Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Sometimes our research takes us to unexpected places. I spent the last weeks gluing my friends to fossil fuel corporations, getting lifted up and “bureaucratically displaced” by riot police, and dancing to David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel” in the rain on a bridge occupied by Extinction Rebellion. In the midst of climate chaos and ecological breakdown, the boundaries between activism and academia are collapsing all around me. And that is the point. 


Frontline communities, including many indigenous people, have been defending their lands and ways of living and being with the earth for centuries. They are strenuously resisting colonial capitalism’s appropriation and commodification of “nature”. Globally, the movement for climate justice and a liveable planet has gathered incredible momentum over the past year, with the global climate strike in September being one of the largest coordinated global protests in history. Yet, we know that it is not nearly enough. We cannot solve the problem of climate change, but we can do our best to limit its impacts. Whatever action we take, millions of lives have already been lost and millions more will be lost in the years to come. The climate is already changed, and we cannot turn it back.

There is still a lot that is worth saving, nurturing and reconstructing, but this requires a radical overhaul of our political, economic and social systems. Moreover, to change everything, it will take everyone. The most important thing that I can share with you from my MA research conducted alongside the people of Extinction Rebellion Netherlands, is that hiding behind our institutional walls to try and conjure up solutions is not going to help much. I knew this before, but I do not think I was able to fully grasp what that meant.

Social justice scholarship is crucial to confront climate and ecological breakdown, and we need academia and activism to stand united in this struggle. Although ISS takes pride on building these bridges, I find myself wondering if this amounts to more than empty words. In industrialised countries, we are responsible for demanding rapid mitigation and compensation for the destruction that has already been caused. Yet, the climate movement has not quite reckoned with a long history of exclusion, as environmental issues are compartmentalised into a white, middle-class, educated niche. Activist scholarship can play an important role in overcoming this, building a movement that challenges the colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalist system that lies at the root of climate change and ecological destruction.

However, activist scholarship also demands that our commitment to social and climate justice moves beyond our classrooms and offices and into our daily lives and praxis. This applies to us as individuals as well to our institutions. On the request of students and staff to close ISS during the climate strike, the institution responded by offering us tea and cookies. In the meantime, there is no plan, not a single policy in place for mitigating the ecological footprint and carbon emissions of the institute. A proper analysis of the climate and ecological crisis and, its intersections with human rights, women’s liberation, economic development and social policy remain absent from the curriculum. It is 2019 and even the oil companies have acknowledged the catastrophic impacts of climate change for over 50 years. Isn’t it rather time for academic institutions to also proactively respond?

If we as an institute take social justice seriously, we need to demand climate justice as well, in our research, in our board rooms, and at our kitchen tables. This is the fight of our lives, and we need to do it right. Even conservative scientific estimates predict the collapse of our food system, mass species extinction, and yearly flood events that used to occur once a century displacing an additional hundreds of millions of people. All of this is already happening and will intensify over the coming decades, within our lifetime. So, I want you to ask yourself: will I be able to say that I did what I could? If the answer is no, you know what you have to do.

If there is a strike, go strike. If your situation allows you to participate in civil disobedience, participate. If you work in government, do what you can to push for meaningful action and do not take no for an answer. If you are a professor, do not allow a course to go by without seriously considering the implications of climate change. And, if you are an institute for global development and social justice, take a clear stance and do what you can to support students and staff, because cookies and coffee are just not going to cut it.


About the author:10991580_10202507029756701_1759256381974962672_o

Fleur Zantvoort is doing her MA in Development Studies at ISS, specialised in Social Justice Perspectives. She is conducting her research with Extinction Rebellion Netherlands, on the politics of knowledge and relation in the climate justice movement.

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