It seems to me that the fundamental question before us is whether young people can change their world for the better. Certainly, if I were in the position of the students leading this charge, that would be the big question weighing on my mind: Can I make a difference?
Let there be no doubt that students can and do frequently have a big impact on the course of history. Let’s not forget that the first Earth Day in 1970 was based on college campuses. The political momentum generated from that essential student movement ushered in the environmental policy changes of the 1970s. Students and the political changes they helped bring about are the reason why there is no cancer-causing formaldehyde in the carpet under our feet, why our classrooms are lit by energy-efficient bulbs, why there’s no lead in the paint on the walls, and why one can actually see Mount Baldy. In each case, the political establishment responded to that push by forming new rules to govern society.
The question before us is not one of idealism versus pragmatic economic analysis. Activism—in the sense of proactive engagement in trying to change the world—is an eminently pragmatic undertaking. Indeed, if we’re not activists on these issues, then we really are starry-eyed idealists, hoping beyond hope that issues like climate change will be resolved by an imagined natural course of scientific and technological progress and ever-widening spheres of human enlightenment—maybe late in coming, but surely, we hope, in time. Now there’s idealism! And of course no one is more of a political activist on this issue than oil companies, who have been spending millions of dollars trying to prevent America from investing in alternative energy. Technological innovation requires political innovation, and that’s what the divestment movement is all about.