The New School’s New Wail: A Visit to Campus Sustainability Day

Peter Wood

Earlier this year, The New School adopted Gnarls the Narwhal as its new mascot.  It was an inspired choice for the famously left-wing university in New York City. The New School has from its founding in 1919 sought to position itself outside the political and social mainstream, and it has some cachet in progressive circles for its wayward curriculum. 

Gnarls was on hand for The New School Student Sustainability Festival that I attended today as an uninvited guest.  Though the Festival had several threads, it was mainly an occasion for student activists to talk about their efforts to bring the divestment movement to The New School.  That’s “divestment” in the sense of getting the board of trustees to divest the portion of the university’s endowment currently invested in fossil fuel companies.  The divestment movement is mainly the creation of Middlebury professor Bill McKibben.  McKibben is in Europe at the moment spreading his gospel, so he was unable to attend the Festival in person.  He did, however, provide a short video message to his New School followers.  It was the culminating event of the two-hour program.

While this event is still fresh in mind, I thought I’d provide a short account of it.  The sustainability movement has been developing slowly on campus for about twenty years, but not until the last year or so has it had a galvanizing cause.  McKibben’s divestment movement, carried forward by his organization, may change that.  Harvard students last fall voted by an overwhelming margin—some 72 percent—to ask the administration to divest.  Swarthmore’s environmental activist group Mountain Justice in May swarmed a trustees’ meeting ostensibly to make the same demand.  McKibben now boasts 380 colleges and universities have organized “big, active” student divestment movements. 

It seems worth taking note of what the student organizers and their adult allies think they are doing. 

The first thing that struck me about the Festival was the relatively small turnout.  The New School has about 9,300 students.  There were 45 participants in the Festival, or 46 if you count Gnarls.  Of these, thirty were women, 15 men, and one was a narwhal of indeterminate gender.  Several of the participants were from other universities, including Columbia, New York University, and Fordham.  

Second, the mood of the Festival was pretty mellow.  The participants were quiet and polite, and clapped in a moderate way at the end of each speaker’s turn.  They seemed to applaud out of etiquette, not from excess of enthusiasm.  There was no discernible tension in the room as might, for example, be expected of a movement that felt some frisson from its defiance of authorities.

Indeed, a major theme of the meeting was that several administrators of The New School had quietly assured the leaders of the divestment movement that they, the administrators, supported divestment but need a show of support from the students to take the matter to the trustees.  The leaders of the students at the Festival for the most part took this at face value.  Their view was that the work of the activists was to rally broad student support to give the administrators the proof they had requested.  One step towards this end was a group photo at the end, which was explained as something needed to show the administrators how well attended the event had been.

The New School has an established committee, the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, ACIR, the goal of which is “putting our endowment money where our mission is.”  It is comprised of faculty, students, staff, and trustees, and one of its research assistants, a graduate student named Brandt Weathers, was on hand to give the Festivants a little more precise information about how ACIR was engaging the divestment issue.  Weathers was cautiously optimistic, but his paraphrase of what The New School administrators were saying was open to interpretation.  He reported one administrator saying of the divestment proposal, “That sounds good but we are not going to do anything until we know that students are behind this.” 

Not so open to interpretation is the movement’s logo.  Poor Gnarls lies slumped in an oil slick, his ivory tusk raised in rigor mortis against a blood red background.  Above him hovers the oily admonition “Divest.” 

The Gnarls mascot who greeted guests at the door and posed for photographs (including with two members of my staff) however, seemed oil-free and rather cheerful.  He/she eventually sat down at one of the tables and with thumbless determination began to read the draft letter to the Board’s Investment Committee, which might determine the fate of narwhals everywhere.  Then s/he left for class.

The speakers reminded us at various moments of the existential peril hanging over us because of global warming and the fossil fuels they held responsible for rising temperatures.  One speaker reminded us that narwhals are an arctic species and as goes the north icecap, so go the narwhals.   (This may be a problem, but the larger danger facing narwhals in the past has been too much ice, not too little.  A thousand narwhals were trapped under the ice in 1915, and other entrapments occurred in 2008-2010.) 

Fanciful pseudo-science was rolled out frequently.  Next week marks the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s assault on New York and New Jersey.  The students were in no doubt that the hurricane was the result of global warming and that further such catastrophes lay in store if something drastic is not done to reduce greenhouse emissions.  Bill McKibben also explained Sandy as the result of global warming, because warm air holds more water.  He added that the oceans have risen a foot in the last 40 years and are now 30 percent more acidic.  For what it is worth, there is no reputable science supporting any of these claims.

