Note: Since publishing this post last night, I have received no less than three very gracious emails from members of Divest RISD; they were all very polite and articulate about their motivation. One email was from the petitioner mentioned near the end, who apologized for an unfortunate word choice and made it clear that the word “warpaint” was not part of the general discursive language. I’m impressed by how well the people who contacted me reacted to this criticism.
My college, the Rhode Island School of Design, recently made headlines with its joining of the fossil fuel divestment movement. A student group here is trying to get the administration to shed the school’s investments in the fossil fuel industry, in hopes that if many schools and businesses jump on the bandwagon, it will be a blow to the fuel industry and lead to a decrease in environmental crisis- most specifically, disastrous climate change.
I’m far from convinced that this is worthwhile. I am NOT any kind of expert in economics or environmental science, but it seems to me that picking off the fossil fuel industry’s stockholders won’t do a thing to lessen public demand for gasoline, etc. Instead, without as many investments, prices will go up- not just on fuel itself, but on everything connected with transportation, including and especially food. Small business owners that rely on gasoline- like farmers, for their equipment- will have to cut their budgets while they’re already struggling. Many Americans can’t afford even a slight increase in food prices. The fires will keep on burning and the icecaps will keep on melting.
I want to make it clear that I do see the vital importance of environmentalism, and I do understand the need for universal support. It’s industrial nations, and so-called “first world” consumers, that really need to get on board- most people on the globe have a pretty low carbon footprint and are paying the price for the excess of the remainder (i.e. the poor/working class, and people of color, are more likely to suffer the health and quality of life disasters that stem from pollution). Environmentalist objectives that I heartily support include government initiatives to help farmers “green” their technology at no cost to the farmers, and the “slow” or local food movement, which encourages people to buy local, in-season food to reduce the tonnage of fuel emissions produced daily as food is trucked all over the country and the world. But advocating for such initiatives is a lot harder than demanding something from an institution which is basically one’s employee (since the students pay tuition). This brings me to concerns regarding the way I see the Divest RISD movement acted out on campus.
Interestingly, I find that the majority of my fellow students here- artists all- are fairly apolitical. Most of them are white, and most of them come from upper-middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, as it’s an infamously expensive school. This leads to an ignorance of class and race issues, which manifests in bullshit like the disrespect many students show the maintenance staff (for starters). So when they’re rallied around a cause like Divest RISD (an easy cause that can be termed lazy activism), they forget the absolutely intrinsic and necessary intersection of environmentalism and class- and within class, that of race, gender, globalism, etc.
The politics of resistance itself absolutely must be taken into the hearts of anyone who considers themselves an activist, especially if you have institutionally privileged aspects of your life. For example, I’m white, so I need to really focus on being a good ally to people of color. I have a responsibility to educate myself on issues of race and to listen, and to draw connections. Likewise, the economically privileged among environmentalists have an obligation to the poor/working class. It probably doesn’t occur to most of the Divest RISD kids that their actions may result in produce becoming a little more expensive, because it won’t make any difference in their lives. But they have to get a consciousness there.
In the Divest RISD movement, I see a heavy sense of nostalgia for the heyday of student protests; student involvement in the divestment of American interests from South African-apartheid-supporting industry comes up quite a lot. They had a sit-in in the President’s (climate controlled) office; they even painted their faces with slogans (and called it “warpaint,” which is racist). They keep throwing around the ideology of nonviolent protest, which aside from being a very privileged attitude, is frankly insulting to the people who’ve lost their lives participating in nonviolent protest. Nobody is trying to hurt these kids- they don’t get a cookie for not being violent when there’s no violent threat.
I don’t know if this represents an urge toward activism or a desire for rebelliousness- I fervently hope the former, and I hope that RISD students can take the kind of energy they muster for this and direct it toward more holistic causes. Also that they brush up on their technique: a guy wanting us to sign a petition called my friend and me “abrasive” when we asked him questions about it (which he couldn’t properly answer). Our planet needs an intervention, our people need critical healing measures- and artists are a vital part of that. I hope that my fellow students and I can pull ourselves together and unite in a more mindful approach to activism.
p.s. Happy belated International Labourer’s Day (May 1)!