Berklee Strikes for Climate Action

By Sierra Cornell

On September 20th, millions of students all over the world walked out of their schools in protest over the future of the planet. Parents, teachers, and professionals young and old joined them in the streets to demand climate action. The Global Climate Strike preceded the United Nations Climate Action Summit, a week of showcases and discussions aimed to strengthen environmental initiatives around the world. The Global Climate Strike was led by environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, in New York City. The 16-year-old has been the face of environmental action since August of 2018 when she began boycotting school to demand action on behalf of the Swedish government. Her actions have since sparked similar movements all over the world.

While the city of Boston was marching and chanting, students at Berklee College of Music used their voices in the best way they knew how. From 11:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon there were musical performances, poetry readings, and signs being made outside of the school’s 7 Haviland building. From 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. there was a strike in front of Berklee’s iconic building at 160 Massachusetts Avenue – complete with chants, signs, and, of course, plenty of songs.

The Berklee Climate Strike was organized only two weeks into the semester by faculty member Linda Chase. As a professor in the liberal arts department, Chase teaches Ecomusicology and has long been dedicated to environmental activism. When the climate activist organization 350.org began looking for people to organize strikes in her area, she knew this would be a perfect opportunity for students to get involved. “Soon after making that commitment, I went to my family’s cabin in Northern California for a week alone by a river in the wilderness. There, I envisioned music students surrounding the school with instruments and songs in celebration of all peoples and species with a commitment to do what is needed to care for the Earth. Music can play an important role in climate awareness and action, and this became an excellent opportunity for the Berklee student body to voice their concern for climate justice.”

A small group of students and faculty from Berklee and surrounding schools met several times before the strike to plan the day, arrange for performers, and generate publicity. To broaden the event beyond the Berklee community, and include all art forms, Chase extended the invitation to students and faculty from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the New England Conservatory and other universities in the area.  “I emailed a few current and former students that had expressed interest in social and environmental change,” said Chase. “Those students contacted other students and the seeds grew. We also contacted faculty that we thought would resonate in solidarity for change through the arts. They got involved and helped spread the word.”

With so little time to organize, the group faced roadblocks. “We will always face challenges when organizing action that goes against the norm,” Chase said. “The strong group of student organizers were thoughtful, creative and worked tirelessly. However, getting wider student, faculty, and administrative engagement around a subject that some [do not believe is] relevant to their area of study was a challenge. Of course, the climate crisis is relevant for [everybody].”

Ultimately, the strike was a huge success, and Chase left optimistic about the future of climate activism on campus. 

Amidst the music, a sustainability petition was circling among the demonstrators and campus. The petition calls on Berklee to recognize the gravity of climate change, and take immediate and significant steps towards a more sustainable campus. “The [day] was inspiring and amazing. The energy and conviction expressed hope and commitment to do the work necessary to make change happen,” Chase said. “Hundreds signed the petition for specific change at Berklee. The concert and sign-making event brought many students…together and created a sense of unity. Conversations are happening that weren’t happening before.” These are the kinds of conversations that are needed to enact policy change around the world.

The current economy is built on a linear system of high consumption where goods rapidly end up in landfills. This system has a great impact on the environment; this waste is polluting the oceans, infiltrating ecosystems and endangering human health worldwide. One of the primary demands on the petition is for Berklee to vastly reduce plastic, paper, and food waste, to become a zero-waste campus.

In actuality, the term “zero-waste” is a bit of a misnomer. Within our consumerist, linear economy, waste is inevitable. Though completely eradicating waste is unachievable, a “zero waste” framework is one that prioritizes waste reduction to the greatest extent possible, and which favors a circular economy where reducing consumption is a high priority, and reusables are the norm. Many cities, universities, households, and individuals have adopted this mindset to produce as little waste as possible.

Schools such as the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley have implemented zero waste policies on campus. First and foremost, these policies focus on waste reduction, and secondarily on managing waste that is produced via composting and recycling systems. The petition calls for Berklee to follow in the footsteps of these universities.

To begin the zero-waste journey, the petition proposes a comprehensive campus composting system that functions side by side with normal waste bins. When food decomposes in anaerobic conditions (meaning without oxygen i.e. in plastic trash bags or landfills) it releases methane, a greenhouse gas which is 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Greenhouse emissions from this anaerobic fermentation of solid waste are responsible for half of all waste-related emissions. This extends not only to food scraps, but also “plant-based” plastics. Many restaurants have switched over to this seemingly more environmental alternative to reduce their carbon footprint. However, research shows that “compostable” plastic does not break down easily, and must be composted in an industrial composting facility for it to be environmentally beneficial.

In addition to a composting system, the petition requests the use of recycled and eco-friendly materials in all possible areas. This includes post-consumer toilet paper, recycled printer paper, non-toxic cleaning products, and refillable ink cartridges for printers.

Though becoming zero-waste requires administrative and structural change, effort and care on the part of students and faculty is an essential element of success. The petition demands the introduction of educational initiatives to inform students on ways to reduce personal waste, how to properly recycle and more.

