Confronting complacency: Asking students to look beyond the purple bubble

The 2016-2017 academic year is the year of “Confronting Climate Change” at the College. First-years were sent a copy of The Sixth Extinction by our very own Environmental Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert, and dozens of speakers were flown in from across the country to provide students with a variety of perspectives on environmental issues. However, these talks have a self-selecting audience: professors in environmental studies, majors, concentrators, Divest Williams, the Williams Environmental Council (WEC) and a few eccentric locals. This attendees are not “confronted” by climate change. If anything, they are confronted with the reality that they see the same people at these events, a population that should not be the only one in our community thinking about the urgent threat of climate change and the implications it has for all of us.

The year of “Confronting Climate Change” suggests urgency and action, yet an attitude of nonchalance towards environmental issues prevails amongst the majority of the College’s population. Part of the reason for this attitude may be explained by the College’s failure to improve campus sustainability to an extent that the title “Confronting Climate Change” would suggest. The quiet promise to buy carbon offsets so the College can claim carbon neutrality obscures the consequences of campus operations as it transfers responsibility for reducing emissions, allowing us to evade recognition of our personal agency as long as the institution as a whole maintains an appearance of activism.

This appearance, however, is utterly transparent, and it is the individual’s responsibility to see through it. The College has more square footage per capita than any other higher educational institution. The energy required to maintain the heat, electricity and water access in buildings composes the largest share of campus emissions. Even though new construction projects are held to higher standards for sustainability, the College’s continuous energy waste through inessential growth and expansion calls into question the real motives behind the actions of the administration. Whatever these motives are, there has to be a point where we stop and take a look at the implications of our actions – and if the actions of the school we attend seem irresponsible and disconnected from reality, it is understandable why students tend to assume a similar attitude.

However recognizable this uninterested attitude may be, it is no longer acceptable in this present climate crisis. The geographic location of the College makes it easy for students to maintain a narrow worldview, which affects the way we assign importance to issues like climate change as opposed to, for example, having a single dorm room. It takes a proactive effort to stay informed about the world outside the “purple bubble” and, for many, not knowing about what’s happening outside of campus means not being able to see oneself as a part of the world outside the College. Yet we choose to be here, and the overwhelming majority does so because this is a place of learning – a college whose isolated location shouldn’t matter as much as its unparalleled educational potential. Our mission statement reads: “No one can pretend to more than guess at what students now entering college will be called upon to comprehend in the decades ahead … Toward that end we extend a curriculum that … reflects the complexity and diversity of the world.” The merit of the College’s academics is uncontested, both by the outside world and students. However, with knowledge comes power – power that we are choosing not to utilize by limiting the reach of our classroom knowledge to the purple bubble, when the world at large needs this intellect now more than ever.

To confront climate change, we must confront ourselves. We must confront the way we live our lives and the fact that  our lives exist as part of the world outside the purple bubble. Recognizing the power that comes with a Williams education means taking responsibility for ourselves as individuals, even if the College itself fails to. In a time when, as our mission statement says, we can’t even begin to fathom what the imminent future holds, we have to be cognizant of the reality of the present and live our lives in way that honors this awareness.

Anna Black ’19 is from Pittsfield, Mass. She lives in Mark Hopkins. Jane Tekin ’19 is from Queens, N.Y. She lives in West.