Student activism looks very different in 2014 than it did just 5 years ago, when I began organizing as a student at Washington University in St. Louis. Students are less trustful of their colleges’ authority, and are more willing to take bold action to counter it. When a few friends and I dropped 5 banners in 2010 at an energy conference on campus, I felt like I was taking a major risk.

It began like this. In 2009, Greg Boyce, the CEO of Peabody Energy–one of the worst of the worst fossil fuel companies, had just been appointed to our board. In exchange, Peabody had given a large chunk of money to the school to do research on “Clean Coal”. I capitalize this phrase because it is a concept that exists only in marketing, not in reality. From that point on, students began resisting our University’s ties to the industry. This culminated in 2010 at the University’s conference on “America’s Energy Future.” It was a glorified advertisement for the coal and nuclear industries, and we students wanted to call it what it was — an exchange of our University’s academic (and perhaps ethical) reputation for funding.  We interrupted the conclusion of the conference (an open meet-and-greet) with 80 angry students and 5 banner drops. The campaign against Peabody has progressed since then through political action with a ballot measure in St. Louis, and more recently, with students leading a call to Wash U for complete divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

Like the campaign, our movement has progressed since 2009, too. 5 years later, dropping banners is child’s play. Students are walking out of classstaging sit-ins in their administrative buildings, and are locking themselves to the White House fence to call for climate sanity.  Perhaps it’s because we are now half a decade past the economic crisis of the late aughts with little hope for a full recovery or easy employment to counter mountains of student debt. Perhaps it’s that in tough economic times, many universities eschew their high-flying moral mission statements in favor of the safety of a good corporate deal (bring on the funding!). Or maybe it’s that 1,000+ brave souls rang in a new era of civil disobedience in our movement sitting in front of the White House to stop the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011.

But I think the real difference is that young people are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The consequences for speaking out or taking bold action against our institutions pale in comparison to the consequences of inaction. This week’s IPCC report confirms (again) that the impact of climate change will be much, much worse than we can fathom. It’s clearer than ever that our system is broken. And yet, institutions like my own Alma Mater, Wash U, continue to unblinkingly support the fossil fuel industry through seats on their boards, the gleeful acceptance of research dollars, and by churning out graduates eager for any jobs to pay off their debt in a failing economy.

The truth is, our young lives are dominated by fear — and that fear can paralyze us, or it can break down the barriers that keep us from authentic action. That’s why I’m so pleased to repost this article from Washington University’s student paper, written by a group of students unafraid to call out Wash U’s untenable ties to Peabody Energy. Read on for more of the details of Peabody’s behavior and what students see as the necessary response.

Wash U students — a few years graduated and a few hundred miles away, I stand with you in your fight!

Calling on Wash. U. to cut ties with Peabody Energy

Op-Ed written by Rachel Goldstein, David Binstock, Madeleine Balchan, Jamal Sadrud-Din, and reposted from Student Life, the campus newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis

In light of recent behavior by Peabody Energy, we are disappointed to see this corporation continuing to act in its own self-interest, in staunch opposition to the will of the people and at the expense of the public good. We are calling on this university to end its partnership with Peabody Energy.

On Feb. 11, as a result of a suit filed by Peabody, a judge ruling placed a temporary injunction on the city-wide “Take Back St. Louis” ballot initiative. This initiative, which was brought to the Board of Elections with 36,000 signatures, called for the city to end tax incentives to fossil-fuel extraction corporations, and invest public money and lands into renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. Peabody filed for suit against the initiative, claiming discrimination, and the judge ruled in their favor, citing equal protection to constitutional rights under Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling of which even President Obama has been outwardly critical. This legal action has kept the initiative off of the April 8 ballot.

Elsewhere, in Saline County, Ill., Peabody’s expansion of a mining operation is threatening the local farming community of Rocky Branch. Despite strong opposition from the community, Peabody has continued its aggressive logging of the proposed site, and is attempting to take control of and divert important local roads. Community members are so threatened that they are now blockading the roads to deter Peabody. Residents are also worried about the fate of their town if coal mining operations expand, having witnessed and tolerated the blasting, hazardous coal dust, and polluted waterways of the neighboring Cottage Grove strip mine.

These are not the first instances of unethical or exploitative behavior by Peabody, but it provides an opportune moment for the Washington University community to reflect on its relationship with unscrupulous corporations.

Peabody Energy has a long history of questionable behavior:

•As the world’s largest private sector coal company, it is estimated to be solely accountable for 0.86 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

•Their coal mining operation in the Black Mesa Plateau in Arizona, has led to the forced relocation of thousands of the local native Navajo and Hopi tribes, and the draining and polluting of the natural aquifer there.

•The company’s past mining operations in Appalachia included the intrusive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which has dire impacts on Appalachian communities.

•Peabody is a large supporting member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), having a representative on their Private Enterprise Advisory Council. ALEC is a strong advocate of various controversial pieces of legislation, including “Stand Your Ground” laws and strict immigration laws.

•From union busting to consistently unsafe mining conditions, Peabody has a long history of mistreating its workers. In 2007, they offloaded thousands of retiree pension plans and healthcare benefits to a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012, defaulting on all of those monetary obligations.

As students and future alumni, we are uncomfortable having such close ties to this amoral company, and call upon Washington University to cut them. Although the exact nature of our relationship is unknown as donor records are not disclosed, we do know the following: our relationship with Peabody dates only to the mid-2000s; Gregory Boyce, CEO of Peabody, has been a chairman on our Board of Trustees since 2009; William Rusnack, another Peabody executive, is on the National Council of Olin Business School; and Peabody partners with Wash. U. and others in promoting the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. Regarding this last point, we disapprove of Wash. U.’s aid in green-washing the fossil fuel industry through use of a misleading industry term, not the research itself.

We want to be confident in the University’s commitment to its mission statement, which claims we must “strive to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country, and the world…to provide an exemplary, respectful, and responsive environment for living, teaching, learning, and working for present and future generations…to judge ourselves by the most exacting standards.“

We want to feel confident that our tuition dollars and donations are going to a university that is committed to global stewardship and service to humanity, and that does not condone irresponsible corporate behavior by association and cooperation with companies like Peabody Energy. Washington University cannot reach its full potential as a leader in progress, innovation, learning and public service if we are held down by commitments to companies like Peabody Energy. We may not be able to stop such corporations from doing what they will, but we can certainly stop our passive acceptance and our implicit role in their actions.

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