Reflections on the Way to Divesting

The anonymous March 5 Frankly Speaking (FS) article, “Let’s Make Real Environmental Impact,” has me reflecting on what I had hoped to give when I came to Olin in 2018.  Prior, I served as a professor for 27 years, the last 13 as the founding co-director of a center for sustainability in engineering.  I learned many great and terrible lessons on my path to “have impact.”  The first was that we will always have an impact; is it the impact that we want to have? 

As I witness the divestment efforts unfolding I am moved to offer a few observations and learnings. I hope they are useful. My first observation is that Olin Climate Justice (OCJ) is cutting an admirable, textbook path of democratic action in service to social justice; I am awed by the high standard of scholarship in their communications that transparently grounds their case for divestment in data and explicit logics. Tyler’s March 9 email (subject: Olin Climate Justice’s Response to Board Statement) is another example.  All would do well to follow their lead, it seems to me. A lesson I cannot forget is that I am part of the system that I long to change. The truth of anthropogenic climate change is that my actions are causal to the problem. It is not “someone else” who is to blame–it is me, yet I am not alone.

The March 5, FS article, if I understand it, is expressing a students’ sense of betrayal. It goes a little like this: 

  1. OCJ communicates -> Author believes OCJ,  presuming factual communication
  2. Board members communicate -> Author believes Board, presuming factual communication
  3. Board communications do not equal OCJ communications
  4. Author concludes OCJ communications are false
  5. Author feels betrayed by OCJ because of 4

All communications, as theorized by linguists Grinder and Brandler1, re-present the world in ways that delete, distort and generalize and therefore are neither factual nor true.  I include the things I’m attempting to communicate now (and always, really).  Our options are then to test what is said for its coherence with reality, investigate it, or have faith in the speaker. The “faith” option is frequently granted to those with perceived authority, but not always warranted.

I have noticed at Olin that “collaboration” is often conflated with “consultation.” Collaboration is a mode of working that involves mutual respect and open power sharing. There are other properties but collaboration is distinct from consultation which is a mode in which one party holds power and exercises it unilaterally after seeking input from other parties (i,e., “consulting”); cooperation is another mode2. It is useful to recognize the distinction between these modes of working3. As the FS article points out, a dictate that another party adopt one’s point of view is not an act of collaboration–it is, as the biologist Humberto Maturana pointed out, a demand for obedience4. To be clear, the Board’s insistence that OCJ recognize what the Board believes to be a superior non-divestment approach is a demand for obedience; is it not an invitation to collaboration. The communication is this: If you only saw things the way I do, you would know I am right. That is, the assertion that OCJ was “non-collaborative” is a projection of the asserter’s state. 

It is very tempting to relate to what is said as right or wrong. What is more likely is that the things said are both right and wrong or equivalently neither right nor wrong. For example, the claim that Environment Social Governance (ESG) is “more effective” than divestment requires all kinds of assumptions about the meaning of “effective.” Effective at what and for whom? Whose standard, shareholders’? How do stakeholders whose life, livelihood and future are stolen rate the “effectiveness”?  In the end, I believe the dilemma of divestment must be addressed through authentic collaboration.  

In my five years at Olin, I have witnessed cooperation many times, but I have only seen collaboration ~3 times.  As I understand it, collaboration requires:

  1. A consciously-held, shared commitment to something larger than any of the party’s individual interests;
  2. A willingness for all parties to suspend their point of view for the sake of 1.
  3. A tolerance and patience with holding ambiguity long enough for a solution to emerge from the emptiness created by 2. 

How do we access C? Usually through inquiry: A compels B and produces curiosity; this curiosity causes the parties to real-ize that their individual points of view are not as comprehensive as believed. In this realization, people relax their attachment, literally relax (somatically) and gain access to collective creativity. I have often found at Olin that if we get past B, the space for creativity in the social field (C) collapses.  We cannot hold C–it is often said “we don’t have time,” but I think we mean that we don’t have courage.  

At this, the end of my career, I have learned that all inequities, whatever form they take–environmental injustice, racial injustice, social injustice, organizational injustice, classroom injustice–are one thing: an abuse of power.  The incredible beauty of the Olin community is that we long to do better.  For this reason, I came to Olin. As I retire, my hope is that all of us would pursue a conscious awareness of how we wield power and ask, “Is it just?”  We all want to live in a thriving world and we are the people we have been waiting for to bring it. I leave you with this quote from the 13-th century Persian poet Rumi:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Thoughts from an Island

In response to the anonymous March 2023 Frankly Speaking article titled “Let’s Make Real Environmental Impact”.

