When Professor Mark Wallace first came to Swarthmore, he introduced one of the first environmental studies courses into the religion department curriculum: “Religion and Ecology”, a course he still teaches today. Recently, in keeping with the widespread darkening of our environmental future, he has added a new course offering that also pairs religious and environmental thought — a first-year seminar on the apocalypse.
Deeply inspired by Bill McKibben’s book, “The End of Nature,” when he encountered it in the early nineties, Wallace’s involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement at Swarthmore since its inception has largely been spurred by an awareness of impending cataclysm. This sense of urgency also motivated Wallace’s decision to begin a weeklong fast this past Monday in order to express his concern about the Board of Managers’ refusal to divest from fossil fuels. As outlined in a campus-wide email sent by Professor Lee Smithey on April 20, Wallace will be the first of three faculty members who will fast until the Board meets in early May. At this meeting, President Smith has promised to introduce the results of the student referendum to overturn the college’s 1991 ban against considering social impacts when investing the endowment, which passed with 87 percent student support.
The timing seemed coincidental — Smithey announced the faculty action less than a week after prominent gay rights attorney David Buckel had committed suicide by self-immolation in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in protest of the fossil fuel industry. Though obviously of vastly differing scales, there seemed to be a certain shared physicality to the protests.
“There is some continuity between self-immolation and practicing a bodily discipline where you don’t take food,” said Wallace when I brought up the incident. “It’s a way of signaling to yourself and to others how dire the circumstances are.”
However, when I met with Wallace for an interview on the first day of his fast, the end of the world seemed far away. The weather was perfect, and Wallace and Smithey sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs in front of Parrish, where there had been a small student rally for divestment. The two professors had hosted office hours outside of Parrish, talking to anyone who stopped by about divestment at Swarthmore and beyond, and the future of the fossil fuel industry more broadly. When I walked over, Wallace and Smithey had already been there for several hours but remained deep in discussion, integrating me into the conversation without missing a beat.
While we were in the middle of discussing why the administration refuses to divest, Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown suddenly emerged from Parrish and walked down the front steps, passing between Wallace and Smithey. The greetings exchanged on both sides were only slightly tense.
This moment drove home a sense that activism at Swarthmore is a family affair. Faculty are protesting the actions of people they know and work with every day, which makes the stakes feel a bit higher. Yet it also seemed like a moment of Quaker interchange: unflinching but civil disagreement.
Later, in describing his reasons for fasting, Wallace repeatedly situated his actions within the Quaker tradition of nonviolent social protest and expressed his feeling that the college had strayed from its roots.
“I want to put pressure on the college to square its investment policy with its social values. I don’t think there should be some aspect of the college’s common life in which we take social responsibility off the table,” he said.
He went on to note that almost any action supporting sustainability — such as installing a green roof — will have a certain financial cost, but taking such actions remains an important part of our role as environmental stewards.
“We’re at a time in our history where climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels is an existential threat to the future of the planet,” he continued. “If we don’t integrate that concern into all aspects of the college, we run the risk of living an incoherent and contradictory life, together.”
Wallace clarified the terms of his fast, as several students had expressed confusion to him about the fast. He isn’t going on a hunger strike, which would mean refusing to eat until the college agrees to divest.
“I might be dead if that were the case,” he said, chuckling.
Rather, he will simply abstain from any sort of food for a week, only drinking water. Wallace has fasted for periods of one or two weeks throughout his life, but always as part of a private, spiritual practice. Yet he feels that there is a natural continuity between his personal and public fasting.
“This is also a kind of spiritual, symbolic protest,” he said. “It’s a way of saying I’m withdrawing from food because I want the college to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry, so I’m going to symbolically engage in this ritual because I want the college to disengage from an industry that’s destroying the planet.”
For Wallace, fasting serves both to symbolically enact the sort of abstention that he believes is necessary for the college to display as well as to symbolize and connect with the suffering caused by climate change and environmental degradation.
“In times when I’m undergoing a painful transition, I find that fasting helps me to bring into myself the suffering that I’m feeling and to hold it without the distraction of food, and that’s kind of how I think of this personally — we need to quickly transition to a fossil-free renewable economy, and Swarthmore College refuses to do that. I think of fasting as a kind of self-imposed suffering — I want to connect with the suffering of others, and through this very mild suffering I am undergoing this week, all of us become more cognizant of our complicity with a toxic industry.”
When asked about the reception of the fast from students and administration, Wallace was circumspect.
“I think there is a large number, probably a majority, of students who share my deep, existential terror at the prospect of continuing climate catastrophe. I’d say there’s a minority of faculty and board members who share that concern to the point that they think we need to divest from fossil fuels, and so tragically, this debate is in part a generational debate. My generation is spending the capital that your generation is going to need to live a healthy future.”
I asked what his response is to critics who argue that divestment is a merely symbolic tactic.
“To me it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “It’s one of the many tactics that we can use to attach a social stigma to the fossil fuel industry — to say, this is an immoral industry that is betraying our collective future. I think of the fossil fuel industry as a merchant of death, just like I think of the nuclear weapons industry that way, or the chemical weapons industry, or the tobacco industry — these are merchants of death that need to be stigmatized, quarantined, and hopefully driven out of existence through regulation.”
Wallace and I discussed his history of involvement with divestment on campus, which he says has historically been hampered by an association with a brand of white environmentalism that is negligent about the needs of under-resourced human communities.
“It’s important to integrate the story of fossil fuel investment with the story of how in concrete, particular situations, the fossil fuel industry is toxic to particular people and particular communities, and in that way it’s not an environmental issue — it’s a social justice issue,” he said.
Beyond campus, Wallace is currently involved with a group of activists trying to stop the construction of the Mariner East pipeline, which would run through the Delaware watershed. I asked what his overall outlook is after several decades of environmental agitation — has he managed to maintain a sense of optimism about the future?
“Not optimism but fragile hope,” he said, before qualifying himself further. “Not optimism but very, very, tenuous, fragile hope.”
He discussed how in the 19th century, America had a whale-blubber-based fuel economy that we only transitioned away from because of the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.
“Is there something in front of us now more impactful than the discovery of oil? I’d say negatively yes — it’s the existential threat to the planet based on carbon emissions. Will that motivate us to move to a renewable economy? Unfortunately, human nature is inherently addictive. Unlike other species, like oak trees, or box turtles, or …”
He trailed away, looking off across Parrish Beach as if waiting for the perfect species to cross his field of vision before continuing:
“… red-tailed hawks, for example. We as human beings can’t be happy with the habitat that’s been offered us.”
Wallace finds addiction to be a powerful metaphor for understanding our relationship to fossil fuels and once formed a group on campus called the Carbon Addicts that developed a twelve-step program to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
“It’s like alcoholism — it’s a collective social disease,” he said. “And like any mass social disease, it requires intense intervention in order to help people to move away from their addiction. And addiction by definition is irrational, so a person who is struggling with alcohol knows that this is not a healthy way to live, but she can’t stop, and that’s how we are as a society. We know this is not healthy, but now we can’t stop.”
This may seem like a bleak vision that allows little possibility for change, but, as in A.A., Wallace sees a potential way out through belief in a higher power. This may be in a traditionally spiritual sense, or it may simply be through developing a belief in the importance of protecting life on earth that is strong enough to drive one to inconvenience themselves in nontrivial ways, such as fasting or, perhaps, divesting.
“I’m cautiously hopeful that we will develop a spiritual orientation to life, such as we see the planet as our friend, or, in my religious language, as the body of the gods and the goddesses, as the living flesh of divinity,” said Wallace. “Not as an exploitable resource to be used and abused.”