Organizing for the End Times: Disjunctive Temporalities in the Era of the Climate Crisis, By Charlotte Stewart

Introduction

Like every group meeting, the agenda for this particularly cold Monday 4 pm gathering included a check-in question. In this case, it was “In the event that we are all suddenly plunged into environmental/sociopolitical catastrophe (i.e. teen fiction dystopia-type situation), what skills/services/goods will you contribute to my farm commune?”. People smiled as they shuffled their university-issued rolling desk chairs into a circle and opened their laptops, accepting the question without comment. The meeting facilitator for the day, whom I will refer to here as Sadie, volunteered herself to answer first, starting with her name and pronouns, and then offering hypothetical land for the commune. “Do you own the commune?” piped up Kat, protesting that such a situation would be antithetical to the spirit of a post-apocalyptic communal farm. Once the answer, a definite no, was established, introductions and answers were shared around the circle. Taking encouragement from the pronouncement that “everyone’s useful!”, one person offered cooking abilities, another coding skills (assuming that computer technology remained relevant), another a knowledge of languages, another physical strength. “I’m scoping out all the people I know”, Sadie quipped halfway through, “Just in case.”

What group of students would engage with this question in such a tongue-in-cheek yet earnest way? What, in their collective imagination, is the looming “just in case” scenario? In basic terms, the students in question are members of a climate justice organization that I will refer to as Climate Crisis Response University of Toronto (CCRUT), the primary mandate of which is to pressure the University of Toronto to divest from fossil fuels. During the fall 2019 semester I spent several hours a week conducting ethnographic fieldwork with this group as they campaigned to address what they perceived as the University’s complicity in climate change, which in common parlance has now been categorized as a global crisis. The “just in case” situation, then, may be characterized as the irreversible climate disaster that CCRUT members feel will come about in the (increasingly) near future if sweeping changes to environmental policies and practices are not immediately put into effect – and, perhaps, regardless of such potential changes.

As this moment demonstrates, the work of CCRUT and its members is undergirded by a key tension, which may be understood in terms of misaligned temporalities. In Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, philosopher Harmut Rosa (2013) proposes a model of time in which actors “always simultaneously develop three distinct temporal perspectives” (p. 8). Firstly, there are the time structures of the everyday, such as recurring routines of work and leisure, and the associated problems of scheduling and synchronization (e.g. if I get to the library by 1 pm, will I have enough time to finish my essay before my friend’s party?) (ibid.). Secondly, there is the “perspective on life as a whole” or one’s lifetime, through which actors consider their long-term plans and goals (e.g. will I go to graduate school, and if so, when?) (ibid., p. 8). Finally, there is the experience of figuring one’s everyday time and lifetime in terms of the “encompassing time” of one’s epoch, and the conditions which characterize the “time of our days” (e.g. people born in my time have a different outlook on education than people of previous generations) (ibid., p. 8).

Through this lens, a complex picture of these student activists emerges. If CCRUT members feel that our epoch may come to be defined by climate disaster, on what basis do they make decisions about how to spend time in their daily lives, and how does this relate to the conditions that they expect to experience in their lifetimes? There is a paradox, it would appear, in their very presence at an institution that they are working to resist, the way their plans for the future may or may not be shaped around their education, and their ostensible belief that our society as it operates now will soon no longer exist. 

In the course of my research I have sought to explore the practices student activists engage in to navigate these disjunctive temporalities. Over the course of the Fall 2019 semester, I engaged in participant observation at CCRUT’s weekly meetings as well as workshops, rallies, and protests, in addition to semi-structured interviews with members of the group (all identifying information about whom has been anonymized). Through this work I discovered an array of methods by which these activists are able to makes sense of their present and potential future realities. In this essay, I will discuss first how they resist what they define as the “extractive University”, followed by the benefits they derive from organizing, and finally the work they do in and by considering the future. 

Defining the Extractive University

Close to the beginning of my fieldwork, I attended an “Introduction to Divestment” workshop hosted by CCRUT in collaboration with an anti-Israeli apartheid student activist group. Several people I recognized from CCRUT meetings were already gathered in the classroom where the event was being hosted when I arrived, though I was followed in by a few timid-looking new faces. We were all cheerfully invited by Joanna, one of the most active members of the group, to take divestment themed buttons and stickers, along with bags of gummy candies and chips. Dinner, we were told, would be provided halfway through; motivated by the promise of free food, we were an attentive captive audience. In the course of the workshop, I came to understand CCRUT’s history and how it defines itself as a climate justice organization.

