Sustainability Activism at U-M: Then and Now

Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, and it is easy to understand why. If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, the recent release of the 6th report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that we are in a period of unprecedented climate change. Fortunately, we have some history with enacting large changes to protect our environment, and we can learn from those before us to make a difference in our community, nation, and world. 

Sustainability Activism Then

The 1960s and 70s were the era of DDT, CFCs, and burning rivers. Wildlife loss, ozone layer depletion, and widespread pollution were the result. The negative effects of these human-caused problems were soon widely understood, similar to what we are seeing now with our emissions and climate change. 

In those times, understanding led to action, and people banded together to call for change. These actions, like the establishment of nationwide Earth Day demonstrations, were formed and fostered by our nation’s youth. Their action led to some of the most transformative environmental protection laws in the US including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Understanding fueled action on the part of individuals, but understanding alone wasn’t enough to lead to these sweeping legislative changes. Collective activism is what tipped the scale. Fortunately for us, collective activism is a historic tradition at the University of Michigan.

The University of Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment:

In 1969, a group of U-M students was beginning to form around a shared dream of saving the environment. This group, led by three Natural Science graduate students, Doug Scott, Dave Allan, and Art Hanson, would soon become known as Environmental Action for Survival, or ENACT. Just one year later, ENACT would go on to host one of the largest and most influential environmental demonstrations to date. This demonstration was called the University of Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment and was held on March 11, 1970, just weeks before the first nation-wide Earth Day demonstrations. Over 13,000 people flocked to Ann Arbor to attend the demonstration and hear from subject experts which included U-M’s President, Barry Commoner (a prominent ecologist), the Governor of Michigan, a Michigan Senator, and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (the founder of Earth Day). 

Walter Reuther at ENACT Teach-IN from

The success of the 1970 Teach-In on the Environment was a collective effort. ENACT was founded and run by students, but they were supported by University faculty and staff and outside organizations who gave ENACT the resources and funds to host the large event. Because the drive and passion of these students was supported by the institution, they were able to create a transformative event at the University. 

Student Sustainability Initiative:

A more recent push for sustainability at U-M came from student activists in 2008. Darshan Karwat, Melissa Forbes, and Mark Shahinian, three U-M graduate students, observed that there were dozens of student sustainability organizations on campus, but no formal structure that allowed them to communicate and collaborate. They realized the decentralized nature of the University was creating an environment where student groups were competing with each other for limited resources. They saw the need for a central organization dedicated to bringing students together to collaborate on sustainability issues, so they worked with the Graham Sustainability Institute to form the Student Sustainability Initiative (SSI), now called the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC). Some of SSC’s early wins were advocating for U-M to open an Office of Campus Sustainability and establishing green building standards. 

Carbon Neutrality and Fossil Fuel Divestment:

Last year, we saw collaboration between students and the faculty, staff and administration in action during the President’s Commision on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN). The PCCN was a group of community members and faculty, staff, and students of the University that was tasked with providing the administration with recommendations for how to pursue carbon neutrality. This commission came about as a response to student activists calling for carbon reductions through student organizations like SSC. Throughout most of the PCCN process, concerns were raised about the lack of inclusion of student perspectives. When it came time for the final comment period, however, SSC and Central Student Government were asked to host student conversations about the draft recommendations and encourage their peers to submit their feedback. In the end, the combination of student drive, support from staff, and empowerment from the PCCN Co-Chairs, led to 500 comments being sent to the Commission from the campus community. And in the end, based on the PCCN’s recommendations, the University’s president published goals for completely eliminating scope 1 and 2 emissions and placed a timeline to establish goals for eliminating scope 3 emissions. This is a major commitment that is a result of intense discussion and deliberation.

Climate Action Movement Protest from

In addition, U-M took another step forward by pledging to divest from fossil fuel companies, a major step toward aligning the university with a climate friendly future. This action also came as a result of student pressure that continued after an initial rejection in 2015. Student activist groups like the Climate Action Movement contributed to the movement through petitions, letters, and virtual protest organizing. Once again, sustainability activists used their power of collective action to create substantial change at the University of Michigan.

Sustainability Activism Now

Previous action at U-M is a great place to look for inspiration. These initiatives were led by students and supported by faculty and staff, creating a system that promotes change using collaboration and engagement. The combination of student passion and faculty and staff experience is essential for creating institutional change. 

Students have the power to build momentum. They contain the passion to bring these issues to the forefront of discussion. They have the tenacity to keep our institutions accountable so that they take action to build a better future for us all. We need student activists to help us on our journey toward combating climate change.  The University recognized the importance of student activists’ passion and tenacity. They saw that students have ideas, they band together, and they push the envelope. Students have shown they are the energy behind these movements. 

The student’s energy is best accompanied by institutional knowledge, someone who has the power to enact and implement change by focusing energy where progress can be made. Faculty and staff at U-M have the institutional knowledge to construct systems that hold our collective future as the highest priority. They have the ability to implement solutions that are a result of productive engagement with the student community. Students can team up with faculty, staff, and administration to utilize their knowledge to create substantial and lasting change. This teamwork is necessary for success in the journey ahead.

The journey toward a climate-friendly world will not be easy, nor will it be fast. This is an effort that will continue across generations. That is why it is vital we learn from the past, take action in the present, and prepare for the future. This journey takes collective effort, so let’s collaborate to make it a success.

Student Activism in the Future

We will need new leaders to push the boundaries of what can be achieved. There are many resources to get involved with campus sustainability efforts and become new sustainability activists. It is your turn to get involved and push sustainability efforts forward at U-M, and here is how you can do it.

  • Student Organizations: There is no shortage of sustainability oriented clubs and organizations on U-M’s campus. Find one that aligns with your interests and bring your skillset to the table. Clubs and organizations can be found on the Planet Blue Campus website.
  • Courses: U-M has a wide variety of courses and degrees that are offered to students interested in sustainability. This is an excellent way to build your skillset while getting involved with sustainability on campus. Course lists can be found on the Graham Sustainability Institute website.
  • SSC Newsletter: Keep up to date with events by subscribing to the SSC newsletter.
  • Campus Events: U-M hosts several campus events for students to get involved in sustainability efforts. Most events take place early in the fall semester like Earthfest, which will take place from 10 AM – 2 PM on September 23rd on the Diag, and Harvest Festival, which will take place on September 26th at the U-M Campus Farm. These events are great places to find communities that will inspire you and help you get involved in fighting the good fight.

1 thought on “Sustainability Activism at U-M: Then and Now”

  1. I’m glad this important topic is being written about! However this article really white-washes some of the most powerful and important factors in actually forcing the University to take action, namely disruptive, non-violent direct action, and understates the level of resistance on behalf of the University (for example arresting and charging its own students for peaceful protest, rather than agree to a one-hour meeting).

    Planet Blue is an org of great people trying to do work within an institution that has been egregiously negligent of its responsibilities to address the climate crises. As the article correctly states, student activists are necessary to achieve change, but I urge the author to push back on the institutional pressures to white-wash the reality of what is required to achieve that change.

    Here are some links for more info:

    (Also U-M only divested from coal and oil, it is still super gung-ho about methane gas, as evidenced by its recent expansion of its campus gas plant.)

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