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Balancing Act: Weighing the Personal Risks of Climate Activism

It is almost always easier to be apathetic than to devote a large portion of your energy to a specific cause, even if the success or failure of that particular movement has the potential to directly impact your quality of life. This is absolutely the case when it comes to the climate movement. For many, negative impacts of climate change are easy to brush off as “a fluke storm” or random variation. Think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, directly funded by fossil fuel companies, spread similar narratives of climate denialism and present a direct threat to climate science rooted in decades of peer reviewed work. Even ignoring the potentially harmful effects of denialist “research,”  some of the most passionate environmentalists are often faced with feelings of hopelessness or futility in relation to their work and the climate. 

When dealing with environmentally-sourced hopelessness or futility, many young people are faced with a difficult moral decision: should I resign myself to a future potentially fraught with natural disasters and conflict rooted in the changing climate, or should I take a stand and attempt to facilitate grassroots climate action?

Faced with this very choice, many turn to activism to express their desire for positive structural change. This decision, however, does not come without consequence. In today’s polarized society it is difficult to engage in activism for a specific cause, even for something that would seem to benefit everyone such as the preservation of our global ecosystem, without being categorized under a particular political ideology. According to a 2019 study published by scholars at Yale and George Mason University, global warming is more polarizing for registered voters than topics such as abortion are. In this study, liberal democrats ranked global warming third on their list of relevant topics for selecting a candidate in 2020, and conservative republicans ranked the same topic at 29 — in the very last slot. Although outwardly harmless, this stereotyping may make it difficult for individuals to uphold relationships with family, friends, and even co-workers that may not share their political ideations. 

This type of fear can be especially true for young people as they look to find a profession that suits their needs and fulfills their goals. Although it may seem unethical, it is not technically illegal (or violating any form of first amendment rights) for an employee to be fired based on expressions of their political beliefs, including through activism. This, among a laundry list of other concerns, is a challenge that many young people have been faced with in the latest wave of youth-driven climate activism. 

Depending on your professional position, however, climate activism can be leveraged as a way to lead by example. This was the case in Boston University professor Nathan Phillips’ most recent stint with public environmental activism. Phillips is a professor in BU’s earth and environment department and has appeared in local Boston news more than once over the course of the last academic year based on his vocal disapproval of the natural gas compressor in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Phillips is intimately familiar with the state of local natural gas pipelines due to his work on gas leaks in the Greater Boston Area, and his direct involvement with the issue is clear based on his history of activism surrounding this specific topic. 

The Weymouth compressor was designed to facilitate the transportation of natural gas to New England and up through Canada and is currently under construction. This type of compressor system is common in the natural gas industry, but the natural gas and hydraulic fracturing industries have been repeatedly cited as a root cause of environmental degradation. The primary cause of this degradation is fracturing liquid (a blend of water and undisclosed additives) that are injected into bedrock in order to free up natural gas from shale, within the earth’s crust. Fracturing liquid, when injected into the system, has the potential to leak into aquifers and local water supplies. Although these clean water issues are generalized concerns tied to hydraulic fracturing, Nathan Phillips had three primary concerns specifically relating to the current operation of the compressor station: to further monitor decontamination of trucks leaving the premise, to properly test old burner bricks for asbestos, and to install an air monitor for the site. In order to ensure that his concerns were addressed with the urgency he felt that they required as a threat to public health, Phillips began a hunger strike that lasted for two full weeks. 

Although his hunger strike ended before all three of his demands were properly met, Phillips’ actions shed light on the Weymouth compressor and brought the issue back into local media, including local NBC and NPR affiliates, in a way that would not have been possible without this type of direct action. Although it may seem drastic, even in the throes of his 14-day hunger strike, Phillips continued to ride his bike to and from work each day and fulfil his day-to-day obligations as a professor. 

In a recent interview with Boston Magazine, Phillips shared that even though he has been fairly outspoken about environmental issues in recent years, Boston University hasn’t voiced any opinions about his actions — and he notes he prefers it this way. As a tenure-track professor, Phillips is held to a set of standards outlined by the Boston University College of Arts and Sciences, many of which were defined decades ago in a generalized mission statement. Among other things, these standards include adhering to “appropriate” ethical and professional standards and attending various reviews and meetings. Although the publicized expectations for tenure-track professors is lengthy, it does not explicitly state anything focused on tolerance for activism of any form. 

This tolerance, although present in circles of liberal academia, may not necessarily even be nationally present for established professionals in their field such as Nathan Phillips. Because of this uncertainty, learning to balance grassroots activism involvement alongside professionalism, or even daily interactions with family or friends, for both young people and established professionals, is not an intuitive or clear cut process. Although there is not a peer reviewed handbook published to explain the “correct” way to approach this challenge, today’s generation of climate activists is, by no means, the first wave of individuals inspired to take a stand in an attempt to save their communities and the earth. Some of these early environmental activists, like Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and the author of Silent Spring, a book that highlighted the dangers of pesticides like DDT, are still remembered today. The lasting impacts of activists from that era did not occur without sacrifice on the part of the activists, however. For this reason, it is intuitive that today’s movement requires similar sacrifice — not that that makes the decision any easier for those on the front lines. 

Sources:

Buell, S. (2020, February 21). My Lunch with the Hunger Striker Who Took on Charlie Baker. Retrieved from https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2020/02/20/bu-hunger-strike-nathan-phillips/

Cain, Á. (2017, January 20). The truth about whether you can be fired for expressing your political views at work. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/you-can-be-fired-over-political-views-2017-1

Jeremy, & M, C. (2012, November 20). Study Details Natural Gas Leaks in Boston. Retrieved from https://www.bu.edu/cas/thousands-of-natural-gas-leaks-discovered-in-boston/

Mathews, Z. (2020, February 27). Nathan Phillips, Who Went On Hunger Strike To Stop The Weymouth Compressor Station, Calls On Gov. Baker To Denounce The Project. Retrieved from https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2020/02/27/nathan-phillips-who-went-on-hunger-strike-to-stop-the-weymouth-compressor-station-calls-on-gov-baker-to-denounce-the-project

Politics and Global Warming . (2019, April). Retrieved from https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Politics-Global-Warming-April-2019b.pdf

Tenure-track and Tenured Faculty Expectations. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/cas/faculty-staff/faculty-staff-handbook/faculty-personnel-matters/tenure-track-and-tenured-faculty-expectations/

Vaidyanathan, G. (2016, April 4). Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fracking-can-contaminate-drinking-water/

Wasser, M. (2019, December 2). Confused About The Weymouth Compressor? Here’s What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/earthwhile/2019/06/19/proposed-weymouth-gas-compressor-explained

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