Climate Action

7 student protests that made history

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that students have power, and they aren’t afraid to use it.

From the Vietnam War to gun safety to the latest protests in Hong Kong, student activism have played a crucial role in some of the largest social movements. Even Earth Day — the world’s largest civic observance — was started by rabble-rousing college kids with a passion for the planet. 

That’s right, 50 years before the rise of Greta Thunberg, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin noticed the growing influence of students in the anti-war movement. Wanting to harness this same energy for the Earth, Nelson recruited recent graduate Denis Hayes to mobilize campuses across the U.S. 

The rest, as you know, is history. On April 22, 1970, 1,500 campuses and 20 million people proved that the status quo doesn’t stand a chance against mass mobilization.

But the work is far from over. Fortunately, we’ve recently seen a resurgence of student environmental activism in grassroots organizations like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour. And these young organizers are learning from the organizers and movements that came before them. 

Below are 7 times students raised hell for Mother Earth. 

1. Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969

When 3 million gallons of oil leaked off the coast of Santa Barbara, students at the University of Southern California and University of California, Santa Barbara, took matters into their own hands. After learning the spill killed over 9,000 birds and coated miles of coastlines in black muck, students formed some of the country’s first environmental organizations and initiated (peaceful) climate protests. 

An “ecological shot heard around the world,” the Santa Barbara oil spill triggered the first wave of direct environmental action in the U.S. — including Senator Nelson’s early inklings for Earth Day. 

2. The First Earth Day, 1970

As mentioned, more than 1,500 college campuses participated in the first Earth Day. Amassing 50,000 participants over a five-day “teach-in,” University of Michigan in Ann Arbor attracted the greatest turnout. 

University of Michigan was an ideal setting for this first Earth Day, having hosted strong protests to the Vietnam war, specifically in opposition to chemical warfare that harmed both the people and environment of Vietnam. This anti-war sentiment paved a clear path to environmentalism, a transition echoed on many campuses participating in Earth Day across the U.S. 

Organized largely by new student organization Environmental Action (ENACT), the teach-in at the University of Michigan consisted of more than 125 speeches, workshops, concerts and forums. 

The success of this student organizing, attracting international media coverage, was attributed to the deliberate efforts to make the event as inclusive as possible — tying into issues of the war, of course, but also topics such as women’s rights, racial equality and social justice.

3. Battle of Seattle, 1999

The protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle saw a different take on environmental justice: fighting globalism and protecting developing countries. Upwards of 70,000 protestors, many of which were students, successfully shut down the much-anticipated WTO meeting in what was dubbed a “street party.” This “party” showcased the environmental and economic injustices stemming from global trade and mass globalization.

Even without social media, the Seattle protest tactics — costumes, floats, direct action, blocking intersections — quickly went viral and spread to protests around the world. It was an important lesson on sharing tactics across movements and countries (and that activism can be fun, too).

4. Step it Up Middlebury, 2007

In 2007, Step It Up was the first “nationwide do-it-yourself mass protest” against global warming, according to American environmentalist and author Bill McKibben writing in Grist. This mid-2000 movement called on Congress to “step up” and reduce 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, a commitment that was urgently needed even then. 

Fueled by very little funding and a whole lot of hope, the Step It Up team consisted of founder McKibben and six students from Middlebury College in Vermont. Relying primarily on email and a basic webpage, the small team asked U.S. citizens if they would join. To their surprise, 1,400 communities — many without any organizing experience — heeded their call. 

With this mobilization, simplicity was key. Participants were asked to choose a location, make a banner and recruit others. There were no hashtags, no live streams and no memes (gasp!) — just a massive group of people coming together over one unifying mission: carbon reduction. 

5. Global Strikes, 2019

In September 2019, a record 7.6 million people mobilized across the world to demand immediate action on climate change. The global climate strike is student-driven at its core, starting with one Swedish teenager-turned-activist, Greta Thunberg. 

When Thunberg started protesting outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, she helped birth an international movement for climate action. 

Students from over 150 countries attended strikes around the world in September. Groups such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion were key to this scale, the former organizing and maintaining student strikes every Friday.  

A notable strike within the university community was led by the UK Student Climate Network in Oxford, England, drawing over 10,000 participants. Working with their schools’ administrators to secure excused absences for the strikes, students weren’t going to let anything or anyone stand in their way. 

6. Harvard-Yale Football Game, 2019

After the global climate strike in September, 300 students from both Harvard and Yale kept the momentum going. Adding a new dimension to storming the field, students from both universities delayed the rivalry football game for nearly 30 minutes at halftime. 

A large banner carried by a few brave students read: “Nobody Wins: Yale & Harvard are Complicit in Climate Injustice.” Their demand? University divestment in the fossil fuel industry. 

Students felt that universities cannot encourage their students to improve the world while also contributing to the industries spurring the destruction of our planet. Ryan Dougherty, a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition at Yale, echoed this sentiment in a text message conversation with Earth Day Network. 

“Students who attend universities like Yale and Harvard will not face the brunt of the injustices that are to come as climate change evolves into something more visibility catastrophic,” he said.

Dougherty and his peers recognize the privilege their situation offers, and understand many don’t have this type of protection. They therefore feel a duty to fight for those who aren’t as inherently separated from climate injustice.

Although neither school has heeded to the divestment demands, the Cambridge City Council did pass a resolution supporting the students who were arrested. Maybe we’ll see more disruption of business (or football) as usual in 2020 from universities across the country. 

7. 50th anniversary of Earth Day, 2020

How will you be a part of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day? 

The students of the first Earth Day fought oil spills, polluting factories, toxic dumps, pesticides and biodiversity loss. Today’s youth are fighting a lot of the same issues, but the urgency is far, far greater. 

“My hope is that this time through, it’s not gonna be a matter of shifting priorities but rather a firm bedrock commitment across all these different interest groups to radically and abruptly change the way the world operates,” said Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day, in an interview with Earth Day 50 Years.  

College students, this day was made for you. How are you, at your universities, going to show up? You have the power to ignite change on your campus — and worldwide. 

Earth Day Network wants every university participating in an EARTHRISE direct action event on April 22nd, 2020. Our MobilizeU campaign has the resources to help you get started and to help you amplify your impact. It’s easy. Just sign up as a MobilizeU Ambassador and you can bring the global Earth Day movement to your campus. 

And for everyone else: How are you going to support the youth this April and every other month? 2020 must be the year we see sweeping and radical change across the world to stop the destruction of our planet. Earth Day 2020, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, is the quintessential moment to harness our global enthusiasm for action and the promise of a livable, sustainable future.