Fossil Free Moves Forward: May Regents Meeting Account

by Alden Phinney, UC Santa Cruz

We piled, enthused but bleary-eyed, into a gas guzzling old Volvo on the morning of May 14th. I contemplated, as I feel obligated to do, the net emissions of traveling from Santa Cruz to attend the UC Regents meeting in Sacramento: 150 miles, each way, 15 mpg… The only way to get more depressing metrics is to calculate your mileage in polar bears. But I came to the same conclusion I always do: this is a necessity.

          We’ve been sold a fallacy, a DIY or the highway option, that living green takes nothing more than constant conscious effort to minimize consumption; bike, don’t drive; turn off the lights; maybe you should drop out and start a kale-farming commune. Save yourself to save the world. I’d argue the merits of all those things. I love my bike and I love kale. It’s an appealing vision when you look at the systematic suppression of sustainability perpetrated by our consumptive economy. But it falls far short of dealing with a climate teetering on the brink of chaos, and we can no longer live in our backyards.

         We arrived at Cesar Chavez Park to organize ourselves. Forty, fifty, sixty, students, faculty, alumni, and other allies kept thronging in; the energy was palpable. A mass of energetic orange bent on liberation from fossil fuels, ourselves fueled by caffeine and tofu scramble, we will change the world. Roles were divvied, speakers prepped, signs scrawled. As we started marching the few blocks to the convention center, the streets stared. We have their attention.

We stationed ourselves outside the Sacramento Convention Center before the meeting, chanting, singing, genuinely hoping to engage with the Regents entering the building; we had a timeline, we had photo ops, yet the UC administration decided to take the back door. But our 5 foot clock was not wasted.

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The incessant honking told us power lies with the people. Regents hold the decision to divest, but we have accomplished the most important facet. Our society is aware. We have woken up to the dangers posed by untrammeled emissions, to the toxins pouring up from the depths into company coffers; we have realized that is not a sustainable business model just as it is not a sustainable way of life. Divestment is inevitable as investors realize they cannot afford to hold onto plummeting stock values and bonds rendered junk stranded assets, but we don’t have time.

They didn’t give us time. As we were subjected to two searches, pat downs, and bag checks to speak during public comments, we were informed we’d been allotted 8 out of the 17 minutes we signed up for. We’ve given this university 2, 3, 4 years of our lives, and they refused to give most of us even 1 minute to address them. Further, there was no room in the chamber for those not speaking. We were told that we weren’t allowed in the public comment hall because we presented a fire hazard, and that the empty chairs inside of the room did not exist.

The indignation and shame of not being able to speak during a public meeting of a public university on a public issue is astounding; we are your students, don’t make us say we are your customers. Will you listen either way?

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          We spoke after community members, labor leaders, concerned and irate graduate students. I could not believe the solidarity. They were with us, and I wish we had stood more firmly with them. Our comments were hectic and necessarily rushed. We had phenomenal speakers, slow and forceful; they inspired though I quavered. We tried to hit with a double edged sword, shows of strength tempered by respectful willingness to play their game. But we have played their game for too long.

          They tried to close comments after a showstopping account of sexual assault on our campuses presented by a FFUCer. We were not to be silenced. A mic check hullabaloo broke out in the cordoned-off public comments section, demanding divestment (as usual) and an extension of our time to speak. We expected to be cleared from the room when the disruption started, but we actually ran out of things to chant because they were listening. There were over thirty unassociated individuals who were not given time to have their voices heard because we had passed the allocated twenty minutes of condoned free speech. “Extend public comments! Extend public comments!” became the cry everyone could agree upon.

The vox populi got ten more minutes to speak on issues that matter, not just to us but to stakeholder communities across the UC and across the state. It was an unequivocal reminder of people power in a system that encourages you to believe you have none. The telling response will not be an off the cuff buckling, however, but a coordinated and tactical effort to sever our financial ties with an industry that has proven time and time again they value profit at the expense of people and planet. The Regents have the power, some have the willingness, but we need the posthaste formation of a task force, metrics tailored for the UC endowment, and a vote in September to show our leadership in steering the climatic and economic systems to a sustainable future.

          The climate crisis will not be appeased by bureaucracy, meetings, foot dragging and future actions. I looked over the blog post from last year’s Regents’ meeting, and it contained many of the same stale promises of support. “We will look at it.” “We are convening a task force.” I want to believe in the goodwill of the UC Regents, in their desire to foster student engagement and tackle an existential threat to communities around the globe. But theoretical goodwill is nowhere near enough.

          We came back this year to say this lackadaisical stumble towards progress is not fast enough. As students with our future on the line, we will not stand idly by while fossil fuel companies leverage enormous money and influence (Chevron-UCD partnership anyone?) to arrest our efforts in building the clean energy future necessary to sustain human life. In a panel the next day at UCSF, the chairman of the board of Regents Bruce Varner stated “We’ll have some definitive recommendations or comebacks for our meeting in September,” adding, “I want the students to know we’re following up on that.”

So we have been heard. They’ve given us our reasonable demands, but like last time these words rings hollow without action. The UC system prides itself on climate leadership, and we are offering the chance to prove itself a leader to youth across the world. Don’t follow Stanford, exceed their safe bet. Remove this scourge from our investment portfolio, stigmatize the industry, save money, safeguard the planet. Know this: we are unstoppable, another world is possible.

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