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Princeton can't solve the mental health crisis without divesting from fossil fuels

<p>Some members of Divest Princeton after submitting their proposal to the CPUC Resources Committee in February.</p>
<h6>Courtesy of Anna Hiltner&nbsp;</h6>

Some members of Divest Princeton after submitting their proposal to the CPUC Resources Committee in February.

Courtesy of Anna Hiltner 

At a time when the world faces a global health crisis and the undeniable threat of global warming, youth mental health is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Following two years of less than normal social interactions, rates of adolescent anxiety and depression continue to increase. This parallels issues among the University’s student body, on campus with pressures of academic success and unrealistic expectations surrounding time management and achievement.  

In its publicity materials, Princeton claims to support student mental health. Yet President Christopher Eisgruber and the University’s Board of Trustees continue to confirm that divesting from investments into companies associated with the use and production of fossil fuels is not Princeton’s priority. What the University fails to understand is that it’s almost impossible to be emotionally healthy while the world is dying.

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Princeton’s reluctance to divest while investing in mental health is jarring and hypocritical. The University’s declarations of support and remodeling of its approach to mental health are failed attempts to veil the real issue: Princeton must divest from fossil fuels, and they must do it now. It’s difficult to stifle the growing mental health crisis as climate change ravages the planet.

As Ivy League students, we’re considered the next generation of leaders. Ironically, however, our declining mental health is weaponized by those in power and used against us in discrediting our calls to reverse climate change. Our generation is considered too emotionally stunted to understand that we’re facing a climate emergency, and too unreliable to lead the uprising against the continued use of fossil fuels and deforestation of carbon sinks across the world. We are presented as people unable to have clear perspectives, especially not on issues of global importance, often as a result of our struggles with mental health.

The irony of supporting mental health in a dying world seems lost on the people elected to make the most difficult decisions, in the same way it’s ignored by University officials. Curing depression and anxiety is essentially impossible in the context of a global climate emergency and the constant reminder that the Earth is dying, and that we will too. As “the leaders of the future,” young people understand too well the desperation to change world leaders’ perspective before our situation becomes irreversible.

Politicians and people in power collectively create the narrative that the mental health crisis is the biggest threat to young people’s lives in order to challenge the validity of our calls to action against climate change. Greta Thunberg is often a victim of this narrative, and is simultaneously villainized and victimized by the media. Thunberg so perfectly personifies our fear for the future that she is an allegorical target, representing all young people. She makes it painfully clear: we’re out of time. She is the perfect example of the world’s need to not only blame young people for the climate emergency, but also to suggest that our mental instability clouds our judgment and that the world is, in fact, not dying.

Focusing on the mental health crisis facing our generation is a tactic to paint a narrative of ‘youth hysteria,’ suggesting that our opinions are blinded by chemical imbalances and mood disorders, that we exaggerate and cry wolf, that we’re childish and blindsided, that we don’t understand how the stock market works, and that the fossil fuel industry actually saves lives.

Presenting young people as mentally ill places us in a category of uneducated conspiracists, which makes it easier for governments, politicians, and those in power to not only ignore our perspective on the climate crisis, but also to suggest that we have no claim over decisions made regarding the future of our planet, the planet we’re supposedly meant to lead.

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As young people, it’s difficult to separate our collective responsibility to reverse global warming and climate change from our own personal struggles. How can we preserve our mental health and wellbeing when our world is dying? When our perspective on global issues is ignored, it’s hard to not become disillusioned with the systems created and upheld (supposedly) for our benefit.

While Princeton’s choice not to divest is a small decision in comparison with those taken by extremely powerful governments worldwide — notably the United States — as a globally renowned institution currently contributing to the planet’s poisoning, we are complicit in this harmful decision-making. If divestment were not happen a large enough scale by a large number of investors, the market for fossil fuels would eventually collapse. Eventually, investing in a dying industry would become redundant, leading to a relocation of investment into the more sustainable renewable energy industry. Once we have security in a future for our planet and our generation, dealing with the mental health crisis becomes a more feasible aim.

Without small-scale changes, which eventually lead to larger changes, we will be left to lead a dying world. How can we take responsibility for industries we didn’t create, emissions we aren’t responsible for, and decisions we didn’t make? How can we remedy an irreversible situation when we aren’t given that power, or the access to those who do have that power? What are we expected to do with a dying world?

Emilly Santos is a first-year contributing columnist from London, England, planning on concentrating in Physics. Emilly can be reached at emilly.santos@princeton.edu or on Instagram @emillllysantoss.

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