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Student Artists, Activists Aim for Fossil-Free Investment at Washington University

Climate Change: Stories for Social Justice. (Photo: / Flickr)

Student groups at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U) recently collaborated to use art to draw attention to human rights violations wrought by climate change and demand environmentally conscious school endowment investments.

Green Action, a student organization committed to environmental activism, joined with Material Monster, a student group dedicated to exploring environmental issues through art, to erect a Climate Change: Stories for Social Justice exhibit on the lawn outside the Women’s Building on Wash U’s Danforth Campus on Sept. 15.

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Rachel Goldstein, a 21-year-old environmental biology major, helped spearhead the project, describing it as an “illustration of the story of social injustice in the context of climate change.”

The exhibit features 13 images that tell the stories of communities across the globe impacted by climate change. It shows the leaking coal ash landfill in Labadie, Missouri, and the ravages of tar sands extraction in Northern Alberta, Canada. It aesthetically connects US wildfires to anthropogenic climate effects, and it tells the story of Shell oil extraction in the Niger Delta. The artwork also shows how the low-lying Maldives Island is threatened by rising sea levels – an issue taken up by the country’s ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, a committed climate activist.

“A major theme throughout each piece is the disproportionate effects of climate change felt by communities who use little fossil fuels themselves and do not profit from the industry,” student activists wrote. Climate justice activists have long endeavored to point out how the greatest ecological externalities from natural resource depletion for capital accumulation are felt by the poor and most vulnerable.

Many of the stories and artwork for the exhibit came from students who either researched or traveled to the different locations where people have been most affected, Goldstein said.

Drawing on inspiration from other reflective convergence of activism and art, like Steve Lambert’s “Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False)” exhibit for the French Institute Alliance Française fall festival in New York City, students at Wash U repurposed sliding glass doors to display narrative images and used mirror film to entreat reflection, in more ways than one.

Instead of being rapt with the aura of the artwork, people who experience the exhibit see their reflection as they observe the havoc climate change is causing worldwide.

“That reflective film is sort of a way to bring the viewer in and let them know they’re part of the problem, but they’re also part of the solution,” Goldstein said, adding that students specifically designed the piece that way while also trying to connect the dots and showcase the penetrating nature of the problem.

“Because what we noticed is a lot of students on campus weren’t able to draw the connection between environmental justice and human [rights] issues,” she said. “So what we were trying to show people is that there are so many intersectionalities when it comes to environmental activism – such as race, ethnicity, culture, capitalism [and] socioeconomic status, of course. . . . We’re really trying to connect the human issue, and it’s something that people don’t always recognize.”

Stories for Social Justice extends the “new architecture of protest,” with double entendre implicit in its design. The project is an outgrowth of the Fossil Free campaign undertaken by more than 300 colleges encouraging institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

The campaign at Wash U pushes for extricating the university’s $5.3 billion endowment from fossil fuel industries, freezing environmentally irresponsible investments and divesting from direct ownership of ecologically injurious enterprise.

“By building an investment portfolio that will not profit off of the wrecking of the climate, the university would be aligning its voice with its values,” said Caitlin Lee, a Wash U student coordinating art and activism with Material Monster, which collaborated with Goldstein and Green Action to creatively negate the negativity of for-profit plundering of the environment.

Stories for Social Justice shows how everyone is culpable for climate change, but the campaign also stresses that universities have the wherewithal to opt for more sustainable investment alternatives.

Students are calling on Chancellor Mark Wrighton to freeze investments in fossil fuel companies. In addition to awareness-raising art, they are drafting a student senate resolution and working with the student union to have the full force of the campus conscience behind them as they pressure the administration to end its financial relations with actors underpinning current climate disasters. Environmental catastrophe looms without substantive redirection, activists warn.

Prevailing trends at Wash U are indicative of the larger “catastrophic management of catastrophe,” that Jérôme Roos, PhD researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, says is part of the “neoliberal policy response,” reliant on market-based measures. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme epitomizes that policy, Roos says, because it “provided the steel and coal industries with so many excess allowances that,” estimates now suggest “companies with the worst carbon footprint in Europe can now afford to grow their total emissions by another 50 percent until 2020.”

A similar, smaller-scale market-based approach and top-down decision-making mitigates climate activism at Wash U. Goldstein said students had meetings with the administration last semester to discuss the divestment campaign, but did not receive concrete answers. The lack of transparency regarding the university’s endowment allocation complicates the process, she said.

“We know from some students who have been very involved in endowment activism that the school is invested in fossil fuel companies,” Goldstein said. “But they actually aren’t transparent with us so we don’t know which ones.”

Goldstein said the institutional organization at Wash U currently prevents students from having much of a say in where the university invests its funds.

But divestment and eco-friendly democratizing investment on the part of anchor institutions, like universities, is not without precedent.

A June 2013 report from The Democracy Collaborative and the Responsible Endowments Coalition, Raising Student Voices, found that huge pools of investment capital from university endowment funds can be, and have been, used to revitalize communities.

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, the report noted, has lent support to the local Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, as part of an administration-led and student-supported project, allocating “part of their procurement to the worker coops in support of a larger community and wealth-building agenda.” The purchasing power of the university, buoyed by a “community-serving nonprofit corporation and a revolving loan fund,” augments the Evergreen project, which “includes a solar installation and weatherization company, an industrial scale ecologically advanced laundry, and a green house,” capable of producing more than three million heads of lettuce a year.

Student-led campaigns at the University of Chicago, Fordham University and Wesleyan University all successfully pressured their respective administrations to allocate thousands of dollars from operating budgets and endowments to engage in socially responsible community investment, the report states. It also notes that fostering new partnerships while working with alumni can boost effectiveness of student initiatives, and recounts that the South Africa apartheid divestment campaign lasted decades, indicating the need for commitment for the duration.

Goldstein said students involved in the Fossil Free campaign at Wash U have reached out to alumni and are strengthening relations with other environmental groups, like Rain Forest Action Network.

Cognizant that the investment management company at Wash U maintains a “pretty strong hold” regarding investment choices, Goldstein said “the first step is just getting it out there that we don’t want to see them investing in these really harmful companies,” while pushing for greater transparency, establishing substantive dialogue and cultivating critical collective consciousness via artistic public pedagogy.

In addition, the negation of ecologically sound practices advanced by current investment procedures necessitate creative negation through other means, students assert. In the case of the latest Stories for Social Justice installment, the means of that artful negation include glass salvaged from Thurtene Carnival at Wash U through a material exchange program, as well as doors procured from ReFab St. Louis, a nonprofit that deconstructs buildings slated for demolition to train community members for green industry careers.

Using art to elicit a visceral response resonates with the community, Goldstein says, and it piques a lot of student interest.

“It’s just been really great to see how much student support we’ve seen,” she said. “It shows me at least that our generation isn’t apathetic, and we do care.”

Students now hope the administration will show that it cares too, and that administrators reflect on the situation at hand to realize they are part of the problem but can also be part of the solution.

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