The student sit-in at Washington University challenging Peabody Energy’s presence there is now over after 17 days. In the five-and-a-half years as a chemical engineering graduate student that I spent at that university there is nothing that I can compare the sit-in to. As a continuation of years of ongoing work that preceded it around Peabody and its role both within the university and without, I feel hopeful that it speaks to even greater things to come. Now there is time to reflect on what happened and where things are going. With that in mind it could be useful to take a step back and look more broadly at what Peabody represents both for the university and for our lives.
A lot has been said about the morality of Peabody, even that the corporation itself is evil. Peabody is not evil, it’s just a corporation and as such its legal mandate is to increase its profits. That’s all it’s made out of; there’s certainly no moral fiber to it. Since it’s a coal company it necessarily has to sell more and more coal to function properly. As a country we’re pretty much maxed out in worldwide ratings of per capita energy consumption, which has lead to all the horrible things Peabody is guilty of: decades of exploitation of the Navajo and Hopi nations, a very dark legacy in Appalachia, and its distinction of nearly providing one percent of all carbon emissions since the industrial age began. Now in order to survive in an age where environmental problems are more near the front of human consciousness, Peabody must rely on things like funding academic initiatives such as the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, having its executive officers serve on board after board, renaming the Saint Louis opera house, becoming a steadfast member of ALEC, and doing everything it can to make you think that it actually cares in the slightest about those suffering from “energy poverty” (i.e., those segments of the world’s population that don’t already use the insane amount of energy that we do).
Laying Peabody’s legacy in this way is meant to show that it relies on an economic system and forces that go beyond one particular coal company. If you were to somehow train your sights so fantastically on Peabody today as to bring ruin to it, unless you’ve addressed the underlying systems that it represents and depends on, by tomorrow some other company’s logo would be on Peabody’s mines and machines and your work will have been for nothing. A good way to understand just how culturally and environmentally harmful Peabody is by considering that over the course of exploiting the lands and the people of the Navajo and Hopi nations, the resources extracted out of those nations have effectively created modern day Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. It is not an exaggeration to say that those cities could not exist in anything like their current forms had it not been for the exploitative powers that one coal company that is just doing its job can bring to bear. Cities that are born on the backs of indigenous people even into the present day, that are designed to be heavily populated with Americans with relatively intense material and energy needs, absolutely speak to our need to consider the many systemic problems associated with Peabody.
There are two extremely pertinent systemic problems that we as a species have to deal with that are at the forefront of my mind when thinking about Peabody and the university student sit-in it inspired: climate change and student debt. Regardless of whether the sit-in met its stated goals, it has been tremendously successful in bringing Peabody and its roles front and center. And like one of the most important aspects of the short-lived Occupy era, the sit-in brought people together in ways outside of our normal relations with one another and gave them space to expand what is normally considered possible. The scope of what we consider possible both for society and our own lives is tied to the systems that allow Peabody to flourish unabated, the systems that keep us limited in how we even consider approaching large problems.
There’s really no problem in more desperate need of expansion of what we think is possible than the problem of how we will deal with climate change. The conversation so often had is painfully mired in surface issues such as “coal vs. solar panels,” and ridiculous contradictions such as how do we forever and ever grow our economy while protecting the environment. (You can’t. The end.) The endless frustration I felt as an engineering student was brought on by the fact that none of the work that I saw being done, and certainly not my own research, ever addressed the systemic problem that we are simply consuming, by design, too much of everything as a nation. The fact that the engineering department, and our nation as a whole, is not capable or even comfortable in concretely dealing with this fact speaks to the need for transformative change if we are ever to get serious about global warming.
Complicating this monumental struggle of rising sea levels is the debt we’re already drowning in. Before many children can even contemplate their future, their lives have been set upon a track that will leave them indebted to Sallie Mae for much of their adult life, with dubious rewards to speak of. The average student is loaded with somewhere around $30,000 in debt once they leave college, the institution that ostensibly is meant to give them the skills and credentials to best deal with what this world will throw at them. For Washington University, an elite private school with undergraduate admissions designed such that students from privileged backgrounds are more able to get accepted, if your parents can’t simply pay for your tuition then the average student debt you’ll leave with is even more ridiculous. The many, many personal anecdotes I’ve heard of folks graduating with over a hundred thousand dollars, and topping a quarter of a million for some graduate students, can’t help but be somewhat depressing. And then of course there’s the interest, fees, and that student loans and the laws that govern their collection are in fact designed to ruin you.