CCRUT, I learned, was founded in 2017 following the President of the University of Toronto Meric Gertler’s rejection of the recommendation made by an ad hoc committee – formed in response to student organizing – that the University divest from the fossil fuel industry. Although University policy states that the Governing Council can only consider divestment petitions every 7 years, CCRUT’s mission is to maintain and increase momentum for this initiative by campaigning at the federated colleges (which manage their own investments) as well as engaging in other forms of climate justice activism on and off campus. As Joanna put it, the group’s work is based on an analysis of intertwined “structures of oppression” as they relate to a “just transition to a green economy”. That is to say, the group is attentive to how economic, political, and social systems coalesce to produce injustices which are mapped onto and take effect through environmental conditions. The rhetoric of the No TMX, No TMT! Rally which CCRUT had helped to organize earlier in the semester, for example, was that efforts to build pipelines on Indigenous territory are not only environmentally irresponsible but rely upon and perpetuate violent colonial discourse and practices for the benefit of capitalist interests. Resistance to the climate crisis, in this analysis, must therefore similarly attend to all forms of systemic inequity. 

Divestment plays a central role in CCRUT’s activities because this type of campaign centers on systemic change. Fossil fuel companies, CCRUT argues, necessarily degrade localized environments as they extract resources from them; make possible and encourage an almost universal reliance on their products, which are a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions; have a vested interest in disincentivizing research and investment in sustainable alternatives; and are harmful to the communities they work within. In view of the University’s choice to invest in these companies, and thus both enable and derive monetary benefits from their activities, CCRUT holds the institution equally responsible for them. Given, furthermore, CCRUT’s members recognition that the money being invested by the University is drawn from their tuition, they conceptualize the University as being doubly extractive vis-à-vis its investment portfolio – that is, towards both the environment and themselves as its students. At the same time, CCRUT members feel that the institution is not only complicit in exacerbating the climate crisis through its collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, but also that their continued presence at the University makes them complicit as well. In terms of Rosa (2013), this means that the everyday time – and, accordingly, money – they spend at the University is contributing to the foreclosure of the future that the institution is ostensibly helping them to build towards. 

Resisting the Extractive University

In response to their belief that the University’s practices are contributing to the impending climate crisis, CCRUT members work to resist the institution through the use of their everyday time in two ways. Firstly, they organize to pursue climate justice by educating fellow students and pressuring the University to divest. Their work includes planning and facilitating workshops such as Intro to Divestment, postering around campus and maintaining a presence online, rallies such as No TMX, No TMT!, the ongoing campaigns at the federated colleges, and sending a contingent of protestors to the September 2019 Global Climate Strike. In an interview, Sadie commented that unlike other student groups focused on working with the University to promote sustainability on campus, CCRUT’s climate justice work felt more “urgent” and “long-term meaningful”. If they accomplished their goals, she continued, “the implications will be more than dining hall level”. This reflects both the group’s aim to affect systemic change, and their collective sense that the stakes for their activism are high. 

Secondly, CCRUT’s organizational praxis may be characterized in contradistinction to extraction. As previously mentioned, CCRUT members critiqued the University for the way its policies were experienced on the level of the individual student as extractive. This was primarily in regards to the requirement to pay tuition, but also in terms of the everyday and life span time spent at the University, the mental, physical and emotional toll of engaging with the institution, and the intense intellectual labour that they were expected to perform as students. With this in mind, the approach CCRUT members take to organizing emphasizes the prioritization of self-and collective care. All time and energy CCRUT members expend for the group is voluntary, and there is a distinct lack of pressure (social or otherwise) to attend meetings, perform tasks, or demonstrate any form of commitment to the group. “Does anyone have the capacity to…?” was a common way in which requests to help support particular projects were phrased. Even when the most active members of the group withdrew from CCRUT’s activities for any length of time, the response was consistently a shrug and the acknowledgement that “they must be busy”. 

At the same time, CCRUT as a group is incredibly inclusive. At the first meeting I attended, for instance, I was surprised by how warmly I was welcomed into the meeting space and asked to participate in the “check-in” by sharing my name, pronouns, and answering an icebreaker question. After debriefing CCRUT’s most recent activities, we divided into two breakout groups, one of which worked on organizing an open mic fundraiser in support for Indigenous land defenders. The other, led with casual ease by Sadie, was an “orientation” for a couple other newcomers and I. Sadie immediately shared CCRUT’s Google Drive folder with us, giving us access to an enormous amount of information about the group, as well as added us to the group’s Slack, a cloud-based productivity and messaging app that would allow us to keep tabs on and get involved in its activities. This, in effect, was how I and almost any interested person became initiated into the group.