I appreciate the action, courage, and time you put into thinking about the role of OCJ in the climate justice movement on campus. We feel very misrepresented from the perspective that the board of trustees has presented to you, but I want to put that aside for a second and address a simple difference between the way I see the role of OCJ at Olin and the way I think you do:

The climate crisis is now. If we don’t reach net zero by 2030 – less than 7 years away – it will lead to catastrophic loss of lives, livelihood, and much more, especially in the most underserved regions and communities of the world. But you already know this from our articles and banners. I don’t think we have done a good job of explicitly stating the next link.

If we are to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2030, it will only happen if we radically reshape our current value systems. It will only happen if the climate crisis is our number one priority. It will only happen if we challenge the existing power structures around us (including at Olin) which will not lead us to net zero emissions by themselves.

For me, fossil fuel divestment at Olin is important because that act represents a fundamentally different political stance – that fossil fuel companies necessarily need to not exist in 7 years if we are to reach net zero. Fossil fuel divestment is important because it’s asking Oliners to be someone they haven’t been before. Students are learning to protest. The faculty are in the process of passing their first-ever climate-related resolution. The Board is learning that it cannot exist in a bubble and that its meetings can be interrupted by students filled with rage and passion. The discomfort you feel right now is the point. We want the board to divest because they don’t want to do it. The pressure, stress, and perhaps alienation you have felt from the divestment movement is part of the incredibly uncomfortable process of challenging your sense of comfort and stability when something is a crisis.

We can’t make Olin build solar panels tomorrow, but we can make Olin divest tomorrow. Literally. And making that decision would involve the board members we have been meeting with fundamentally reshaping their values very quickly. And I too agree that the board thinks it’s genuinely being collaborative while we are disengaging, but that difference is what defines the climate crisis – we are trying to set the bar for caring a lot, lot, higher.

Ultimately, the divestment movement is about the struggle and what that struggle reveals about Olin. So far, we feel like that struggle has been fruitful – it has completely reshaped the discourse at the college, it has exposed students to nonviolent direct action, and – most importantly – it has brought people like you to think about this, care about this, reach out to people in power, and respond. So thank you, and I genuinely ask you to join the next OCJ meeting. We are unwavering but not perfect, and you will have a lot to learn from our meetings only if you are really ready to challenge a lot of your assumptions because that’s what it takes to combat a global crisis at an unprecedented rate. We have studied and discussed and challenged our own assumptions so much, and trust that we will continue to do so.

I know that this will be difficult for many of my Olin friends to read. I know that if my parents or high school friends somehow found this article, they would not recognize me. And I know that I feel so deeply privileged to stand on the shoulders of giants who brought me and keep me in this school, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to see through the clouds. My story of care at Olin would not feel genuine to me if it stopped at student support, cultural communities, and building safe, open spaces. I hope you can understand how deeply valuable each of those components are, and OCJ,  in the way that I’ve been trying to understand for the past short three years.

No community is exempt from dissent. No institution is too perfect for reckonings of power. No college, no matter how caring, well-intentioned, and hardworking, is exempt from disruption. 

I never thought that I would be writing a Frankly Speaking while studying abroad, but turns out that the climate crisis is a crisis, well, everywhere. The island I’m living on has visibly eroded this past semester. It’s time to be honest about how we got here. We at Olin, an institution with an incredible amount of influence, money, and hard-earned respect need to take big, bold steps, because… (say it with me!)

Climate justice can’t wait.

Green Space: Why I Am Not An Environmentalist

I am not an environmentalist.

I do not disavow the label because I enjoy tweeting about the emissions of my personal car collection out of irrational hatred for a young Swedish activist. Like everyone else, I recognize the existence of climate change, and I know that recognition is not enough.

No, I am not an environmentalist because an environmentalist forgets that the climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of injustice that cannot be fixed by recycling harder. I am not an environmentalist because an environmentalist believes that if only everyone cared as much about some romanticized notion of the colonized outdoors as they did, “we” would stop exploiting the “environment”.

An environmentalist cannot see that the climate crisis is not a lack of awareness by the many but an abuse of power by the few; yet an environmentalist blames the greed of the few on the individual shortcomings of the many.

As Michael Maniates writes in ”Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”, “when responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions […] or the ways of collectively changing the distribution of power”.

