Images by Chris Faraone
It’s fun to bitch and blow hot wind about the Earth’s imminent doom. We lament at work. In traffic while listening to NPR. With friends over dinner and drinks. And yet most of us do no more to help curb climate change than Christian Evangelicals do to hold back the Rapture. Other than writing an occasional column about fossil fuel fuckery (and coining that alliterative phrase), I’m hardly any holier. And so it comforts me to see the best and brightest pushing for a better future, and pushing where it hurts.
Since there are several noble efforts underway, I’ll start with the one involving members of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition who, as they wrote in an accusatory op-ed last November, are demanding their university “stop profiting from the destruction of the earth’s climate and that it divest its holdings in gas, oil, and coal companies.” Sounds reasonable enough, and so I have been following the group’s ambitious lawsuit against their own Harvard Corporation for “violating commitments under its charter as well as its charitable duty to operate in the public interest … by financially supporting the most dangerous industrial activities in the history of the planet.”
Harsh words, sure, but someone has to throw some punches. Last time I checked, not a lot of musclebound macho men or even too many movie badasses are crusading for climate justice. Instead, in this battle the warriors are often students, a handful of whom slugged it out last week against attorneys for Harvard, who motioned to dismiss pending claims against the school.
After going over their arguments in the cold marble corridor of Suffolk County Superior Court, the plaintiffs—an alliance plucked from Harvard College and the schools of law and engineering—sat in a row of chairs before the judge. More than a dozen of their comrades watched from pews in the rear gallery, a few sporting bandanas on their biceps in displays of solidarity. As the plaintiffs made their cases to the bench, eviscerating Harvard for its negligent greed, their classmates smiled proudly; some barely restrained themselves from cheering as one student dropped zinger after zinger highlighting his school’s shortsightedness: “Allston campus will be flooded in the next century.”
With his shellacked cartoon hair and smug grimace, the Harvard Corporation’s defense attorney, an alumnus of the law school, conducted himself in a manner that one might expect of somebody with his task and appearance. In claiming that the school’s investments should be free from scrutiny, he managed to peg the plaintiffs as presumptuous for attempting to “represent all future generations,” to insult students who requested deadline leniency after rallying with Black Lives Matter protesters last year, and to insult past student divestment campaigns tied to holdings in Darfur and South Africa.
Black Lives Matter protesters in Harvard Square
Harvard’s lawyer also pitched some seemingly solid arguments. His major gripe: If students who oppose pollution can force divestments, then what’s to stop another group of Crimsons, or activists at any institution, from bringing a similar action on grounds that some other industry is evil? Otherwise, Harvard is essentially, boorishly, arguing that, so long as there’s no fraud, negligence, or criminal behavior involved, they’re allowed to conduct business with whomever they wish (which is actually a ridiculous notion if one considers the number of illegal acts that Big Energy commits in any given minute). It’s a position common among libertarians and four-year-olds.
I understand why Harvard’s childish stance may be legally tenable, but it sure does make the university look asinine. It’s obvious why this case deserves judicial attention: There is a fucking crisis looming, and despite their counsel’s request that such matters remain on campus and out of the courts, the hogs who now hold Harvard’s handbag are likely to keep fueling the disaster ’til the Head of the Charles course passes Charlie’s Kitchen. And just earlier this week Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey made a stink about the university’s embarrassing credentials on the academic side, which are apparent in its relationship with a favorite researcher among climate change deniers who coincidentally pockets mucho pesos from polluters.
Ivy Leaguers aren’t alone in the trenches. This Saturday, February 28, Better Future Project and a coalition of other groups that give a damn, many of them powered by young people, will bring their attempt to save Cape Wind to Boston Common for a 1pm rally. On that front, the reprehensible National Grid has decided to invest in new natural gas pipelines in the commonwealth, and has simultaneously slashed wind contracts. It’s as ugly as it sounds, Koch Industries involvement and all. Despite the positive lip service paid to renewable energy, decision makers, including lawmakers and companies in Mass, are motoring in the other direction.
None of which is meant as a guilt trip for readers. As an alternative publication, we’re simply tasked with covering stories that are largely ignored by top-down influencers at big outlets, and the shadows of the media are often occupied by organizers, scientists, and activists who sacrifice on our behalves. As for the showdown in Cambridge, still in its preliminary stages whether the current claims survive Suffolk Superior or not, Harvard clout attracts significant attention, but students on that front will need more than headlines to set precedents.
Very few people have enough spare resources or energy to represent humanity in court against Goliath, or even to attend environmental rallies. At the very least though, it’s time to lose our voices propping those in the arena.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.