Monday, June 12, 2017

Big Sky students want to change the conversation about climate change

Posted By on Mon, Jun 12, 2017 at 10:44 AM

click to enlarge Bill McKibben
  • Bill McKibben
In the days since Bradie Matt graduated from Big Sky High School, plenty of people have asked her whether she’s using her newfound free time to sleep until noon. “No,” she tells them. “I have things to do.”

Matt is a member of the student group Free Us from Climate Chaos, and she and a few other students and recent graduates had been at the school since 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 6. They were capping a year’s worth of organizing for Bring Your Own Brain: A Symposium to Free Us from Climate Chaos.

The symposium starts today and runs through the 16th in UM’s Phyllis J. Washington Education Building, and will feature speakers Kate Raworth, economist and author of Doughnut Economics, and Bill McKibben, leader of the renewable energy campaign, among others. It will focus not just on climate change, but on what these students say is the root of the issue: capitalism.

“Why have other climate movements failed?” asks Henrik Eriksson, a junior exchange student from Sweden. “They treat symptoms instead of the cause. … Perpetual growth in a finite system is impossible.”

Free Us from Climate Chaos began in the summer of 2016, and since then up to 30 students have gathered in Spanish teacher Jay Bostrom’s Big Sky classroom almost every Sunday night. Surrounded by walls decorated with Latin American soccer team scarves and under the watchful eye of a Che Guevara poster, the students discuss readings and listen to occasional guest speakers. The academic nature of the meetings make them feel almost like an additional class, but it’s wholly extracurricular and driven by the interests of the students. Bostrom makes it clear that this is not his show.

Rather, it was started and organized by students who are frustrated with the lack of change and concerned about the way climate change will affect their futures. Everett Bayer, the group’s spokesperson and a 2017 Big Sky graduate, stood in front of the marchers at Missoula’s March for Science in April and called the last 35 years of climate activism “a monstrous failure.”

“If your demands are ignored, as they are always ignored, what are you prepared to do to defend our futures?” Bayer asked the crowd.

The idea is that market-based solutions to environmental problems, like the cap-and-trade approach, or incentivising renewable energy, are not enough, because the level of consumption that a capitalist economy relies on is inherently unsustainable.

While the audience at the March for Science was receptive, that message doesn’t always ingratiate the students with other environmentalists, and the group has been received with skepticism by some people who want to do something about climate change, but don’t believe that the economic system is to blame. Eriksson recalls handing out fliers for the event at Missoula’s farmers market and being confronted by people who disagree with symposium speaker Raworth’s views. His response was simply to invite them to the symposium and into the discussion.

There has been occasional name-calling—“communists” or, more creatively, “economic heretics”—but it doesn’t bother them. They’ve spent “countless hours fine-tuning their critique,” Bayer says. And ultimately, including the words “critique capitalism” in the group’s press release serves to get people fired up, which is exactly what they want.
“If we were going to sugarcoat things and dance around the problem, we wouldn’t start a conversation,” Matt says.

The students acknowledge that they don’t have the solution. They just want to spark critical thinking, and that includes questioning the economic and political status quo.
The University of Montana donated the use of its education building, and grants from the university and Missoula County Public Schools and a few donations from local individuals allowed them to secure speakers from around North America. Other speakers will appear via Skype. A schedule can be found at

Bayer says he doesn’t know if Free Us from Climate Chaos will continue next year, after most of its leaders graduate. But regardless, he says, the whole point was to create a forum for the discussion of complicated issues. If symposium attendees and other Big Sky students learn how to continue the conversation, that will be enough of a legacy for him.

Watch a livestream of Bring Your Own Brain: A Symposium to Free Us from Climate Chaos.

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