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Mood On Campus? Check the Streets.

This is a generation that knows the urgency of our climate situation.

“What’s the mood on campus?”

With over 40 years engaged in campus ministry in one form or another, I get asked this question with some frequency. And I often feel a little stymied by it. Apart from the fall semester of 2001, after the devastating events of 9/11, when there was a decidedly subdued feeling on campus, I’ve not really seen that much change from year to year.
Back in the early 80s I did a radio interview about the “mood on campus” based upon a wide-ranging attitudinal survey that had been conducted on campuses across Canada, and the results were disheartening. At that time, still reeling from the energy crisis and recession of the 70s, students were socially, economically, geo-politically and environmentally anxious. The majority of those surveyed anticipated greater social unrest, deeper economic contraction, a continued rise of terrorism, a crash of energy resources and more serious environmental problems in their future. All in all, not a bad assessment of the times. If they had a sense of cultural anxiety, then it was well-founded.

Contradictions
But here is where it got interesting. The survey also demonstrated that most students had a rather buoyant and optimistic sense of their own personal futures. Somehow they managed to harbour anxiety of economic contraction while not really worrying about their own career prospects and ability to maintain an upwardly mobile way of life. There might well be increased terrorism in the world, but none of that would personally impact them. Social unrest will happen somewhere else, not in their own neighbourhoods, and things like an energy crisis and the intensification of environmental breakdown would also miraculously leave them untouched.

Recognizing now that I was misusing a term, I called this “schizophrenia on campus.” Of course, this was not schizophrenia in any clearly clinical sense, but there was displayed in this attitudinal survey a profound contradiction and perhaps even dissociation in the mood on campus. Students were insightful enough to see real cultural trends and crises emerging all around them, but they did not have the emotional ability to perceive their own futures profoundly impacted by these trends and crises. Allow certain disturbing ideas to have some residence in your minds, but don’t let those ideas have any impact on your way of life or worldview.
Well that kind of put me off of attitudinal surveys. I’ve seen them come and go and while I admire my colleagues who read these studies and digest their significance for ministry on campus and amongst young adults, I kept on picking up the same kind of dissociation on campus.
Until the last few years.

Out of an estimated seven million worldwide, one million climate protesters were Canadian, including these people in Toronto Sept. 27.

Student activists
Now I can’t really generalize with much certainty because the students who hang out in our campus ministry are a self-selecting group, but I think that we can say that something has changed. And while there are many factors in the shift that I am sensing, the climate emergency is at the heart of it. To cite the title of Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Knopf Canada).

When children around the world are walking out of school to stage climate strikes, hundreds of thousands of young people are marching in the streets demanding real change in response to the climate emergency, and young adults are engaging in direct action through a movement like Extinction Rebellion by closing down bridges in major cities around the world, you know that this is a generation who have moved beyond dissociation. I may be wrong on this, but maybe the autism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is what children and young adults have needed to intensify the deep connection between their personal futures and the realities of our global crises. While dissociation loses touch and numbs us in comfortable denial, some forms of autism intensify our awareness and heighten our emotional connection to real things happening in the real world.

The strikes were inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

A regenerative story
The crisis of global warming is no longer perceived by the young adults I hang out with as something off in the distance that won’t have any real impact on their lives. They know the urgency of our situation. They actually pay attention to the reports by leading scientists who project serious environmental collapse not in 50 years, but in 10. They experience all of this as a most devastating betrayal, but they do not have the luxury of despair.

My young friends understand very well the stark choice that Naomi Klein names: “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate” (22). And they also understand that such radical change requires a different worldview, rooted in regenerative and life-giving stories in contrast to the extractive narrative of death that has been the foundation of our society. 

Christians stake their lives on a regenerative and life-giving story of resurrection. But there will be no evangelistic legitimacy in a church that presumes to offer such a redemptive story if Christians do not find themselves on the streets with these courageous young people.

  • Brian Walsh is a retired campus pastor and the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community in Toronto. His most recent book, with Sylvia Keesmaat, is Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (Brazos).

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