The student group Extinction Rebellion Columbia University (XR Columbia) has announced they will be holding a hunger strike for the next five days. Extinction Rebellion Columbia delivered a letter declaring the strike and a list of demands to the Office of the President last Friday.
Four students have stated in an open letter they would be hunger striking in Butler Library between November 18 and 22, in order to pressure the university to declare a climate emergency and divest from all fossil fuels. According to the letter delivered to President Bollinger last week, the involved students will be refusing food and following a “thoroughly prepared vitamin and care regimen” this coming week. The strike started yesterday morning.
The involved students will be striking until the following four demands are met:
In the aforementioned letter addressed to the “Trustees and President of Columbia University,” the group demands that the university take more direct action against climate change. The students voiced concerns over the culture of academia and Columbia’s focus on “learning as separate from labor,” stating that “university still cannot imagine that its mission must extend beyond the shaping of consciousness and into the sphere of meaningful participation.”
In regards to the recent Climate Change Task Force, the group states that “Like many, Extinction Rebellion Columbia University was hopeful about the formation of the Climate Change Task Force, but has been disappointed with it thus far.” The students claim that throughout the Climate Change Task Force, too much attention has been paid to the “intellectual work” required to combat climate change, as opposed to the more immediate direction that should be done by the university.
The letter calls for Columbia’s divestment from fossil fuels. This goal has been brought up to the university numerous times and was deemed “extremely reasonable” by Dr. Alex Halliday, Director of the Columbia Earth Institute, at the Climate Change Task Force.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a worldwide environmental activist group that started in the United Kingdom in May of 2018. Since then, it has grown exponentially, characterized by nonviolent civil disobedience and the use of shocking imagery (such as the recent die-in at the Wall Street Charging Bull statue). Columbia’s hunger strike is a part of a larger global hunger strike declared by the official XR organization.
Bwog reached out to XR Columbia to answer a few questions about the strike:
What measures are in place to protect the health of those striking?
“They are following a set of guidelines as set out by the [XR Global Strike]. They have done research on how to manage pain. They will be taking a regiment of vitamins and electrolytes and are being supervised by a support team pretty much around the clock.”
Why was the hunger strike chosen as the method of protest?
“The hunger strike was chosen because of the severity of the crisis. The hunger strike is one of the most powerful things an individual or a small group can do to make visible the suffering being caused by inaction on the part of Columbia as an institution and our society more generally. For those who are going without food, without homes, for those who have lost their lives due to the climate crisis. The hunger strike is one way of representing the suffering that has not only already taken place because of inaction as to the climate crisis but that we will continue to see as these effects compound.”
If no change happens despite the hunger strikes, are there any plans for the future?
“The hunger strikers and XR Columbia will begin just one step at a time, evaluating the response of the university and the community at large, and go off of that. In the case of the institution not fully meeting the demands, you can expect to see more action from us in the future.”
What is the best possible outcome that you could expect?
“A full commitment from the university to divest from fossil fuels completely and rapidly. Immediately really. The declaration of a climate emergency. The institution of a citizens assembly that would function not unlike the current task force, but that will actually be representative of the community – so for instance be representative of the Harlem community, or the students and faculty. Be able to put binding solutions forward in terms of the institution’s transition both away from fossil fuel divestment and from carbon emissions. We need to see [emissions] become a net 0 by 2025. And seeing that not just in name but in deed.”
The full letter to the Trustees and President Bollinger from XR Columbia is below.
To the Trustees and President of Columbia University:
We are Extinction Rebellion Columbia University. We need to talk about divesting from fossil fuels. This is our question to you: at what point should knowledge translate to action?
Columbia University is a university of global caliber, and one of the finest extant examples of what used to be called “the academy.” It’s an institution that was founded to prepare students for futures in which they could thrive, and to create new knowledge with the potential to revolutionize the world.
