As Penn students, our contributions to climate change can’t be offset just by recycling and changing light bulbs. As students, we should do what we can to limit our carbon emissions — whether it's composting or using public transportation — but these decisions are only holding actions when compared to the much bigger opportunity for curbing emissions: our careers. We need to follow a career path that actively propels an aggressive societal response to climate change.
Before I begin this call to action, I must acknowledge my privileges. I am a straight, white male, which means that I do not have to navigate a career market that is aligned against me. I am from a middle-class family, which means that I have less financial pressure factoring into my career decision than many students. I am American, which means that I have benefited from and contributed to the most environmentally destructive society in human history. I cannot change these facts, but I can acknowledge them as I think about what my role will be in the world.
Every student and faculty member at Penn is among the world’s most egregious greenhouse gas emitters just by our association with this university. Not only do Penn’s utilities and operations emit over 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, but its investment office invests hundreds of millions of dollars directly into fossil fuel companies. Regardless of our efforts to be more sustainable, our presence at Penn during this time in human history makes our lifestyles unsustainable. Even the most environmentally conscious student has incurred an emissions debt payable only by making an environmentally conscious career choice.
This doesn’t mean that we should bike to our Exxon internship. This means that we need to find jobs that fight the current system of exploiting both nature and other humans. This doesn’t mean that we should make sure that our Goldman Sachs team recycles. This means that we need to select careers that actively participate in the revolution of human society into one that justly adapts to the ongoing climate crisis, while mitigating its future impacts. This doesn’t mean that we should choose philanthropic positions at leading financial and fossil fuel institutions. This means that we need to choose positions that fight against these planet-destroying companies.
Some of you may be wondering why you can’t just pursue a lucrative career and then be a philanthropist. You might be thinking, “Somebody’s going to take the job if I don’t” or “I can make a change from the inside.” We could debate whether the amount of money you could donate would have more of an impact than the benign work that you could have been doing, or how philanthropists use their wealth to undercut democracy, but we don’t have time. We don’t have time to take jobs that are destroying the environment and our society even if someone else will take them. As the innovators and leaders that we claim to be at Penn, we need to take a step away from the escalating cataclysm of climate change and towards the necessary work of societal adaptation and mitigation.
Maybe you’re thinking that if everyone’s career addresses the environment there would be a shortage of jobs. However, there are so many roles to be played in the societal overhaul that the climate crisis warrants, that there will always be a market for innovative thinkers and dedicated workers. I am not suggesting that everyone go and plant a tree. I am suggesting that everyone commit themselves to build a just and sustainable society, whether that’s through becoming a teacher, civil rights lawyer, therapist, an environmental engineer, a regenerative farmer, or any of the many jobs that are essential to creating a society founded on justice and sustainability.
Maybe sustainability isn’t your passion. The systematic overhaul that is required to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change will require creative environmental, social, and financial solutions. Your career can be productive in a sustainable society without being directly related to environmental science.
As Penn students and faculty members, we are among the world’s most elite carbon emitters. We are in significant emissions debt to the rest of the planet. The only way for us to pay this debt is to ensure that our future careers aid in the equitable transition of our society into one that is sustainable and livable for all.
ELLIOT BONES is a College junior from Columbia, Mo. studying Sociology and Urban Education. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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