Submitted 15 September 2019
Letter do not necessarily reflect the views of the Quest or the Editorial Board
Let me first brandish my credentials: I am a card-carrying Democratic Socialist and member of Greenpeace. I am queer, disabled, and Jewish. I am also of the opinion that we should transition, as quickly as possible, away from hyper-consumerist capitalism toward a more sustainable, equitable, and just green socialism. Knowing this information alone, it ought to be fairly easy to predict that I will support the climate strike. And, in a sense, I do: I think the strike is a fantastic idea, and believe that students ought, as much as possible, to participate in it. I believe climate justice is imperative, and that activism is an important practical measure that can be employed to achieve it.
Yet, despite all this, when I was standing in the library being cajoled to sign a petition to shut down Reed College, I hesitated, and informed the enthusiastic climate activist that I needed some time to think it over. I did that, and upon engaging in some reflection, I decided that it would be institutionally damaging for Reed to participate in this climate strike, primarily because it would violate core principles of political neutrality.
Let me briefly outline just what the activists behind the climate strike want. They desire to, at the very least, have Reed professors forced to not mark students absent if they participate in the climate strike. More ambitiously, they believe that Reed should shut down its entire operations on the day of the strike, and in effect declare solidarity with the goals of the strikers.
When I say that I am opposed to the climate strike, I typically get a couple responses. People tell me that climate change is not political – it is an indubitable scientific fact. In a sense, this is true. Climate change has been decisively established by the empirical sciences. Yet there is a gap between recognizing a fact and deciding how to respond to it. If you navigate to the global climate strike page, you will see that they demand a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, reparations, equity, and “climate justice”. The first two items on this list are manifestly political demands. One can consistently believe in climate change and also think that the idea of “climate reparations” if fundamentally wrongheaded. Similarly, one might think that climate change is real and a threat, but also desire a more moderate transition away from fossil fuels. Lastly, note the demand for “climate justice” – this has a hyperlink, and when one clicks on it, you’re directed toward a website that has an extensive set of demands, including a call to transition away from nuclear, mega-hydro, and biofuels toward “clean, safe” energy systems, and a demand to “facilitate and support” non-market approaches to climate change. I support both of these demands, but I think it requires a sort of intellectual dishonesty to pretend that they are not manifestly political demands. There are, after all, those on the right, center and the left who believe that nuclear energy and market mechanisms have a place in combating climate change.
Of course, at this point the beleaguered activist might claim that it is simply a fact that we ought to follow these demands, and that facts are not, after all, political. Yet consider an analogous case: a right-wing activist asserts blithely that it is simply a fact that free trade tends to work to increase the GDP of all the countries involved, and that this has been confirmed by years of neoclassical economics. By advocating for free trade, they are not making a “political demand” at all – they are merely stating a “fact”. Surely, there is something disingenuous going on here.
Therefore, let’s grant that I’ve established that the climate strike is manifestly political, and that Reed, by shutting down its campus in response to the climate strike, would be essentially endorsing a particular set of political demands and positions. Some people will think there’s nothing wrong with this. Reed should, as an institution, endorse the correct political programs, and them doing so can hardly be cause for objection.
Yet this position seems to violate Reed’s core principles. Reed notes, in its page on the “operating principles” of the college, that it aims to 1) promote the “freest exchange and most open discussion” of ideas, and 3), that it “fosters and defends academic freedom” by not taking “positions on political issues that do not directly affect the fulfillment of its educational mission”. Now, I take these two points to be intimately connected. If Reed as an institution were to unqualifiedly endorse specific political positions, they would in effect be sending a message to students who don’t hold those positions that they are not welcome within Reed’s intellectual community. If Reed were to overtly declare itself to be an institution dedicated to, say, democratic socialism, it would presumably be necessary to do what it could do promote the principles of democratic socialism – and this might mean infringing upon the speech-rights of those who aren’t democratic socialists and ensuring that democratic socialism is advanced in and outside the classroom. Surely, this would have disastrous consequences for academic freedom, and hence for Reed’s commitment to be a place where the “freest exchange” of ideas is possible.
I do not believe that by declaring solidarity with a particular, partisan approach to Climate Change, Reed would be doing anything so drastic as endorsing democratic socialism. But I believe that the basic logic is the same, insofar as it would be a dangerous violation of political neutrality. Reed should, therefore, not bend to the demands of the climate activists, and remain steadfast in its refusal to identify itself institutionally with any single political ideology.