Communities of struggle

On the Mark

“Keep Calm and Carry On.”

That was the message of my economics professor two weeks ago Thursday, when the UC Berkeley administration callously failed to suspend classes despite the apocalyptic air quality. Anybody who was on campus could feel how bad the air quality was. It hurt to breathe, and the website Purple Air listed the air quality index as well above 200 on campus. Almost all universities in the Bay Area had canceled classes that day. But according to UC Berkeley’s metrics — a morning read of a meter 2 miles from campus — the smoky air did not warrant a shutdown that day.

So a small, intrepid group of students — about a quarter of those registered — attended lecture in Wheeler Hall that afternoon. Though it was allegedly safer to breathe indoors, the room was notably hazy, and the beam of the projector took shape in the opaque air. Many of us wore face masks through the lecture.

Unable to ignore the gravity of the situation, the professor advanced a lesson from a narrative of equal intensity. In keeping with economics, he began by speaking about human choice, but this time added a variable: fear. The typical, unconsidered human reaction to fear is fight, flight or freeze, he wagered. But there is a fourth option, he said: courage. Courage, he explained, can mean the courage to take action when there is risky but fruitful action to be taken.

But when there is no special, outcome-altering action to be taken, courage means the ability to carry on as necessary to get through life’s daily activities. Having been born in England and having family who lived through World War II, he showed a slide of the popular visual meme “Keep Calm and Carry On.” He explained that the original image was from a propaganda poster produced by the British during WWII to boost morale in the case of a German land invasion. He then proceeded to the lecture.

Throughout class and afterward, I thought about his choice of message during the catastrophic, historically destructive Camp Fire that has left tens of thousands of people’s lives in chaos and a fractional group of students attending lecture in face masks. He seemed to be implying that what was necessary right now was not the courage to take exceptional action, but the courage to hunker down and carry on with business as usual.

I thought about all the actions we could be taking, starting with the student petition to the administration to cancel classes in the face of hazardous air quality, as other universities had done — a petition that received more than 16,000 signatures. I thought about all the people opening their homes and offering resources to victims of the Camp Fire, and about those bringing masks to people living on the street in the East Bay.

And I thought of the possibility of even just having a collective conversation about how climate change will continue producing record-breaking tragedies in California. A conversation about what we as students could do about it, considering that we will have to live with the intensifying consequences of it longer than our campus administrators and faculty will. As students of economics, we could certainly play a pivotal role in effecting economic solutions to the climate crisis, or in explaining why it might be economical yet unethical public policy to pay prisoners $1 an hour to fight wildfires in California in order to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But those lessons weren’t in the cards that day.

As finals approach, succeeding in school is clearly the biggest and most urgent priority for the majority of undergrads who aren’t facing immediate personal catastrophes and losses. But carrying on begs the question: What is an appropriate response to California’s increasing environmental and social crises? Is it courageous to carry on as we were, or is it in fact cowardly?

Disaster is often accompanied by selfless and joyful acts of community altruism. Disasters can help bring people out of isolation and connect them with an otherwise elusive sense of sharing and purpose. College, on the other hand, can be incredibly isolating and lonely as we all strive toward our individual grades and achievements. At the university we are rarely judged for what we do collaboratively, but for what we accomplish alone. Some of us have deeper communities that we draw from, whatever those may be, but many of us remain more isolated.

Of course we need the courage to carry on. But we also need the courage to take bold action. And that courage won’t just bubble up from nowhere. It will grow out of our connection to each other in community and our sense of collective struggle. And that is an ethic that we won’t learn in the classroom.

If, at the behest of revenue-minded campus administrators, I found myself standing in front of a smoky room of dedicated students with face masks, my message might be something like this: Carpe diem. No more business as usual. Let’s help each other by organizing and creating the future that we want and need — together.

Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .