledge. Traditional forms of teaching and learning matter for the transition to sustainability. The fossil fuel divestment campaign shows, however, that some of the most important learning is happening outside the walls of classrooms, as students define for themselves the opportunities that exist in taking up the climate challenge.

This article is excerpted from the latest edition of State of the World which examines how, by rethinking education, people worldwide can better adapt to a rapidly changing planet.


Eve Bratman is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. Kate Brunette is a field organizer for Raise Up WA. Simon Nicholson is the director of the Global Environmental Politics at American University. Deirdre Shelly is the US National Organizer for 350.org.

Banner Photo: James Ennis


About EarthEd

00-cover-SOTW2017_mg-768x989With global environmental changes locked into our future, what we teach must evolve.

Worldwatch’s EarthEd, with contributions from 63 authors, includes chapters on traditional environmental education topics, such as ecoliteracy, nature-based learning, and systems thinking, as well as expanding the conversation to new topics essential for Earth education, such as character education, social emotional learning, the importance of play, and comprehensive sex education.

Ultimately, only by boldly adapting education do we stand a chance in adapting to our rapidly changing planet.

Get EarthEd today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *