In 2018 Greta Thunberg, then 15, gathered much notice and sympathy for her commitment to climate activism. Instead of attending school, she spent her days outside the Swedish Parliament, where she staged a one-person strike for the climate.
Before long, other Swedish schoolchildren joined Greta in vacating their schools and striking for meaningful climate legislation. These kids spawned "Fridays For Future", a now international movement which claims to have conducted 116,000 strikes in 215 countries engaged in by 14 million strikers. Those are impressive numbers.
But I regret to say that they are not enough, and that no number of strikes by striking elementary, middle or high school students will be enough to move the needle significantly on the climate. Apart from leveraging sympathy, those students have no power to leverage real change.
So who does?
College students do. College students have leverage because college students have something their younger siblings don’t: economic clout. Every semester, students from around the world fuel (in tuition and fees) the engine upon which their college or university runs. And because college budgets are tight, every dollar (or its foreign equivalent) counts. Every enrolled student counts.
What would happen, then, if college students, on a rolling basis, collectively withheld their money and demanded that their school push harder to secure a stable, dependable climate future? My guess is that fiscal alarms would sound; students, leveraging that alarm, could impel their school to become more institutionally active dealing with the looming climate crisis—not just on campus, but beyond.
It is time that college students take the climate baton from those "Fridays For Future" kids by striking—not for a Friday, not for a class period or lunch hour, not for a day or even week, but by taking a semester’s leave of absence to do with as they see fit (work, intern, volunteer, become politically active, etc.), but, crucially, to pay no tuition or fees.
If college students organize and plan, if they take leaves of absence jointly beginning next semester, with peer replacements the semester after that, and a new group the semester after that, so that every successive semester colleges everywhere are deprived the income of the group that sits out that semester; if they do this in even small percentages of the student population—six percent, five percent, three percent; and if they do this while demanding that college administrations and their trustees use their power and influence to collectively press for significant rehabilitative change in federal, state, and local policy, and press to change business-as-usual industries and economics, progress, swift progress, can be achieved on the climate front. But students need to organize now, and begin sitting out in the spring.
But why school administrations? What did they do?
What they have done, and continue to do, is accept student money, promoting the narrative that by attending and graduating from their institution, whatever the institution, the student’s life will be better and brighter, particularly in the realms of career and standard of living. Colleges have billed themselves as an individual’s investment into the future.
What they haven’t done is protect the student’s investment. They haven’t done enough to ensure that the student’s actual future will be one that can be made better by attending their college. Colleges and universities on the whole have accepted and will continue to accept student money, but have not used their institution’s political and economic weight to leverage the kind of real, significant climate fixes (commercially, industrially, politically) that all but the most ostrich-headed say we need if we hope to avert the worst of climate futures.
It’s no longer enough for higher ed to simply confer degrees; it needs, as a community, to protect those degrees from the higher degrees of our increasingly seething planet. If enough students in enough schools take enough leaves of absence, keep their thousands in their pockets, keep those thousands out of the pockets of their college or university, and do this in enough states and enough countries—and like Greta, persist—it will result in a sweeping campus movement that will awaken the higher educational system globally to its responsibility to students—yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s—and to acting collectively, courageously, and forcefully to protect that hope-filled, hoped-for future which remains the greatest argument for every college’s existence, and for every student’s attending one.
Turbulence likely is bad for economies, at every level. Turmoil surely is. Everything that scientists have been telling us for decades, and as recently as Sept. 17, when the UN warned of the world’s current “catastrophic pathway,” is that if humanity doesn’t act now, swiftly and decisively, our future—and not some far off future but one much nearer, perhaps as soon as ten or fifteen years—will be one not simply of climatological, and hence, economic turbulence, but one of climatological and economic turmoil. With such an outlook, where is that bright future college students are working toward? The one that colleges assure is waiting just on the other side of graduation?
Greta stood up, alone, and sparked a movement.
Greta 2.0 also has the potential to spark a movement, but first it needs its Gretas.
College students: Demand a better future. Stand up and sit one out.
Dr. Jerry Blitefield
Retired Professor of English and Communication