An environmentalist has forgotten, to bring in Jessa Crispin, that “for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible”. And so “environmentalist” is comfortable and easy to those in power—indeed, it is couched in power, it originates from power, it hides that there are certain individuals and institutions reaping profits from this crisis, who would very much like to continue doing so with market-based wishful thinking.

In its meaninglessness, environmentalism obscures power with compostable plastic straws and one billion trees and organic sustainable beeswax wrappers.

Environmentalism is steeped in whiteness and the idea that climate change is the most important issue, the issue we can fix first and then address those other things like racism and sexism and homophobia, which have been happening forever anyway so just wait a bit longer okay? An environmentalist cannot understand that the only way we address the climate crisis is by addressing the legacy of imperialism and the white racial order. An environmentalist cannot draw a connection between polar bear habitat loss and Manuel Esteban Paez Terán’s murder in Atlanta’s Cop City.

In the depoliticization of environmentalism it has become universal, so universal that people like Jamie Dimon of Chase Bank can claim the label. Dimon states that “climate change and inequality are two of the critical issues of our time” while pouring billions into new fossil fuel infrastructure through Chase, against the absolute deadline imposed by science that we had to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure two years ago.

Recognize that any new infrastructure will be responsible for the avoidable loss of so many lives and livelihoods, and wonder whether we are really building this new infrastructure because of supposed individual shortcomings, or because all of our systems are set up to extract every last drop of carbon on this planet. Remember who benefits when the sky turns orange and soot chokes our lungs.

We cannot forget that we are the perpetrators of this climate crisis. I do not mean your styrofoam cup is causing the climate crisis. I mean that the institutions of the Global North that enable my livelihood and privilege, our systems of extraction and exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few, are also causing unimaginable suffering to people around the world whom I will never see and never know, the people who have done the least to cause this crisis.

If by declaring myself an environmentalist I forget that fact, then I am not an environmentalist.

Inspired by Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

ADE’s Been Weird

Courses at Olin involving collaborative design with an external community have been…well…weird for me. I am not an E:Design, but some vague and murky notion of “design is cool” comprised about 50% of my decision to attend Olin. As such, my expectations going into design courses were absurdly high. Since CD and continuing through ADE, though, I’ve been on a trajectory leading me to reject the idea that fundamentally societal problems, such as food insecurity and the harms of the carceral state, can be meaningfully approached within a CD- or ADE-style, 4-credit, semester- or even multi-semester-long class. I’m not aiming to be A Professional Designer, so I can’t say much about the actual state of the industry, but I sincerely hope that design in the “real world” does not happen like this. If what’s happening on my ADE team (and perhaps more intensely with some other teams, from what I’ve heard) is, in fact, a common set of methods and experiences from “real world” design, I can start thinking of some reasons why this country is so plagued with what tech startups and venture capitalists refer to as “innovation” – snappy-sounding fast fixes that sidestep and distract from serious, sustained analysis of societal problems at hand. We assume every group of people wants, or is capable of wanting, the equivalent of an overworked amateur design consultancy to try to solve problems for them.

On my CD team two years ago, due to a combination of class constraints, our interpretation of those constraints, and maybe a little bit of the fact that we were Online For The Foreseeable Future (which at the time was modeled in my head as “literally forever”), our relationship with our people group – soup kitchen workers, in this case – was fundamentally extractive: we would get lots of important information about how soup kitchens work from our conversations with volunteers, case workers, organizers, and patrons, but at the end of the day, all of our interactions with those amazing, hardworking people – who were innovative in the broader sense, in that they were constantly thinking about how to improve the systems they were a key part of – were just for the CD team’s educational benefit. We produced a mock-up of an “Uber Eats, but free”-style app for soup kitchens, were literally told by faculty that this was “revolutionary” (somehow), and then moved on, never to talk to any of those people ever again. All of this hustle and bustle to make something that looked close enough to a final project for us to get A grades, when during almost every interview we had with a soup kitchen worker, there was this gnawing underlying suspicion that they probably just wanted us to come volunteer with them and be a part of their community in a slow, sustained, honest way. And I pushed that suspicion away. And I fucking hate that I did that. But that pushing away, although certainly an example of maybe not having the best individual priorities at the time, was also not purely individual. There was this pervasive feeling that we had to prioritize what would make the professors happy. I can’t pretend I can pinpoint one source for this flawed priority – I think we were all actors in that little morality play.