But that shouldn’t stand in the way of a good political moment.  We learned that next week a march is planned on New York City Hall to mark Sandy’s anniversary.  At this point the broader social and political agenda of the sustainability movement popped into view.  The planned City Hall rally will deal with matters such as gentrification, poor services to the less well-off neighborhoods, and the salaries of oil company executives.  One participant has composed a satiric song about the salary of Exxon-Mobil’s CEO. 

The rhetoric I am citing may sound amped-up, and certainly some of the speakers seemed eager to summon the energy of the Festivants.  They spoke of “a just, sustainable future,” and “the struggle for climate justice.”  The word “exciting” was deployed many more times than I could count to describe the ebullience of the movement and the prospects of its success.  It was, however, typically uttered in a world-weary monotone.  One speaker, Linda Rodriguez from NYU and a former Fellow, fresh back from the “Powershift Conference” in Pittsburgh with the “exciting” news that a new “National Divestment Network” had been kicked off in that former bastion of industrial pollution, described it as like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of yore.  She asked for a show of hands among participants who had heard of SNCC, which she called a “badass movement.”  There were a few superannuated grad students and a handful of others who remembered or had read about the student role in the Civil Rights movement who languidly raised their hands. 

The leaders clearly want the divestment movement to be another badass moment, but it may be hard to provoke that attitude when you believe the university administration is more or less on your side.  Thus when Rodriguez tried to lead the Festivants in what she called a “cool chant,” the result was a feeble version of “I believe that we will win!”  Listening to this rendition, I believed otherwise.

While most of the Festival dealt with divestment, we did have some divertisements too.    The organizers were concerned we weren’t eating enough and reassured us that the buffet was made up entirely of organic, local food served on compostable paper plates with entirely compostable plasticware utensils and cups.  

“Beth” from the Real Food Challenge gave a talk about what she had learned at a local and sustainable agriculture seminar in Baltimore for aspiring food activists.  The four principles of the movement are:  humane, local, just, and ethical.  The New School chapter aimed to have, by 2020, 20 percent of the food consumed by The New School Students be “real food.”  That refers to, as she explained, food that is “totally fair, totally local, and totally sustainable.”  She also attempted to inject some rhetorical enthusiasm into the event.  Changing student eating she said is a “testament to student power” and will lead to a “revolution in the food industry.”  She reminded the students “how much agency we have at The New School,” but also warned them not to take the moment for granted.  “We have leverage [now] we don’t get when we aren’t students anymore.”  And “Things are becoming more and more urgent.”  And she invited us all to a “slow food” dinner Friday night. 

The significance of the event seemed to lie less in what the students said or did than in their linking up with organizers at Columbia, NYU, Fordham, CUNY, and several local high schools—as well as a national movement.  The New School clearly matters a lot to the other organizers.  As almost all the speakers emphasized, The New School is by far the largest university that seems ripe for officially embracing the call for divestment.  If The New School does divest, that action, they believe, will pressure the other New York colleges and universities to follow suit and it will give the national movement a trophy it does not yet have.  Some of the speakers followed the logic even further.  One suggested that if The New School divests it will gain a competitive advantage in student recruitment over other leftist-branded colleges and universities, which will then be under still more pressure to divest. 

McKibben’s video talk provided one fascinating final chord.  He told the students that he knows and they should know too that college and university divestment won’t hurt the energy companies at all financially.  Instead, the goal of the movement is to hurt the energy companies “politically.”  More precisely, McKibben said, “It’s not because The New School selling its stock will bankrupt Exxon. It won’t. It’s because it’s a part of the process of politically bankrupting them. We’re removing their ability to influence.”  He looked down the generational road and conjured a future in which energy companies would no longer be able to sway public opinion because today’s generation had cut off all of their moral authority. 

It was in its way a breathtakingly cynical declaration that only a charismatic leader like McKibben could dare.  In effect, he said the ostensible purpose of all this organizing—getting universities to divest—is just a ruse.  What he is really after is the hearts and minds of students, whom he would like to transform into zealous proponents of his own peculiar doctrine that combines unsubstantiated and often outlandish scientific claims with apocalyptic prophecies. 

The relatively small turnout for this event is heartening in a way, and the complacency of the group could be taken as another sign that McKibbenism won’t resonate that well with the generation he means to lead.  On the other hand, these anemic young women and men seemed devoid of any trace of skepticism toward the just-so stories and scientific howlers that were being served up.  They blandly believed the revealed doctrines of McKibbenism in particular and sustainability in general and were ready to fan out and summon other students to the True Faith. 

That’s worrisome.

Images: Ashley Thorne, National Association of Scholars

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