The College’s Fires to Put Out

If the United States didn’t already feel like it was figuratively on fire all of this year, it literally is now. Wildfires have been ravaging the West Coast since mid-August (in general, since far before then). But over the past couple of weeks, the fires have been blazing much closer to civilian borders, filling the skies (as far as Massachusetts) with ash. In California, Oregon and Washington, the fires have forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and have resulted in multiple deaths. 

Had these fires taken place in a typical Amherst College semester, all of us would have been watching the inferno from a distance, getting only as close as the news headlines would let us. But of course, this is not a normal semester. Many Amherst College students are not just reading about the wildfire news — they are living it. 

The college has an obligation to serve student needs, and we must interrogate the college’s specific responsibility in supporting the student populations affected by the fires in the West. In general, is the college’s support of its students contingent on its support for the various places in which they are studying? What must the college do when a student’s remote campus is their computer and that computer is surrounded by smoke and ash?

There are two equally important ways of responding to these questions. 

The first is with respect to the immediate needs of remote students being affected by the wildfires. The reality of the situation is that some Amherst students are being uprooted from their homes. Others have been in lockdown to some degree as the air becomes dangerous to breathe. 

As a general rule, the de facto support system of remote students this semester has become professors. Classes are remote students’ most direct line of connection to campus, so naturally, professors become the structures that keep remote students balanced and engaged. So when wildfires strike, it might appear that the most logical course of action is to look to professors to ease academic stress for the affected students. But that is the bare minimum.

When it comes to supporting the Amherst students affected by wildfires, we should be seeing direct action on the part of the administration to provide support. The college should subsidize food and any temporary housing of affected students. Mental health resources need to be made specifically available to students undergoing the trauma of having their lives uprooted. The Office of Case Management should be expanded to include more than just two case managers so that every remote student who finds themselves in a crisis can have an Amherst College liaison meet their needs. 

This semester, with students all around the world, the probability that an Amherst student will find themselves in a crisis situation has been increased. In order to address this fact, the Editorial Board recommends that the college set aside a “Remote Student Crisis Fund” to finance the emergency needs of remote students who find themselves in disaster areas. As storms and hurricanes ravage the Gulf Coast, wildfires will not be the only off-campus issue to afflict students and the college needs to be ready to react and support at a moment’s notice. 

But the college’s response to these wildfires should be more than just reactive. That is where the second response to our original questions comes in. The college has an obligation to take preventative measures that protect the communities not just of its present students but also the many generations of future Amherst College students to come. 

Last week, Editor-in-Chief Olivia Gieger ’21 reported updates on the Climate Action Plan (CAP) amid the pandemic. With Covid-19 becoming our most pressing issue, the long-term (but equally dire) problem of climate change seems to have found a cozy corner in the back of our minds. 

The Climate Action Plan, approved in January 2019, pledged that the college would be carbon neutral by 2030. While administrators still hold that the plan is on track, they admit that “the simple basics of getting a meeting together [have become great challenges].” Plus, with former sustainability director Laura Draucker leaving her position in May, the Office of Environmental Sustainability has been left vacant. And with the Covid-19 hiring freeze still in place, no efforts have been made to fill the void. 

But just because it is convenient to temporarily ignore our concerns about climate change does not mean those concerns disappear — these wildfires serve as a reminder of that. The experiences of remote Amherst students learning in the midst of these natural disasters prompt us to remember that the fight against climate change is an Amherst College problem. And beyond just reacting, the college has an obligation to mitigate it. Those prevention measures may take a couple of different forms.

There is, of course, the endowment. The power nested within the college’s investment choices says a lot about its values. The college should stand firm in channeling its endowment money to organizations contributing to the fight against climate change and taking its money out of any pockets that exacerbate the issue.

But beyond throwing money at the problem, the college needs to raise a new generation of climate-conscious students. The college should send out students to learn about climate science and environmental justice including all of its tangential, but equally important, facets. Climate change has deep racial and socioeconomic implications. Thus, environmental education has become a fully interdisciplinary, social justice project — in that way, it is directly aligned with the educational goals of the college and should be promoted as such. 

This is not a new idea. In fact, the Board of Trustees approved it as a part of CAP in an effort to go “beyond carbon-neutral.” But so far, we haven’t seen this promise realized. Expanding climate education for Amherst students is an essential part of the college’s obligation to prevent the exacerbation of climate change — and in turn, preventing future generations of Amherst students from having to undergo the crises of our current ones.

In some ways, the geographic distribution of our community this semester has been a unique (if often, non-ideal) opportunity to pop the bubble of campus insularity that has been characteristic of the college in recent years. There is power in seeing our community in a geographically extended form. It means that the college has new duties to communities beyond its 1,000 acres. And though this might mean more responsibility, it also gives our college renewed meaning within the broader world.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 5; dissenting: 0)