Thoughts on RIO+20, Students, and Leadership by College & Universities

July 11, 2012

By Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College & Founder of 350.ORG

(This article appears in the July, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)


Bill McKibben Addresses 2012 Climate Leadership Summit from RIO+20

Young people were the only real leaders at the Rio+20 confab–and they led by walking out. On the day before the conclave ground to its final, pointless conclusion, many of the college students on hand staged a sit-down protest along one of the walkways between the various plenary halls. Even though they were unfailingly polite, the head of UN security told them that if they didn’t cease their ‘unsanctioned activity,’ they would ‘lose their credentials.’  At which point one of the young people remarked: “Why would we care? The credentials just get us in the door of a process that isn’t working.”

For those of us who remember the first Rio conference that was a particularly poignant realization. In place of the real hope that had marked that gathering, there was now just a sense of people going through the motions. The final text had 99 sentences promising that governments would “support” things, and 50 insisting that they would “encourage” them, but only on three minor matters did leaders find it possible to say “we will” actually, you know, act.

And so, at a certain point, leaders begin to forfeit that title. For two decades now our governments, in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry, have not been leaders at all–they’ve been hang-backers, slow-downers, do-littles. Which leaves a vacuum.

In that vacuum, colleges and universities will play a crucial role as can-do artists. Every college that goes carbon-neutral, every campus that turns pedestrian-only, every dining hall that converts to local food–they all not only accomplish significant good in their own right, but also serve as a powerful reproach to the governments that aren’t acting. Colleges and universities lean forward into the future–that bent is more important than ever.

But it’s also not going to be enough, I’d predict. Students, facing an increasingly impossible physical future, won’t settle for half measures. They’re coming to realize that institutions of higher education will need to lead in other, less comfortable ways. Their portfolios, for instance, can’t be larded with fossil-fuel stock—if you’re holding Exxon, you’re paying for people’s education with investments that guarantee they won’t have a working planet on which to enact that education.

The failure of governmental leaders opens up a remarkable void, one that colleges and universities must help fill. The growing impatience and awareness of young people mean they better approach that task honestly and forthrightly–and quickly!

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