Press Release for 4/12/19 Action

Happening NOW at the University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe: Two Chicago Teachers Lock Their Bodies To Doors of Fossil Fuel Conference in Extinction Rebellion Chicago Action


Members of Extinction Rebellion Demand University Divestment, End to Fossil Fuel Extraction

Chicago, IL- This morning, when the eager, ambitious business students and the prosperous, powerful energy and investment executives arrive at the University Club of Chicago at 76 E. Monroe Street for the Energy Forward Conferenceto discuss maximizing return on fossil fuel investments, they will be offered an unexpected opportunity:  to engage in conversation with climate activists about why energy companies must stop building infrastructure to extract and transport fossil fuels and why 100% of remaining fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. 

It will be hard not to engage with the climate activists because two of them will be locked to the University Club’s two front-facing entrances, while other, vocal members of the group will be engaging the would-be conference-goers in conversation at the alley kitchen entrance around the corner.  

The Chicago chapter of Extinction Rebellion, the international movement committed to nonviolent civil disobedience in the name of truth and urgent action on the climate crisis, isphysically blocking the flagship annual conference hosted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.  The purpose of the blockade is to force a conversation about what the conference participants may see as business as usual but what is in fact an impossible contradiction:  the scientific certainty, acknowledged now by most global leaders, that we cannot burn any more fossil fuels if we are to live to see another century, combined with the continuing activity of energy companies to find, extract, transport, and sell these fuels.  

Exinction Rebellion member Joe Phillips will be blocking the main entrance to the building.  He says, “As a teacher myself, and a parent who wants nothing more for my own children than clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a hospitable climate, I am choosing to use non-violent means to put my body upon the gears of the fossil fuel death machine. If we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at our current rates, my 3-year-old son will undoubtedly find himself in a vastly more violent, uninhabitable hellscape of a planet by the time he is fifty. We are fighting for the lives of all future generations.” 

Ivy, another member of the group, who will be supporting the lockdown by engaging in conversation with conference-goers while the conference organizers try to figure out how to clear the entrances, points out, “The solution to climate change has been known for a long time. Investors, energy companies, and powerful officials need to stop protecting their profits at the price of our future.  It’s urgent to change course now!”  Extinction Rebellion member Paul adds, “We shouldn’t throw away our future just because investors don’t have the imagination to see how we can switch to a path of renewable energy and sustainability.”

Although one of the four panels included in the conference focuses on “the next phase of the renewables industry,” it’s very clear that the central premise of the conference is that fossil fuels will continue to be extracted and sold, infrastructure for these enterprises will continue to be built, investments will continue to be solicted, and investors will continue to make vast amounts of money from these enterprises.  Yet in October 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) issued an urgent warning that we must drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions by 2030 in order to avoid irreversible climate tipping points as early as 2040, well within the lifetimes of the business students attending the conference.  

The role and the moral standing of students is crucial here because it is young people whose lives will be dramatically changed by the climate crisis. This is why we have seen, in the last several months, school children in almost every country take to the streets to demand that their governments take action on the climate crisis.  And it is why university students around the world have been demanding for years that their universities divest from fossil fuel companies.  At some places, these demands have eventually been heard, and universities such as Stanford, the University of Maryland, the University of Maine System, Johns Hopkins, Hampshire Colllege, and many othershave taken steps to divest in whole or in part from fossil fuel companies.  

Other universities, often those with the deepest ties to the fossil fuel industry, have dug in, refusing to acknowledge the glaring contradiction between their social function of preparing the next generation for the future and the desire of administrators, trustees, and alumni to protect their investments, even at the cost of destroying any chance of a future for their students.

According to a 2016 article in The Guardian250 professors at the University of Chicago, in solidarity with student activists, urged the elite private university to purge its $7.6 billion endowment of coal, oil and gas companies, citing the “universal and existential” threat posed by climate change. Their petition was immediately dismissed by the university, with the university’s president, Robert Zimmer, laughably citing the school’s tradition of political neutrality.  The university has not budged from this position.  

The Energy Forward Conference, sponsored by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, in partnership with energy companies and investment firms controlling vast amounts of money, is powerfully symbolic of this monstrous contradiction.  But it is more than symbolic.  A central mission of the Booth School of Business is to prepare young people to be the next generation of fossil fuel executives and investors, thus continuing the cycle that science, religion, morality, diplomacy, and common sense tell us must be broken.  If our children and grandchildren are to have an inhabitable planet, global humanity must stop burning fossil fuels now.

Extinction Rebellion, the worldwide movement that the group blocking the Booth Conference belongs to, was inspired at least in part by a successful campaign to get King’s College London to divest from fossil fuel companies.  The campaign, led by a graduate student studying effective political resistance movements, was ultimately successful when it adopted the strategies of non-violent direct action, in which people put their bodies on the line in non-violent ways to disrupt the business-as-usual of institutions that are in some way complicit with unjust, oppressive policies and activities. That student was Roger Hallam, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. Two years of traditional negotiations with the university led nowhere. After only six weeks of nonviolent direct action, King’s College London was pressured to fully divest from their fossil fuel interests, proving that such direct action works. 

Ellen McManus, an Extinction Rebellion Chicago member who will be blocking the other front-facing door of the University Club, says, “Just a few years ago, I could not have imagined doing something like this.  I’m a parent, a teacher, a law-abiding member of my community.  But the world is heading toward irreversible destruction of ecosystems that not only have value in themselves as interconnected systems of living beings but are essential to supporting human life. By our selfish behavior, we are destroying the futures of our children and grandchildren, our students, and all other living beings.Governments, the media, and people of power and wealth have all failed to act on this crisis, so ordinary citizens like the members of Extinction Rebellion are taking non-violent action to say, ‘Business as usual must not continue. We must change the way we live.’  It’s particularly hypocritical when universities, whose charge and social function are to prepare young people for the future, refuse to take action or even to tell the truth about the climate crisis.”

The Extinction Rebellion members taking part in the action at the Booth Energy Forward Conference know that their actions may not prevent the conference from going forward, but they feel confident that it will change the conversations that conference-goers will have throughout the day.  “Our message,” says Phillips, “is that busines as usual, when it is destructive of the environment and therefore of the future, will not be allowed to continue. This message,” he adds, “will be delivered throughout the world, including Chicago, during the International Week of Rebellion beginning on April 15. We won’t stop until the planet is safe.”