Greenwashed campaigns fail to consider who will be disproportionately harmed

To the Editor:
Before moving to the United States for college, I watched my beautiful home country, Zambia, experience an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods, storms, and droughts. These events caused substantial damage to infrastructure, homes, agricultural lands, and the people.

In moving to Saratoga Springs for college and integrating into a community so foreign to my own, I quickly understood the true importance of entrenching myself in the fight for climate justice.

Earth Day has historically been a beacon of activism on college campuses. On the first Earth Day in 1970, college students held festivals and assemblies. In an explosion of teach-ins, they called attention to the injustices threatening our air and water and demanded immediate change.

On that day, the environmental movement was launched on college campuses through an Earth Day that, for all its merits, did not center on environmental justice.

Today, the time has come for college students to once more demand that our institutions take immediate action on climate change. At Skidmore College, we are protesting with Reclaim Earth Day, a coalition of over 100 campuses and community organizations taking back Earth Day from fossil-fuel interests and building a long-term movement for environmental justice.

Alongside thousands of young people from the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future, we are calling on our government and institutions to declare a climate emergency.

The impact of climate change on communities in the global south, like that in my hometown, is often overlooked in mainstream discussions on environmentalism. Though governments and businesses continue to urge us to choose paper straws and feed us narratives that center on reduction of individual waste, the real culprit lies unmentioned.

More importantly, greenwashed campaigns fail to consider who will be disproportionately harmed by the extractive industries protected by superficial environmentalism. The fossil-fuel economy and extractive industries consistently and disproportionately contaminate the air and water of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities like the one I grew up in.

This reality has birthed a sinister global network that disposes of human bodies to further serve wealthy, white members of Western countries.

This Earth Day, as we challenge the superficially sustainable initiatives force-fed to us by our college campuses, the most important work is that of centering the perspectives of communities that have been historically sidelined.

In reconsidering assumptions about the environmental movement, action must focus specifically on the intersection between environmental degradation and racial injustice. The fight against fossil fuels is a fight against the cycles of injustice that both uphold and are sustained by extractive industries.

Climate change embodies the accumulation of centuries of harm inflicted upon humanity and our environment, fundamentally underscoring its status as a social-justice imperative. We refuse to continue reducing lives to dollar values, and we demand our governments and institutions do the same.

We follow in the footsteps of the first Earth Day, not to repeat it, but to reclaim it. In building a multiracial, cross-class movement, we are moving to destroy fossil-fuel influence in our politics and institutions, and center the communities most impacted by the climate crisis.

This change starts in our educational institutions. As with the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, education sparks transformation. Multiple schools in Saratoga Springs and the Capital Region consistently repress student activism, and attempt to suffocate efforts of facilitating this critical reframe.

Student activism, characterized by peaceful protests, art builds, and teach-ins, should be uplifted by our institutions, rather than stifled under the cover of implied threats ….

We demand access to concrete statistics and information about where our schools invest their endowments and the status of prospective divestment campaigns. We cannot allow universities to leverage empty promises of cleaner energy, and duplicit campaigns of sustainability to garner prospective applicants. The students, and inhabitants of the surrounding communities, deserve better.

By continuing to perpetuate the cycle of harm, universities cannot claim to responsibly educate the next generation while our classrooms drip with oil influence and continue to degrade surrounding communities.

Instead of greenwashing, symbolic acts, or stagnant sustainability goals, we are pushing for fair partnerships with local environmental-justice organizations, municipalities, and K-12 schools. We are pushing for full transparency and initiatives we can actually rely on …

When universities cut ties with the fossil-fuel industry and partner with neighbors to improve the air, water, and education of our entire community, they become true leaders of change.

Christina Constantinou

Saratoga Springs

Editor’s note: Christina Constantinou is a student at Skidmore College.

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