Fossil Free MIT Sit-In Ends with Progress

3 03 2016

Let the bells ring out and the banners fly! After almost 4 months peaceful protest, the student-led Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) has reached a meeting of the minds with MIT VP of Research, Maria Zuber, on some real world changes MIT can make!

The agreement focuses on three areas:

  1. Aspiring to reach climate neutrality ASAP, a grand challenge to our community
  2. Establishing a climate action advisory committee that will aid the implementation of MIT’s industry engagement strategy
  3. Convening a forum aimed to explore the ethical dimensions of the climate issue

As a proponent of engagement who has been engaging with Fossil Free MIT on a daily basis – roughly 90 of the 115 days – I have developed an enormous admiration for the vision and character of these principled young leaders. I am also amply aware that engagement is not their preferred Theory of Change. I give them enormous credit for being willing to remain open minded and hang in there negotiating until they achieved a comfort level that “engagement with teeth” is worth a try.

I also give MIT’s administration enormous credit for being willing to engage meaningfully with student protesters. I happened to be on the Yale campus last year just after 19 students were arrested for calling for a conversation on divestment. Quite the conversation topic for Admitted Students Day… Smooth move, Eli!

Administrative engagement with the protesters does not end today.  Far from it!  “FFMIT will be involved in the new climate action advisory committee, as will many other members of the MIT community,” reports The Tech. By rising from the floor, Fossil Free MIT has a won seat at the table and brought about broad input and oversight for climate action at MIT.

I pledge to do everything I can to rally the Sloan network – faculty, students and alumni – to engage with the problem that threatens us all, and to provide ongoing mentorship to the skeptics in the ranks of Fossil Free MIT.

For two reasons, I am also eager to engage with the ethical discussion. First I believe that it is logical for the Institute to engage in moral reasoning before taking ethical action.   Second, I believe the ethical discussion will give people like me a fair chance to be heard.

I believe that ethics significantly derive from identity. When the Rockefellers divested from the source of the family’s wealth, it sent a highly credible signal to the investment community. This is morally wrong. When the Pentagon and Zurich Insurance declared climate change a clear and present danger, the world took note. If MITIMCO is not aware of this, I would be surprised.

MIT has a different identity with respect to fossil fuels. For better and for worse, MIT scientists helped create the means to locate, refine and transport fossil fuels. MIT contributed to powering the people. As an unintended consequence, MIT has also contributed to endangering our world. Hence, I believe the MIT community has an ethical obligation to align around cleaning up the mess and straightening out the system.

The world knows why we need to change. The world does not know how. This is where MIT comes in.

The MIT community has the scientific and business knowledge to accelerate system-level change toward renewable energy. As the world’s leading university with an alumni network in positions to make change happen, MIT has a unique identity in climate action. We can innovate AND act – creating AND realizing solutions.

Given our can-do on the how-to front, my personal belief is that it would be irresponsible to disengage. For example, if we don’t help coal country to change its ways, who else can?

I am asking the entire MIT community to connect with our shared humanity and work together to change hearts and minds, assumptions and business models.

I am calling on the entire MIT community to be as big and brave and determined as Fossil Free MIT. Step out of your the familiar habits of mind, engage with us, and let’s get the whole system into a new gear.


Thank you, Fossil Free MIT for great strides forward in energizing the entire community!






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