What I’ve learned from engaging with Fossil-Free MIT

29 10 2015

This is a tough nut to crack.

In times of difficulty, I often look to this wonderful song by Leonard Cohen.  There is a crack in everything: that’s where the light gets in.  Our job – and joy – as humans is to look for the crack in a difficult situation.

I have a spiritual practice of “sitting with discomfort.”

It isn’t easy to sit beside someone in pain, suffering systemic injustice, or experiencing an existential crisis – especially when I could have been finishing up a project and skipping off to a Harry Potter reading group. It takes a bit of backbone to cope with the emotional contagion, the feelings of guilt and shame – especially when I could have spent my lunch break in yoga class stretching to lovely music.

But for me, sitting with discomfort is the best way to connect with the cord of basic humanity that connects us all. It widens my aperture on the world, and helps me to be strong enough to be kind.

Sitting with Fossil Free MIT has been a particular challenge. The discomfort is not only metaphorical, the discomfort is literal. Dang, that floor is hard. And cold. With the level of physical discomfort it’s hard to get anything done. Harder still is to watch people walk by, gazes averted, or with eyes of stone. I feel stressed by the pressure of work undone. Missed workouts and expedient nutritional choices are turning me into human veal. And this is only Day 8.

So why am I sitting? I am sitting to demonstrate the power of the e-word, engagement.

As an economics major who wrote her thesis on pricing market externalities in 1978, and as a member of the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group, I share with Fossil Free MIT a burning need to lead and urgency for effective action.

As a Sloanie, I have seen that intra- and inter-institutional engagement is a prerequisite to systemic change. As a member of the MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership, I want to engage with and support the other groups at MIT who are “fighting for all of us.” Through the power of example, I hoped to inspire the consideration of a new kind of engagement with the energy industry and the public sector, not the business-as-usual variety, but institutional engagement with a moral charge and milestones to match.

As a humanist and interfaith leader, I know that institutional engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. Interpersonal engagement is also required to open hearts and minds of the people working at the front lines of systemic change.

People must lean together into the future before institutions and systems can change.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with people diametrically opposed to engagement has given me the gift of understanding what is behind their rationale for divestment. The steady diet of courage and cold pizza has made me aware of factors I had not previously considered.

Motivated to look and listen more widely, I stood, then sat in a packed, swelteringly hot room at the Massachusetts State House for 4-1/2 hours on Tuesday listening to the testimony on Sen. Barrett’s carbon pricing bill, S. 1747, before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy.

Last night I sat through the third Republican Debate, waiting in vain for a substantive discussion of action on climate change. There was more air time on religious beliefs and skills in fantasy football.

I’ve come away from this experience with an awareness of factors that the MIT administration may not already have considered. Ordinary citizens are not just looking to MIT for leadership, they are relying on MIT for leadership.   And not just in Massachusetts.

I believe the MIT Action Plan on Climate Change needs to go further.  I invite the administration to consider reopening the conversation around this question:

How MIT might address the public need for an internationally credible:

  • Secular leader to demonstrate moral resolve at the institutional level;
  • Scientific leader to communicate the urgency at the symbolic level?

I recognize the groundbreaking nature of this request. This is scary.  But the public is crying out for this. Literally. Crying.

It appears that MIT has been thrust into a daunting public role. What can the MIT community do – together – to rise to this historic occasion?

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