In Olin courses, and generally in how Olin talks about itself, a model is implicitly communicated to students about How Change Should Be Made. By constantly reinforcing the idea that Olin classes give us Real World Experience, there is, I believe, a danger that the Real World will be confused with this model. I don’t know what the solution is. Olin not being accredited? Or maybe Olin being more embedded in larger external communities? Just communicating more (real communication, not marketing – though at Olin it can be tremendously hard to tell the difference) about what the purpose of a given class actually is?

Well, anyway, back to the anecdotes. I wanted ADE to be everything CD was not. I wanted to be part of a community, rather than the academic observer standing awkwardly to the side. I wanted to take things slowly, rather than being pushed to deliver something that looks like a product before I’ve even begun to understand all the nuances and underlying forces behind the problem that is being faced. And maybe it’s because I’m just too slow to keep up with all you Olin geniuses, but that’s absolutely not how ADE has gone for me. We assume that ADE will be the answer.

But even though ADE has not ended up the way I imagined or hoped – every time I realize that we can’t share a given piece of information with our community partners because of our existing promises to our legal partners, I die a little inside – I guess I did end up learning something from these past few months: I’ve started to become conscious of the tremendous value of learning history. Looking through the archives of previous teams’ work, only to find some assumption tests where very confident conclusions were made on shockingly shaky grounds, has made me far less certain of our project’s actual value than I was before. Re-reading the actual text of a court decision that appeared to finally make things easier for people who want to prove that a cop pulled someone over on racist grounds, then being confronted with how little this hope lines up with actual judicial practice as observed by our legal partners, made me wonder whether working on a project that’s fully focused on this single piece of legislation is the best thing we could be doing with our skills and time, and whether there are better ways for the team to help in the fight against racist policing. And I know that every person on my team has been agonizing about this too. I could shut down this discomfort, dismissing it as an “existential crisis”, and direct all my focus to the “actual work” of the project. In fact, I’ve tried doing that. I’ve had to try many times, since for some silly and mysterious reason, these definitely totally unrelated “existential crises” just keep coming up in this class, don’t they? We assume everything is actually completely fine.

I’ve failed to stop worrying, but I find solace in the fact that all these different fields outside of engineering can be deeply studied and harnessed to try to understand massive, sprawling injustices like the growing reach of the carceral state. Maybe the “existential crisis” I get during these types of classes is a sign that I just don’t have the tools to engage with the problem I’m trying to face, which is totally okay, because there exist plenty of tools outside the ones we learn here at Olin(!!). I love learning tools that are completely new to me. That’s what I wanted Olin to be about for me, but I’m going to be real, I mostly just ended up being busy and sad. But after I leave Olin, I’ll hopefully have the energy and time to actually join some kind of coalition that’s actively fighting against the carceral state and, what’s more, imagining and co-creating new worlds that have a different, more human view of “justice”…and I won’t be graded on it!

We assume that there is life outside ADE and Olin.

And now, with a new appreciation of history, political theory, societal frame-shifting, and my own life in hand, I hope more than anything else that this assumption holds up. There’s a lot of living to do.

Green Space: Waste of Time?

What happens to your waste once you toss it in the bin? No really, do you know where it goes? Not just “where is the incinerator,”, but who touches it? How much of your recycling is actually recycled? Where does your left-over food go? 

Environmental Consulting at Olin (ECO) is a class dedicated to making sustainability-minded change at Olin. This semester, ECO is working to reform our waste systems, specifically in Milas Hall and the Campus Center. Over the years, Olin’s waste management programs have evolved in various ways. In 2017, compost bins were introduced to the dining hall, allowing for the sustainable disposal of pre- and post-consumer food waste and vastly scaling up from our previous on-site composting operation. Over 7 years ago, recycling at Olin switched from multi-stream to single stream. Remnants of the old system can easily be found in the plethora of dissimilar recycling bins around campus, many labeled as “bottles and cans” or “paper” when they all currently end up funneled into the same recycling truck. 

Every night, Olin’s amazing custodial staff do their rounds through the buildings on campus, unlocking every office door and checking their trash and recycling bins. The trash and recycling are then brought back to the loading dock in the Campus Center and tossed into their respective dumpsters. The dining hall compost bins are also brought to the loading dock and prepared to be picked up. Throughout the day, between delivery vans and contractors, Olin’s recycling, compost, and solid waste vendors open the loading dock door, reverse into the dock, and truck our waste away. Our compost, for example, is taken by CERO Cooperative, who process it into soil that can be used at local farms. 

