Dr. Seuss’ parable, The Lorax, about the environmental movement tells the story of the Once-ler who cuts down the forest of Truffula Trees to make “thneeds” despite the Lorax’s protests. “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs.” But the Lorax’s protests are futile. No one listens to his pleas to protect the Truffula Trees because “business is business” and everyone is too busy making money from thneeds. 

Lorax-inspired pleas for the College to divest the endowment from fossil fuels have been similarly futile. Despite student activism pushing for divestment, the College has continued to say, “business is business,” and has swept the proposal off the table. However, the College did coincidentally reveal its vision for how it believes students should help protect the environment through the recent panel Reaching Day Zero: Living Sustainably at Bowdoin and Beyond, held in Kresge auditorium on March 25. 

During the panel, professors and administrators, moderated by President Mills, argued that students should protect the environment primarily through sustainable lifestyle choices and education. Unfortunately, the panel helped reveal that Bowdoin College encourages its students to pursue environmental education and make sustainable lifestyle choices rather than fight for large-scale climate action, a College position which does not adequately address the risk of climate change.  

Most members of the Reaching Day Zero panel suggested students address climate change through environmental education and adopting small sustainable habits. Professor Collings suggested students should refrain from flying on airplanes, have fewer children and buy carbon offsets. Professor Wegner talked about using less waste and chemicals in art supplies. Professor Peterman emphasized the importance of scientific literacy and relying on the data to make decisions about sustainability. Even some of the most “radical” proposals entertained by the panel, such as Professor Wheelwright’s call for a sustainability requirement, focused on educating students about climate change. 

It is true that environmental education and sustainable lifestyle choices do reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA estimated in 2011 that the U.S. transportation and residential sectors account for just over half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers and biking instead of driving does lead to a more sustainable future.       

However, market forces and government policy often restrict our individual decisions related to sustainability. For example, urban planning may force us to drive to work. Furthermore, almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the industrial and commercial sectors, which individuals cannot control. As individuals there is only so much we can do to prevent climate change and environmental degradation. 

In order to affect large-scale action on the climate problem, we need to work together to affect our society’s institutions. Only one of the Reaching Day Zero panelists, Professor Laura Henry, emphasized the importance of collective action in solving the climate problem. Collective action brought us the Clean Air and Water Acts. Collective action brought about Maine’s renewable portfolio standard, increasing the portion of our state’s electricity derived from renewable sources. The only way this country will pass broad based cap-and-trade legislation, designed to cost-efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is through powerful collective action that forces Congress to act on climate change.       

But so far, Bowdoin has done very little to encourage actions designed to stop climate change on a large scale. The College did adopt a climate action plan which focuses primarily on profitable energy efficiency reductions, as well as encouraging more sustainable habits amongst students. Bowdoin also buys RECs in Maine to try to increase incentives for renewable technologies in the state, but it is unclear how well these financial instruments actually reduce carbon emissions. 
More troubling than these half-hearted efforts to stop climate change is that Bowdoin appears to be actively suppressing collective action designed to stop climate change here on campus. President Mills has said little to the public about divestment other than that he does not support it. The BSG executive committee announced it did not support divestment “for a variety of reasons” after it met with Mills behind closed doors. The Orient editorialized against divestment after it received a non-public statement on this issue from the College administration. By sweeping divestment under the rug, Bowdoin sends a statement to its students that they should stick to often ineffectual individual actions to prevent climate change rather than engaging in activism designed to affect broad change surrounding climate issues.         

Bowdoin will not create the environmental leaders of tomorrow by trying to kill the College’s divestment movement. Discouraging environmental activism will only create docile and jaded students who laugh at prospects for change, and prefer the status quo to aspirations for a better future.  Although the College might tell you otherwise, the best way for students to fight climate change is not to sit tight, turn off the lights and leave the important stuff to the adults. It is to address climate change on a holistic level, whether that’s through advocating here on campus for divestment, participating in collective actions to prevent new fossil fuel development, or voicing your support for cap and trade legislation. As Dr. Seuss would remind us, “The words of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”