But that knowledge will never change the world simply by existing. Publication can no longer be the ultimate goal of academic practice, and students who think otherwise are not prepared for the Anthropocene. Thus the academy is failing in its mission, because for too long, it has defined consciousness as an end in itself, and defined learning as separate from labor. Until the academy views action as a natural extension of learning, the academy will fail itself, denying students the tools to reshape their broken inheritance. And it will not be telling the truth.
The truth is that we are in a crisis of unprecedented scale, and if institutions like ours do not meaningfully mobilize against it, we are not just ethically negligent, we are failing in intellectual honesty. The truth is that our world is in the midst of a massive paradigm shift, and that our problems stem not from a lack of awareness, or knowledge, or engineered solutions, but a lack of will: the will to stare at the severity of the Anthropocene, and the will to structurally challenge the society that engineered it.
Like many, Extinction Rebellion Columbia University was hopeful about the formation of the Climate Change Task Force, but has been disappointed with it thus far. There is endless talk of thinking, of formulating, of envisioning–in short, there is endless talk of doing intellectual work that has already been done, projected through timescales that became irrelevant years ago. We cannot act without thinking carefully, but any effort at reorganizing Columbia that does not include immediate and profound change is a lie of omission, eliding the hundreds of thousands already dead and the weight of the crises to come.
Trustees, President Bollinger; tell the truth as 11,000 scientists have: without massive and fast-paced radical change, ecological collapse will erase not just this institution, but societal structure, and the flourishing of human culture afforded by 10,000 years of unprecedented climatic stability. Tell us that our current “plan” is a condemnation of island nations, of thousands of species lost to extinction, and of the shreds of normalcy afforded to the young people of this new era. Tell us why Columbia’s $11,000,000,000 endowment continues to fund climate death through its investment in fossil fuels.
In the most recent Climate Change Task Force Town Hall, Director Alex Halliday asked for student ideas and received many, few of which included proposals for more than conversation and thinking. Task Force member Dr. Robin Bell mentioned that the Task Force was struggling with the third part of its mission, the “action impact solutions.” When pressed for more information about these action impact solutions, the co-leaders had little to say, because the university still cannot imagine that its mission must extend beyond the shaping of consciousness and into the sphere of meaningful participation. We believe Halliday and Bell to be a good-faith actors. During the Town Hall, Halliday did address a good starting place for action: divestment from fossil fuels. He mentioned that many people in backchannel discussions have found divestment “extremely reasonable.”
We’re glad to share a vision with Dr. Halliday and the task force. We, too, think divestment is extremely reasonable. In fact, we think it’s an absolute necessity that is long overdue, especially given the increasing burden of evidence that fossil fuel companies have known about their industry’s death toll and nonetheless chosen to expand.
We feel so strongly about the need for immediate divestment that in order to encourage the university, we are prepared to spend five days on hunger strike, sitting peacefully in public view from Monday to Friday, or until the university makes visible efforts towards action. We would rather not do this. It is extremely uncomfortable. We would much rather meet with university officials ahead of time, and congratulate the university on its concrete steps towards true carbon neutrality. Judith Butler writes, “the hunger strike is a bodily enactment, following its own protocols of performativity; it enacts what it seeks to show, and to resist.” The continued funding of ecological catastrophe is a negation of young bodies’ futures, and if the university cannot see these bodies’ hunger for life, we will enact it. We will resist a collective future defined by starvation.
We also feel that we cannot allow the other young people of this institution to continue looking to its leaders for change that is not yet coming. Therefore we ask that the university declare a climate emergency. We ask this alongside many other tireless student groups that recognize our current plan is not a plan at all, but a capitulation to a grotesque future.
Again, we do not want to do this. But if the university cannot yet see how to act, we will demonstrate, acting together with hundreds of other Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers around the world. We have learned from legacies of resistance, including those here at Columbia, and will use our privilege to refuse food as a small representation of the sacrifices to come.
Extinction Rebellion Columbia University
Disclaimer: A member of Bwog Staff, Abi Peters, is participating in the hunger strike. She has not been and will continue to not be involved in covering the hunger strike or any future Extinction Rebellion Columbia coverage.
Image via XR Columbia Facebook