Credit: John Englart via Creative Commons

Our house is on fire: students aren’t doing enough to combat the climate crisis

By Kristy Leeds

Students aren’t doing enough. No one is. We need radical change now, before it’s too late.

Behind the somewhat abrupt headline is the key message: we need to scrap the idea that students are environmental guardian angels. If we really want to help this planet and have a future on it, we must critique our own agency as consumers and our own activism first. This series will start by looking at students as climate crisis activists, and the following articles will delve deeper into critical issues around climate crisis discourse at Glasgow University, and in the rest of the country.

This article starts with an uncomfortable truth. I see your reusable water bottle, your coffee keep-cup, and your tote bag. I see you because I see me. As a geographer myself, these features are stereotypical of the people you would find in my lectures. I am not saying these small things aren’t good, or not thoughtful or proactive; I am saying they’re not enough. We need to do more, we need to go bigger, and, above all, we must make personal sacrifices. Performative gestures won’t cut it anymore.

Students, and children, thanks to Greta Thunberg, often find themselves on the “frontline” of climate crisis activism, for example in local climate strikes. Younger generations are very much the public face of this upward battle for climate justice, and it is commendable that so many people are engaging in these strikes; however, we need to challenge the narrative that it is purely people older than us that have caused the problem.

A seemingly huge injustice of the climate crisis is that younger generations have “inherited” a huge pile of emissions they didn’t create. Except, 36bn tonnes of CO2 was emitted into the atmosphere last year, and millennials are the adults now. This begs the question, who is really to blame? “Us”, the clued-up, young, environmentally conscious, or “them” the vague, adult, and powerful other. This “us versus them” dynamic, harnessed by many casual climate activists, distracts from who the perpetrators really are. And the victims. We all will be the victims if temperatures rise, as projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over two degrees celsius. It is essential to narrow the focus, to target activism accurately to organise against the real perpetrators: governments and fossil fuel companies.

These are the stakeholders that matter in terms of making radical change. Therefore, this is a call to transcend prejudices, even within climate crisis activism. This is a suggestion to strip activism back to basics and work local. This is our chance to move outside of what is comfortable and easy. A good example of this seen on campus is the call for Glasgow University to defund fossil fuels.

Individually, you can start small, by accepting that most of the changes you’ve made to be more environmentally friendly have only been at your convenience. For example, Pret a Manger gives a 50p discount on any hot drink if a keep-cup is used. The design of the cup itself is just another way to express individuality and personality, and such things as keep-cups and other outward signals that you are environmentally conscious, are considered fashionable. Such swaps are objectively better options than the single use plastic alternative. Nevertheless, the gesture is fundamentally flawed if, for example, you use it to buy a coffee with cow’s milk. Or, you buy the coffee from a company that doesn’t use sustainably sourced ingredients. Now, these options can be more expensive – and this isn’t intended to shame those who can’t afford to make better consumer decisions, but I can guarantee however, many people at Glasgow University can afford the difference. The sooner we recognise we can individually do much more, the sooner we can make real difference.

If we don’t make large personal sacrifices now, either in time or money, the bottom line is we won’t be alive after 2038. We will have spent our last days on earth starving to death, because it’s too hot to grow basic food crops. I’m writing this because I’m scared. I know that the small efforts of myself and others aren’t enough. To change the future, all we have are ourselves and those around us. Students may be the visual face of climate change activism, but glorifying our own attempts ignores our personal contribution to emissions. We must recognise our equal stake in the problem and unite, educate, and organise with all others, to make governments and large industry companies listen.

This is our call to action. As Greta Thunberg so famously said: “Our house is on fire”. The time to act is now.


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