The futility of curbing environmentalist dissent and student activism

Institutions try to eschew responsibility and repress activism, but it’s not working

Student activists demanding social change. (pxfuel)

Student activists demanding social change. (pxfuel)

A group of informed students getting together to raise awareness about a threat that puts our civilization on the brink of destruction. An institution asserting that it is “united in commitment to climate action” with them. It sounds like there isn’t much room for conflict, right? Wrong. 

A short while ago, students belonging to SFU 350, a climate urgency advocacy club at Simon Fraser University, painted a mural at the university convocation hall urging their institution to divest from fossil fuels. The gesture was intended as a peaceful protest, with the mural being temporary, washable, and made from non-toxic materials. 

However, this show of defiance was met with threats of disciplinary actions by the university administration, along with the removal of the mural only after the response and uproar from students and alumni was the decision rescinded and a statement issued

This begs the question: how long will this continue being the status quo for institutions, governments, and corporations alike? 

Student dissent has been the cornerstone of social activism and a harbinger of societal change as well, and a university otherwise committed to environmentalism, instead of aiding and amplifying student voices, chose to crack down on them. This displays the rift between student aspirations for radical and meaningful change and the “tread light” approach of universities, something which can become a source of conflict between these groups. But as the climate emergency worsens, so will the intensity of the calls to action.

Several universities across the world and Canada have already started the drive to move away from investment in fossil fuels, with Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) being the first in Canada to do so with other major universities soon following suit by setting future goals. 

This demonstrates the impact student activism can have, and SFU shouldn’t hope to escape it, especially now that a group of students have given the university an ultimatum to take meaningful steps by Nov. 1, or they will stage a hunger strike. 

Climate activism also goes hand-in-hand with Indigenous rights because, more often than not, especially in settler communities, it’s the Indigenous communities most impacted by climate change. Many Indigenous communities around the world are taking the lead on climate action as well, like in Brazil, where thousands of Indigenous people demonstrated to protect their land rights and the Amazon from destruction, and the Wet’suwet’en land defenders in Canada. 

In the wake of increased awareness and concern for Indigenous rights, climate awareness must follow.

The university, on its part, should explain to the students what its financial concerns are regarding divestment and formulate an approach towards living up to its “commitment to environmentalism” by seeking out greener alternatives and declaring a climate emergency like its peer, the University of British Columbia. Only through cooperation, not intimidation, can a solution be found.

Repression of climate change activism is not new, though, and as climate change denialism decreases and climate activists and scientists come into direct conflict with the fossil fuels industry, it may only get worse. As governments and institutions cannot dodge questions, they resort to suppression with varying degrees of severity. I’m certain SFU would not want to be remembered as being on the wrong side of history. If an institution as big as Harvard can pledge to do it, then there’s really no excuse for SFU. 

That being said, I hope that in the wake of the deadly heatwave earlier this summer, which showed the glaring urgency of the situation, and to avoid its students from resorting to drastic measures, SFU and universities around the world undertake meaningful measures to assuage the growing discontentment regarding climate inaction.