While for ease I’ve been referring to people involved in CCRUT as its “members”, in actuality the group has no formalized membership or leadership structure. Throughout my fieldwork I became familiar with a core number of individuals who consistently and actively participated in the group, but from attending meetings and scrolling through Slack I also came in contact with large network of people who at various junctures contributed some form of effort towards the CCRUT’s goals. Roles such as facilitating meetings, taking minutes, planning events, and otherwise working on the group’s projects rotated on a voluntary basis. No one person steered the activities of the group, and people avoided making executive decisions in favour of a more egalitarian and consensus-based approach. In this way, people involved with CCRUT avoided putting each other in a position in which they might feel obligated to act or contribute in a particular way – that is, be subject to the type of extraction they were working to resist. Put differently, the group used its everyday time in ways intended to reflect the more just future they were trying to create.

The Benefits of Organizing

While CCRUT members organize on the basis of a clearly articulated critique of the University, they also recognize that the sense of disjunctive temporalities and associated negative mental health effects are shared by many students. As Kat discussed with me in an interview, uncertainty regarding the future is widespread amongst young people, especially in the context of heightened public attention to the climate crisis and the economic, political, social volatility it might entail. Placards at the September 2019 Global Climate Strike, for instance, mobilized temporal discourse to convey the potentially devastating effects of climate change through phrases such as “We Have 11 Years”, “Let Us Grow Old”, and “Economy is Temporary, Extinct is Forever”. The work of these placards, to stimulate policy changes that promote climate justice, was done primarily by emphasizing how past and current inaction poses a threat to the future. Reflecting on the currency of this outlook amongst students, Kat stated her belief that “the climate crisis is a source of anxiety for people our age”. 

Yet she also mentioned that students considering the climate crisis are “very blasé about it”. She explained this paradox by arguing that people cope by not coping, that is, they feel that they “don’t have to do anything because it’s” – i.e., the world as we know it, is – “ending anyways”. This speaks to a sense of frustration, hopelessness, and powerlessness amongst students that CCRUT members connected to the extractive nature of the University. In this conceptualization, the reality of being a student is that the everyday and lifespan time spent on receiving an education from an extremely demanding and alienating institution might ultimately come to be of no use as a result of the complicity of the same institution in foreclosing the expected future. 

Organizing, on the other hand, creates a sense of collective support and solidarity that counteracts these feelings. While Kat said that she sometimes “felt suffocated by all my responsibilities and [that] that’s normal for people our age”, she also commented that being involved in climate justice work has “helped me a lot with my mental health”. Firstly, as previously discussed, CCRUT members understand their work as a concrete and meaningful avenue to address the climate crisis, which is at the root of their feelings of uncertainty. Secondly, as Kat emphasized, being a part of the group provides a “sense of community”. Returning to my introductory vignette, it is clear that CCRUT meetings were meant to be productive, but also fun. Members joked with each other and were chatty during meetings, and clearly had relationships that extended beyond their activist activities. When I asked Sadie why she chose to get involved with CCRUT, for instance, she said that she was “friends with everyone in it”. In sum, organizing gave meaning to the time CCRUT members spent at the University, regardless of what they believed the future might hold. 

Considering the Future 

In seeking an understanding of CCRUT members’ relationship to the future, it is useful to consider the subject positions available to students of the University (see Appendix A). Based on my conversations with student activists and my observations of student life at the institution, the “normative student subject” may be defined as one who embraces the neoliberal values and practices of the University. As Read (2009) asserts, in the context of neoliberalism in contemporary North American society, the subjectivity production of students centers the “refiguring of human beings as ‘human capital'”, achieved through assessing the value of any activity in terms of an investment of time and energy intended to increase an individual’s earning potential (p. 152). The “normative student subject”, then, may be said to be both expected and demanded by the “extractive University”, as syllabi, academic and non-academic programming, and administrative policies are shaped around the figure of the responsibilized and autonomous student who is motivated by the promise of the success their education will bring them in the capitalist job market. 