So how do we deal with catastrophic climate change while we’re simultaneously hobbled by debt? When a whole class of people is loaded with an obscene amount of student debt (well over a trillion dollars now) it is impossible to think that those people won’t be fighting with at least one arm tied behind their back. (I should stress now that while I’m focusing on student debt here the argument stands for any debt whether medical, credit, or otherwise.) The psychological toll people are already facing from our perceived inability to deal with climate change is compounded many times over by a debt burden that makes it impossible for us to act freely. And of course the physics that govern climate change certainly doesn’t care about your debt or the compromised position it puts you in.
What’s already on offer to us so that we can live our lives while supposedly being capable of addressing such societal problems? If we wished to be truly suicidal as a species we might continue on as we normally do in this country and try to beat back against all this mounting debt by manufacturing more and more products, thereby exacerbating the environmental crises we already face. (It’s pretty fascinating the way we’ve designed the tools of our own destruction.) The more day-to-day and personal way this treadmill will play out is via the usual avenues: by choosing your career path and your participation in our allegedly democratic system. If you get a nice, well-paying job you can fend off your creditors and maybe if you’re really lucky and talented you can do something that will let you tackle the problem of climate change in a meaningful way. Or maybe you’ll just get some meaningless job if you aren’t “good enough.” Then you’ll have to rely on your power as a voting citizen to stop emissions from shooting through the roof. Both these tools, a respectable career and a ballot box, do nothing to deal with the systemic nature of the problems Peabody has set on our lap. First let’s take a peak through career options. For the purposes of this writing I’m going to focus on college students, but I’m hoping that these ideas will be more broadly relatable.
As you approach graduation, loaded with monetary debts and societal duties, surely your attention will be drawn more and more forcibly to thoughts of a career. What is the thing that will define you in your adult life as your degree defined you in your student life? Where will you acquire that fabled real world experience? With these thoughts in mind you might consider popping down to the career fair. Nervous and dressed in your Sunday best, eyeing all the competition that once were your peers, what opportunities will you find? The Washington University Spring 2014 career fair lists 118 possibilities to funnel your time and your skills into. Unfortunately, if you have any desire to affect the sort of systemic change that has been mentioned, a cursory look over any of these possibilities strongly indicates you’ll be left wanting. Nearly the best you could hope for is that you’ll find a job that will be intellectually stimulating and provide you with the means to eventually pay off your debt (as emissions rise and rise) or possibly financially support yourself in an uncertain future. Things would appear to be better if you really like technology or business. (You didn’t do anything so stupid as to earn a degree in the humanities? Whoops. The path out of our problems is to manufacture and sell products dummy.)
More to the point in the whole unsatisfying mess of careers and jobs, is the inherent competitive aspect of these affairs. We now hold competition to be about as integral a part of human interaction that it goes without question that it should play such a huge and continuous part in our lives. In a world where we’re collectively facing both climate change and tremendous debt, it would seem in our best interests to ditch the idea that we have to treat everyone as a competitor that needs to be bested. We should concern ourselves with relating to one another as human beings as opposed to workers or bosses or consumers. Career fairs basically epitomize all the forms of relations we should be trying to rid ourselves of. (The logic of competition is rather ludicrously on display when some members of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization express hesitancy to change the name because they’ve spent so much effort in branding themselves that a name change would compromise that work.)
If a less sullied form of wage slavery is more to your liking, then you might look to the hallowed halls of academia as a refuge. But academia is just as in tune with the logic that Peabody represents and propagates as any big corporation. A recent blog post at Black Girl Dangerous puts it perfectly…
“It can be easy to forget that the University still functions as a capitalistic machine, extracting all of our energy to the very last drop until we are dwindled bodies, robotically producing. In this sense, it does well in preparing us for the capitalist job market. I ask that we remind ourselves of this, and question whether we are willfully participating in, and internalizing, the ways capitalism associates our human worth with the amount of production they can extract from us.”
Anyone who has spent some amount of time around grad students or professors knows that this treadmill never stops. You just affix more letters to your name, worry about different ways to get funding, and worry about different ways to set yourself apart from your colleagues and earn accolades. And the way tenure is dangled ever in front of people (to eventually be decided upon by Greg Boyce, CEO of Peabody, and the rest of the Board of Trustees) produces a climate of fear over your job security and inherent conformity, a respectable mirror for the business world.
Non-profits have a tendency to follow something of the same sort of logic, as anyone whose ever had to fundraise could tell you. There’s only so much money for some causes to go around, and if you fall too far out of line and begin to challenge the wrong thing then that money can be fleeting. The growth of unpaid internship positions in organizations whose focus is to address social and environmental justice causes is a very clear indication that we need to be thinking about how to not replicate what we want to tear down.