Another large issue on the petition is divestment from industries and companies which are directly contributing to the climate crisis. It is very likely that, like many universities, Berklee’s endowment fund is partially invested in fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there is no way for us to tell for sure. This information is not public knowledge, and the college has refused to release details of its investments to faculty inquirers. As both tuition-payers and key stakeholders, students have a right to know where their money is being invested, and as such, Berklee has a responsibility to make this information public.

Divestment is a powerful and growing topic of conversation in universities. In June of this year, the University of California pledged to remove $150 million in fossil fuel assets from their investment portfolio. Though divestment is usually spoken about from a moral standpoint (i.e. universities have a moral obligation to divest from fossil fuels because of the harm they inflict on the environment), the argument presented by the University of California is financially based as well. In an LA Times opinion piece, Jagdeep Sing Bachher and Richard Sherman, the Chief Investment

Officer and Chair of the University Regents’ Investment Committee, respectively, defended their progressive move of fossil fuel divestment. “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk…there are more attractive investment opportunities in new energy sources than fossil fuels.” This is the largest divestment by a university to date and Berklee must follow in their footsteps.

Divestment directly ties into the petition’s fourth demand: recognizing how both the causes and effects of climate change relate to Berklee’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Fossil fuel companies are notorious for exploiting both indigenous lands, indigenous peoples, and communities of color without their consent. Berklee cannot claim to be a truly equitable place while continuing to financially support these corporations. Furthermore, as the physical effects of climate change become more severe, marginalized communities will continue to be the most affected by them – even though the greatest burden of culpability lies within the circles of our world’s most wealthy and powerful people. When the world’s top 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, there are clear limits to how much emissions can be reduced without massive systemic change. As natural disasters become more frequent and resources become more limited, Berklee students from marginalized countries and communities that lack the infrastructure or financial means to deal with such crisis have, and will continue to be, disproportionately affected by climate change.

Finally, the petition calls for the formation of a sustainability coalition of students and faculty to ensure direct and continued action is taken. The coalition will work closely with the president’s council, meet with departments and ensure these demands are taken seriously. A group of students recently met with president Roger Brown to discuss the petition, and he has granted his full support towards the new campus initiatives. The group is in the process of setting up meetings with various departments to move action forward.

From a loosely associated passionate group of students and faculty, the organizers of the Climate Strike have coalesced to form the Berklee Climate Action Network. The organizers agreed that action should not stop with the strike, but rather continue and follow the wave of mobilization from the event. BCA (Berklee Climate Action) will hold meetings and workshops on campus to encourage an eco-conscious campus community in addition to organizing larger political events and demonstrations in the greater Boston community. The group aims to link up with other student organizations from neighboring universities and local activism groups to participate in a larger network of environmental activism.

Organizer Linda Chase comments, “It is critical to continue this work and not [to] feel that the event on September 20th was enough, but to see how it will ignite further and ongoing action.”

Chase received a Faculty Lead Innovations in Education grant and will lead the first Peace and Justice Arts Symposium and Cafe at Berklee. She says the symposium will “explore educating for compassion and sustainability. Through interactive discussions and performances, participants will demonstrate how the arts can inspire positive action.” The event will take place on March 12th and April 17th in the David Friend Recital Hall.

Berklee Climate Action invites students, faculty, and members of the greater community to attend meetings on Tuesdays at 8:00 pm in 7 Haviland, Room 306. For more information, you can follow the Berklee Climate Action Facebook page or email scornell@berklee.edu.

In the face of an issue as serious and existential as climate change, it is easy to feel helpless. However, as musicians, we occupy a unique position. Whether it is ten people at a bar, a couple hundred at a club, or thousands in an arena, our work comes with a built-in platform. We have the kind of influence normal activists do not, and our voices are nothing less than essential to the sustainability movement. The topics we write about, the companies we support, and even the way we live our day-to-day lives can have far-reaching effects.

Music has always been at the center of movements for social change. It humanizes issues; distilling them down to their emotional roots and allowing for a kind of understanding that is practically impossible through politics or science. We must mobilize ourselves, our peers, and the music industry at large to fight for our future and the generations that will follow. Our planet depends on it.

Works Cited

Belam, Martin. “Greta Thunberg: Teenager on a Global Mission to ‘Make a Difference’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/26/greta-thunberg-teenager-on-a-global-mission-to-make-a-difference

Bachher, Jagdeep Singh & Richard Sherman. “Opinion: UC Investments Are Going Fossil Free. But Not Exactly for the Reasons You May Think.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-09-16/divestment-fossil-fuel-university-of-california-climate-change.

Government of Western Australia. “Food, Export & Investment.” Agriculture and Food. Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/food-export-investment.

Irfan, Umair. “The University of California System Is Ending Its Investment in Fossil Fuels.” Vox. Vox, September 18, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/9/18/20872112/university-california-divestmentfossil-fuel-climate-change.

Irfan, Umair. “The World’s Richest Institutions Invest in Fossil Fuels. Activists Are Changing That.” Vox. Vox, May 15, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/5/13/18282438/fossil-fuel-divestment-climate-finance.

United Nations. “Climate Change – Summit 2019.” United Nations. Accessed October 13, 2019. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/un-climatesummit-2019.shtml.

Woo, Marcus. “Are Biodegradable Plastics Sustainable?” The Week. 2 Sept.2019.  https://www.theweek.com/articles/860235/are-biodegradable-plastics-sustainable.

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