A Call for Student Environmental Activism

Whether you’re a current college student, or an incoming freshman, college is the quintessential place to get involved in movements and issues you feel passionate about. College students have long been the driving forces of change: From across the globe in Tiananmen Square, to Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement here in America, students of every faith and race have demonstrated their will to question the status quo and stand up for what is right. As young Reform Jews, we are commanded by the concept of tikkun olam to ensure a better future not just for ourselves, but for the world. In addition, I would argue, no matter what you believe in, we all share an equal stake in one another as inhabitants of this earth. Moreover, the crisis of our time is especially grave, as our entire world and the existence of life on this planet is being threatened. Let us embrace our experience in college as an opportunity to stand up to climate change as the generations before us have stood up to corrupt leaders or unjust wars.

This past year at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, I got involved in sustainability efforts on campus. At first, the task at hand seemed miniscule and insufficient. I questioned if the work we were doing was going to have any real impact on a larger scale, considering the accelerating deterioration of our earth and the corporate stronghold on the issue. I wanted to do more with our limited time and resources and that meant thinking like an organizer and addressing the root of the problem. Personal responsibility is important, but sadly climate change is past the point where that is enough. Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches us, “It is not up to you to complete the task—but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). In light of the passing threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm), which scientists deemed to be the point at which the world wouldn’t be able to repair itself, we took it upon ourselves to organize a massive, collective effort of students. We aimed to take on the daunting task of taking on the big money that has corrupted our system.

We put together rallies of hundreds of students and staff and petitions asking our school to divest from its endowments in fossil fuel companies. The feeling of empowerment that came from marching and chanting across campus was unmatched and unforgettable. By my own actions, I became part of something bigger than myself and it gave me a sense that I was doing my part in tikkun olam. To me, there is no better feeling than that.

Our efforts were noticed by a number of local newspapers and radio stations and we put the pressure on our school of more than thirty thousand students, to act against the interest of fossil fuel companies. Today, 308 schools, 105 cities and states and 6 religious institutions have campaigns to divest from fossil fuels. If the vote goes through next semester, UMass Amherst will be only the sixth school to fully divest and the largest one thus far. Nonetheless, I believe divesting is a reasonable next step and impactful thing you can do to make real change. Once you are out there either nonviolently protesting or drafting letters to officials, no matter what the issue is, you are no longer sulking about injustices with your friends, or complaining about it, but instead, putting your beliefs into action. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, that is what it means to pray with your feet. So I encourage you to pray with your feet next semester and make a difference on an issue about which you are passionate – like joining or organizing a divestment campaign at your school or institution – and let’s create a better, more sustainable future for our generation and generations to come.

Jake Stuckey, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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