And finally, one tempting option you might be considering is a career in government. If there was ever a perfect example of what not to replicate it would be our current government structure. The extent of the dysfunction around the government’s responses to climate change, facilitated by our corporate media, is nicely summed up by the fact that the person who is arguably the most powerful human being in the world could not bring himself to use the words “climate change” during the last round of presidential debates. It’s a government whose State Department issues reports that describe the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline as minimal. In the student debt arena, congress has allowed the lending and collection practices to be so corruptible and entangled with corporate interests that you could literally kill yourself and the debt will remain to torment your family. The game has been rigged such that the business models of lenders rely on you defaulting so they can collect on absurd fees. All this while lending companies fill up the coffers of representatives running for office and employ their family members in managerial positions.
The Washington University Board of Trustees is reflective of these larger structures and is truly unique only in the specific CEOs that sit on it. The Board basically self-selects itself, decides who does or does not get tenure, and students, professors, and staff basically have no say. There’s a token of representation via the single graduate and undergraduate representatives who have negligible to zero voting power. One imagines the trustees would view the representatives’ role as mainly to learn how to behave like a proper adult all while racking up another gold star to put on their resume. The structure of the Board mirrors nicely the role Peabody plays in ALEC. It seems fitting that a university that staunchly resists need-blind admissions would have a corporate partner tied to stand your ground and voter disenfranchisement legislation.
The point of laying out the shortcomings of these typical paths isn’t to fill people with dread or hopelessness. The point is to show that there is a desire to deal with the huge problems we are facing outside the scope of what we’re normally offered. Not only is it necessary to be able to relate to each other in ways outside these prescribed roles, but there is actual joy to be found in creating such alternatives. It’s hard, and you certainly don’t need to stress out trying to find out how to utterly dismantle capitalism as the basis of these poisonous relationships before May or whenever you’ll be graduating. But we need to be actively dealing with these sorts of systemic problems, and understanding the agency we already have and can obtain as we struggle. We shouldn’t allow resistance to be relegated to a hobby, activism for the weekends for folks who have the time. If we want to resist the systemic problems that Peabody presents, then we should figure out how to carve out spaces for that.
The Washington University administration has seemingly made its decision on the demands laid forth by the students at the sit-in. Sounds like it’s been basically a resounding “No.” to all of them. But just like you’ll be looking for careers, these administrators have chosen theirs. They’ve climbed up ladders and now sit at the head of institutions that are just as much a part of this global industrial capitalist world as Peabody and you and I are. Sounds like they’re just doing their job to protect the structures they’ve made themselves a part of. Someone told me that they feel sorry for Chancellor Wrighton as he’s a nice guy but he’s in this hard spot where he couldn’t rid the university of Peabody even if he wanted to. I don’t feel bad for him at all. He’s made the bed he lies in.
There is a poverty of imagination that we really need to do away with. This quote from Richard Axelbaum, the Director of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, sums it up nicely:
If we lose electricity or destroy our climate our society will collapse. Our way of life is literally dependent on having clean electricity in the grid.
It’s high time to seriously consider the value of the society we live in and our way of life. I’ve said that we use more resources then is tenable. I’ve heard Axelbaum use the tired trope of us all reverting back to horse and buggies as a response to criticisms laid out against Peabody and our dependency on coal. Such a comment acts as a haggard defense of a society we know is laying waste to this planet. It serves the same function as someone who shrugs and rhetorically asks “well what can you do?” We are going to have a lot of blood on our hands if we keep on treating such questions as rhetorical. What you do is you get together with others, you agree to be honest with each other and yourselves, you have the compassion to be patient with yourself and others, and you fucking figure it out.
The sit-in gave some space to have hard conversations. It may have opened an avenue towards rejecting all the nonsense that stands in our way. And we need such opportunities to come together to recognize and challenge the awfulness that replicates itself in so many facets of our lives. We can do more when we reject the limits of what is possible in the way we relate to one another and the planet. We can do the things necessary to break down the systems of oppression that sustain Peabody and every other corporation that has a stranglehold on our institutions and our lives.
It’s time to ask questions about the kind of society we actually need and that can bring us the joy and possibilities that are so often lacking. As a starting point of what not to do we can ask questions about the things that bind us to our current society. What right does a lender such as Sallie Mae have to you paying back your debt? Why are you really obliged to such a corporation that holds your future hostage? Why should you respect or cling to the structures that rigged the game for them? How much of our daily lives is tied to the extraction of resources and where do those resources come from? Why am I in school? And why the hell is Peabody so entrenched at Washington University and how is it possible that that happened?
What we do owe to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet that sustains us isn’t on offer through a career or representation or our perceived obligations to these things. These great challenges of climate change and debt require of us to be free of unhelpful limitations on both our time and our imaginations. They are also opportunities for us to clearly see and understand the problems we face and thereby work together to create powerful communities that meet our needs and desires and are truly of our own making.