by Laurie Adkin, Professor, Dept. of Political Science
In his Quad post of September 8, 2020, University of Alberta President, Bill Flanagan, wrote: “We condemn all racism, including specifically anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, and see education as a key vehicle for change in the world.” This statement generates hope that university administrators will grasp the importance of mobilizing the institution’s resources to advance a socially just, green transition in Alberta and Canada. That they will commit our institution to the actions embodied in the declaration of climate emergency issued by international associations of higher education. That they will recognize the moral imperative to divest university endowment funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in sustainable and ethical alternatives.
Why? Because investment in fossil fuel extraction, upgrading, and transportation—from the industry-driven R&D carried out in universities to the tax credits and buy-outs on the part of governments—is a form of environmental racism.
Fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than three-quarters of the global greenhouse gases that are driving climate destabilization, and the front-line victims of this crisis are people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Middle East, low-lying island nations, and Indigenous peoples on all continents. The populations most vulnerable to devastating floods, fires, storms, crop failures, and environmentally linked diseases are poor, and, everywhere, this disproportionately includes racialized people. Failing to act where we can to reduce fossil fuel consumption says a lot about how we value the lives of the people most harmed by climate change. Fossil capitalism is deeply racist—at every level and at every point in its supply chains and net of environmental impacts.
The university’s entanglements in relations of racism and exclusion do not stop at the boundaries of the campus. What we do – or fail to do—in deciding on the priorities for research and teaching and for the investment of university endowment and pension funds has consequences for people we may never know and generations yet to be born.
Yes, we are only one institution, and we are struggling to protect our core mission of serving the public good in the context of massive defunding by the UCP government. Understood. But in the process of the re-envisioning and radical restructuring of the university, let us seize the opportunity to examine how our commitments currently contribute to environmental racism in our own province and globally. Let us talk seriously about how we can practise what we preach not only regarding employment practices, but also regarding the knowledge we produce and the funds we invest. What interests are these serving? How could education, research, and university investments be better used to advance social equality and ecological sustainability and to dismantle racist relationships?
Laurie Adkin is the author of Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities, published June 2020 by the Parkland Institute and the Corporate Mapping Project.