“Scholars should be at the forefront, not watching from above”

Public debate on the meaning of academia in times of environmental crisis


What is the role of academics in times of environmental crisis? That was the main question at the debate at the School of Business and Economics last Wednesday, organized by Students4Climate Maastricht and Sustainable Maastricht 2030.  Where some panel members emphasized the steps that have already been taken, others – together with many voices in the audience – were more critical: they feel not enough is happening and time is running out.

The panellists all agreed on one thing: education is key. “For every study programme, we have to consider: how and to what extent can we include environmental issues?” says Ceren Pekdemir, coordinator of Sustainable Education UM and assistant professor at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute (formerly known as ICIS). “We need to give students the right skills, we need them to be able to anticipate the future.” Students4Climate Maastricht wants to take it a step further and presented a petition for a mandatory course on sustainability for all students at the end of the evening. This is the link to be used to sign the petition: http://www.studentsforclimatemaastricht.com/course-petition/

But it’s not just students who need to be informed, the university and its staff members can also play a role in educating the general public. “To a lot of people, it still seems as if 50 per cent of the scientists think climate change is real and the other 50 per cent don’t, when in reality it’s 99 per cent versus 1,” says Pim Martens, chair of Sustainable Development at MSI. “We have to speak up more when we see climate lies being shared.”

 “Where are the experts? We’ve sent out 1,200 e-mails to professors and researchers at the UM, asking them to engage and got about 20 responses,” says Arthur Bribosia, co-founder of Students4Climate Maastricht and UCM student. He also feels that the university should do more. “It’s a powerful institution, a provider and producer of knowledge. Why don’t they prioritize this? Why haven’t they declared a state of climate emergency like some other universities? Why aren’t they fossil fuel-free? Why is it that every time we’ve asked to give students and staff members permission to skip classes to go to a climate march, the request has been denied?”

He gets support from Sarah Thin, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law and activist for Fossil Free Maastricht. “I think we hide behind the neutrality of science. We need to abandon our fear of being political or controversial. A university is not a business, it’s a public institution with a certain responsibility. We are ideally placed to map out and call for alternatives. We should be at the forefront, not watching from above.”

Peter Møllgaard, dean of SBE and chair of the Danish Climate Council, thinks universities are already taking steps. “When we first heard about climate change in the Brundtland report in 1987, there was not a lot of research done on the matter. In thirty years, we’ve achieved consensus among scientists and a lot of evidence-based information. Universities express themselves in academic language.”

Although he says that he’s “disappointed” by the lack of action by global politicians, Møllgaard is also optimistic. “The Green Deal that the European Union has presented is highly ambitious. Of course, it still has to be put in place, but they want to be carbon-neutral in 2050, no other continent has said that. We are moving in the right direction.”

But, a member of the audience points out, what are the concrete plans? “I hear a lot about goals, but you need a plan.” And isn’t it too little, too late anyway, somebody else asks. “I read reports on how global warming may go up 4, 5, even 6 degrees. And how keeping it under 1.5 degrees is practically unfeasible.”

“We still have opportunities, but I’m quite pessimistic,” says Martens. “We did next to nothing between the late 90s and now. What we need is a system change, not just some adjustments.” At the Danish Climate Council, they are working on a concrete plan, says Møllgaard. “We are talking about a green transition; we are going to reform agriculture, transportation, etc. Of course, Denmark is a small country, but we will also present our solutions to the rest of the world, the EU, the UN.”

A change like that is needed, say Thin and Bribosia, because the system is flawed, also at universities. “For instance,” says Thin, “there is still a lot of direct and indirect support for the fossil fuel industry. Dutch pension fund ABP invests in it, as does the University Fund. There are a lot of connections that are not always easy to find, but that we should scrutinize.”

And what does this do for education? Should criticism on standard models and systems be included? A student from the audience says she took an Economics course and learned about the basic economic principles. After the course, she read a book on the matter that argued they are all flawed. “Great,” says Møllgaard. “That means problem-based learning worked. You acted like an independent critical thinker.” “That’s a lazy answer,” says Thin. “It’s one thing to teach critical thinking. Reading something and then finding out everything you just learned is flawed, is another. There are integrated biases in academic research. What is researched, is what gets funded. It’s not neutral, there are many interests at play.” Pekdemir encourages students to talk about these things with their course coordinators and fill out feedback forms. “We are working on this behind the scenes and it’s good to hear from you.”

With that, the evening comes to a close. Time is literally running out, as it’s already passed the original end time of 20:00hrs. “So… we’re doing just fine?” wonders Bribosia. “People are dying and we’re talking about education and small steps that have already been taken. Is it just me or is that a bit frustrating? What have we achieved?” If the applause he gets is any indication, he voiced the opinion of many members of the audience.

Alumni take action

Alumni from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and University College Maastricht are trying to engage students and staff members in their actions against climate change. Every week on Friday they get together at Fasos and host discussions, debates and workshops on climate justice, climatology, philosophy and political theory. They encourage all staff and students to immediately halt all academic business and demand that UM implements emergency policies in line with the implications and recommendations of the latest climate data and projections, which convincingly forecast the destruction of our natural world and the collapse of our societies within decades. At 15:00 they leave and join the Foodbank Maastricht intitiative, in which they are all involved. The Foodbank is a non-profit initiative aiming for more sustainability by turning food "waste" into a vegan meal.


“Scholars should be at the forefront, not watching from above”