The powers which compel individuals to pursue this idealized subject generally work through discursive, rather than coercive, means. Drawing on Rose (1999), the governance of students can be seen to be enacted through their freedom to choose to pursue their education – that is, students may choose to stay enrolled or drop out, attend student success workshops or not, and spend between every waking hour or zero hours a day studying. In this way, the responsibility for success is downloaded from the institution and onto individual students; accordingly, self-disciplining practices are made indispensable. Turning to Allen’s (2003) discussion of how power makes itself felt through ” the assent of authority or the inviting gestures of a seductive presence”, both the satisfaction gained from academic pursuits, which may be understood as the intrinsic value of education, and returns anticipated in future career endeavours, or the instrumental value of education, also drive students pursue academic success (p. 196). While forms of exclusion based on oppressive economic, political, and social structures that result in a lack of material and social capital work to prevent marginalized individuals from inhabiting this subject position, these too are generally positioned as individual, rather than systemic, issues. 

Through their work, CCRUT members in many ways reject the normative student subject and take up an alternative subject position. This became particularly evident through my conversations with Joanna, who cogently articulated a well-developed anti-capitalist analysis of the University and its position in wider society, as well as her own radical imaginary. Based on her personal exposure to the environmental degradation associated with of the climate crisis, she held deeply to the idea that the typical life course envisioned by the institution, societal norms, and important figures in her personal life such as her parents will be “untenable” given the climate crisis. An alternative world, in her view, is inevitable and thus may realistically be shaped by her activist activities. Though she experiences an “intense moral quandary [in] every moment” she spends at the University regarding whether or not pursuing her education is in fact the best way to spend her everyday time, like many other CCRUT members she emphasized the importance of the community she had created through her activism on campus. She was also committed to the ideal of an anti-neoliberal academy that exists not for its usefulness to capitalism but rather for the fulfilment it brings to those who engage with it, and tried as much as possible to explore and demonstrate this ethic in her studies. 

That being said, the “alternative student subject” is not antithetical to the “normative student subject” but is rather formed through the negotiation of the same forces. While CCRUT members may at times measure themselves against the figure of an ideal activist, it is more accurate to say that each is operating in an ambiguous and situationally defined place in between these subject positions. That is, while they are participating in developing, learning, and sharing a clearly articulated critique of the University, they are all also to a greater or lesser extent meeting and endorsing the institution’s expectations of them. Clarissa, for instance, skipped the September 2019 Global Climate Strike in order to attend a lab that was worth 30% of her grade. Similarly, many of the CCRUT members I spoke to were planning to attend graduate school, which would imply that they are already successful students who have invested a great deal of their everyday time in their studies. While some explained that they enjoyed learning for its own sake, they were consistent in mentioning that they felt attaining another degree would better position them to fulfil their desire to work towards climate justice in their future careers. In this way, they signaled both the intrinsic and instrumental value of their education, which as discussed above reflects assenting to the power of the University. This also indicates that to a certain extent, these students are hedging their bets – that is, investing in their human capital so as to bolster their chances of success should society as we know it now persist rather than collapse. Despite their sense that the University’s polices are acting to foreclose the life course that they had been taught to expect, the allure of the present and future benefits of their time at the institution made the everyday time spent there seem worth the sacrifice of a life entirely dedicated to activism. 

Conclusion

Through my research with Climate Crisis Response University of Toronto, I sought to discover the practices these student activists engaged in to navigate their experience of disjunctive temporalities. My findings indicated that through their praxis of resistance to what they define as the “extractive University”, the benefits they derive from organizing, and finally how they understand their position vis-á-vis the future, CCRUT members are able to effectively operate within, if not reconcile themselves to, their conflicting perspectives on time. Overall, their efforts may be characterized as striking a balance between planning for multiple possible lifespans in an epoch which may be defined by environmental degradation leading to total societal collapse, or alternatively that which may be reasonably accommodated to, all while building community resiliency in the present.

Avenues for further research in this area could explore more fully how the positionality of CCRUT members, many of whom spoke to their privileged forms of identity vis-á-vis the climate crisis, has an impact on their experiences of and approaches to their work. Continued work on how these activists envision a radical futurity and develop a livable a subject position would enhance my existing findings. Lastly, by virtue of its nature as a campaign dependent on developing environmental conditions, the activism of CCRUT presents opportunities for ongoing research, particularly those projects which may prove valuable to the aims of this group.

Appendix A

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Figure 1. Student Subject Positions

References

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Read, J. (2009). University experience: Neoliberalism against the commons. In Toward a global 

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Rosa, H. (2013). Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity (J. Trejo-Mathys, trans). New 

York, NY: Columbia University Press. (Original work published in 2005).

Rose (1999). Freedom. In Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought (pp. 1–97). 

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.