Over the past several months, anti-government protests in places like Hong Kong and Iraq have made headlines across the globe. High schoolers on almost every continent have held strikes against climate inaction. This rising global tension is proof of the urgency of our current socioeconomic and environmental reality. Yet while activists’ rhetoric is inspiring, a kind of dissonance lodges in my chest every morning as I scan the headlines. I look around Middlebury’s campus and suddenly feel so separate from the rest of the planet. I wonder what we as students are doing with our time on this campus. I wonder what future we are learning, working and paying for.
As Middlebury students, we are on a trajectory to live the majority of our lives in a global state of climate and socioeconomic emergency. I therefore wonder why we are often not being trained for and encouraged to live lives of consequence, lives that can adapt to the crisis and maybe even work to mitigate its worst impacts. Middlebury’s mission, after all, is to “prepare students to… address the world’s most challenging problems,” is it not?
And yet it feels like the status quo on campus is to ignore the urgency of the climate crisis (as well as the socioeconomic inequities that exacerbate the climate crisis and disproportionately distribute its impacts). Most of the time, Middlebury continues to uphold business-as-usual practices in conflict with the upswell of catastrophe and civic action outside of our collegiate bubble. As students, we often do not question the most important decisions of our lives — majors, career paths, purpose in life — in the context of the urgent socioeconomic and environmental crisis. Instead, the values of another generation color our professional goals: sustainable (and often cushy) salaries, some level of status and maybe even happiness or passion. While those values are all valid, there is a part of this equation that is severely lacking: the pursuit of a positive socioeconomic and environmental impact.
Often, students accept suggestions as to what an appropriate profession to strive towards may be, without space for reflection on the impact of those professions on the planet. I’ve had a professor encourage my class to apply for internships for consulting firms that analyze the economics of antitrust cases on behalf of firms being sued for antitrust practices. Our own Center for Careers and Internships invites recruitment officers from Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo to recruit fresh talent for their profit-centered business operations. In fact, so far this year, there have been almost twice as many finance, consulting, and business events (~17) hosted by the CCI as there have been social impact events (~9).
On the other hand, there are professors and recruitment officers who challenge the status quo. These individuals encourage students to reflect on their potential socioeconomic and environmental impacts, as they believe that Middlebury’s job is to prepare us for lives of social and environmental consequence. For instance, one of my professors encouraged my classmates and I to work for the DOJ, breaking up mergers and acquisitions and empowering consumers in a neoliberal socioeconomic landscape. Another professor assigned a semester-long philosophy project wherein we engaged with community partners that incorporate a perennialist, regenerative philosophy into their practices. Another professor invited a Green Corps recruitment officer to our class to encourage my classmates and I to attend their organizing school upon graduation. And there are countless other professors and staff who encourage us to research the effects of climate change, work for the state or federal government, write for publications that speak truth to power, or use our disciplines to affect change in other ways.
Still, these professors should not act alone. I believe it is the role of individual faculties and the broader College to contextualize each discipline in the future climate and socioeconomically affected world. Curricula itself must change, addressing questions that will become increasingly relevant in a world of climate and socioeconomic chaos. For instance, how does environmental degradation impact the human body? How can we restructure the global economy to respond to resource scarcity resulting from declining crop yields? How can we use art to move people towards personal and political change? Likewise, the CCI must view their mission as channeling students towards socioeconomic and environmentally-minded futures.
However, it is not just on the college; students should take initiative and use our talents to create counter-hegemonic art, engineer batteries for solar power, run for office on a progressive climate platform. It does not matter what your major or passion is. Many of us are lucky to have the resources, opportunity and talent; it is now time to change what it means to be a Middlebury College alum.
As David Roberts said, “This [climate crisis] is a fucking emergency.” We should be obligated to ourselves, each other and the planet to choose professional lives that result in positive social, economic and environmental impacts and to view our talents and interests as vehicles through which we all can begin to tackle the climate and socioeconomic crisis. Middlebury should emphasize, not shrink away from that obligation. It should even fundamentally change its mission as we propel ourselves into an irrevocably-altered future.
Emily Thompson is a member of the class of 2022.