Although cost-per-ton for composting is higher than sending our food waste out with the trash, ECO has identified a few important reasons to expand Olin’s composting program to beyond the dining hall. Recently, Massachusetts has lowered the threshold of organic waste allowed in the trash, meaning that Olin must increase our composting. We have also learned that custodial staff take out the trash bins in the campus kitchenettes, no matter how empty they are, in case they begin to smell. By creating a separate compost receptacle that can be easily accessed, the odorous organic waste can be covered and easily emptied. 

Compost in Milas Hall and the upper levels of the Campus Center would be a significant improvement. However, the core change ECO would like to make is removing the need for custodial staff to go into each and every office. When faculty and staff can empty their own office bins into convenient, well-labeled centralized bins, including a separate receptacle for organic waste, they can reduce unnecessary labor for their colleagues. Our goal is to organize trash, recycling, compost, battery recycling, and e-waste receptacles into centralized waste stations. These will be convenient locations where all members of the Olin community can easily tell which bin their waste belongs in. We also anticipate that by adding additional streams, we reduce the total amount of waste that makes it to the incinerator. In Fiscal Year 2019, 61.53% of our waste was incinerated, with only 18.81% recycled and 19.15% composted. By giving people convenient alternative disposal options, we hope to divert more of this waste from the incinerator to compost, recycling, and e-waste recycling. The ECO class has been hard at work researching, communicating with various campus stakeholders, and designing this new waste system. Soon, you can expect to see a limited pilot of our new bins, at one location in each of Milas Hall and the Campus Center. Please utilize these bins and let us know your opinions on the new system, as nothing is set in stone and we would love to hear feedback from the Olin community. To provide feedback, please send an email to Brooke Moss at

Here for a Season

As all good things do, it started as a joke. Sometimes jokes get taken too far and that’s how I ended up in MAC 128 with a couple of others trying to figure out how to make Olin Clean Snowmobile possible. That’s how I ended up in a meeting room with admin figuring out the logistics. That’s how I ended up pitching this team to half the student body as if it was the hottest new P&M project. And like all P&M projects, you probably weren’t given much context as to what we’re really doing.

Olin Clean Snowmobile is a team that will modify an existing snowmobile to lower emissions and noise pollution. Contrary to popular belief, we will not be making an electric snowmobile, but we will be modifying a snowmobile with a diesel engine. Some modifications may look like redesigning the muffler system to utilize destructive interference, tuning the drivetrain, or designing a diesel particulate filter. This snowmobile will compete in the SAE Clean Snowmobile competition against other colleges and universities. To answer the most frequently asked question, yes, we’re serious about this, despite it all starting out as a joke.

In October 2022, a few of us who had joked about Olin Clean Snowmobile decided to try to do something to make it happen. We started to search for sponsors and put together a sponsorship packet. We started to plan for what projects the team would take on to achieve low pollution with the snowmobile. In November, we met with a winning team from Wisconsin to gain a better understanding of exactly what we were getting ourselves into. In December, we found ourselves in a conference room with a couple of faculty members pitching this project team. Before we formally started the meeting, one of them turned to us and said, “This is not a matter of if, but a matter of how.”

It was around that moment that I recognized how invested I was in this team. At some point in the process, Olin Clean Snowmobile became more than a joke. It was fulfilling the dream of the high school senior touring Olin thinking if there is any place to do something of any meaning, it’s this place. The one who accepted admission to the school with the belief that it was different than other schools in this way. It was showing the defeated first-year just starting classes that maybe there is something bigger than going through the motions with classes and clubs. Maybe, just maybe, my past self was onto something with this place. Doing something, as any honorable Oliner is meant to do, felt incredible.

It all came to a screeching halt just before spring break. We received the email we dreaded, the email we always knew might end up in our inbox, but it felt increasingly less likely as time went on. Olin Clean Snowmobile couldn’t happen. Not due to a lack of funding, a lack of interest, or a lack of faculty support. It was due to a lack of space.

Sometimes this school is too small for the growing dreams of the student body. The mere five buildings on the campus cannot always contain the hopes we have. Space is not an easy thing to come by and it isn’t something I necessarily expect to change. But at some point, something has to give. If there is no room to grow, then growth can’t happen. If students hear enough times that their attempts to “do something” simply aren’t possible, then won’t they stop trying?

I still, perhaps foolishly, believe that the mentality of “it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of how” still exists at Olin. Maybe because if Olin is really all that I want to believe it is, it has to.