Like particles in a super collider, opposing forces of American culture smashed together this past weekend on a historic football field in Connecticut. And like a physics experiment, the resulting impact shed light on the state of the country and provides us all with a ready framed discussion for the Thanksgiving weekend.
At halftime of the 136th annual Harvard-Yale football game, arguably the oldest sports rivalry in the country, a few hundred student demonstrators took to the field carrying banners demanding “Climate Justice.” They squatted at midfield and vowed not to move until both universities committed to divest their multi-billion dollar endowments from fossil fuel companies. (After the incident some student organizers clarified that their ultimate goal is the banning of fossil fuel production and consumption).
Although scores of local police were on the field, no moves were taken to force the students to leave. Play was delayed for 48 minutes while school administrators, wary no doubt of an ugly televised scene, tried to work out a deal to get the kids off the field peacefully. The stakes were high. Although the Ivy League has long lost its position at the center of the sports world, the Harvard-Yale Game nevertheless means a lot of things to a lot of people.
While few, if any, of the players on the field are destined for the NFL, they are athletes of talent and accomplishment. For the seniors on the field, the game most likely represented the crowning moment in years of dedication and grueling physical conditioning. While their athletic abilities certainly eased their admissions, Ivy League athletes do not enjoy the sham academic pathways that exist for players in the powerhouse conferences. In other words, the players worked hard and sacrificed much to be on the field that day.
Similarly many in the stands, came to the game out of tradition, school spirit, family connections, or all three. Many traveled from across the country, or around the world to experience a uniquely American spectacle that hasn’t changed much in nearly a century and a half.
In fact, nostalgia played an unwitting role in the drama. Unlike nearly all facilities that host major sporting events today, the Yale Bowl, completed in 1914 (my grandfather worked on the construction), has no lights for night games. That meant the game would have to end no later than 4:45 pm, when darkness descends completely in a New England November. Typically the game would have been over at 3:30 pm at the latest. A delay of more than an hour could push the game into darkness, requiring a cancellation. A tie resulting in overtime, would invite even more difficulties. Since the game had direct implications for the Ivy League championship, an incomplete game could cause major headaches on many levels.
Knowing all of this, Yale administrators hit the field to plead their case to the chanting protesters locking arms on the turf.
A quick look at the instigators revealed a familiar profile: fresh-faced well-spoken suburbanites animated by the righteous spirit of climate catastrophe. Based on the idea that if humanity does not drastically reduce carbon emissions within the next 10 years the world will be plunged into an irreversible greenhouse gas cycle that will render the planet uninhabitable, the protesters saw the game as a perfect public relations opportunity. How better to speak truth to power than to interrupt the trivial traditions of the elite oligarchy? Nothing would demonstrate more clearly the courage and conviction of the protesters, and the brutal venality of an oppressive system, than televised images of peaceful activists, concerned solely for the life of the planet, being carried off by police just so the polluters could enjoy their gladiatorial pageantry?
As it turned out, most of the protesters vanished when the possibility of arrest was made explicit. But a hard core of more than 3 dozen refused. They came to be arrested, and they would not be denied their merit badges. But realizing that it would take more time than was available to delicately carry off the protesters, administrators had to promise that protesters would have the honor of a real arrest after they left the field peacefully. Fortunately they took the deal, and walked off, fists in their air, escorted by police.
To take the side of the protesters, is not disruption in the pleasures of day to day life not only justifiable but necessary in the face of a life and death struggle? Like blowing up the train tracks heading to Auschwitz? The protesters like to think so. But are those really the stakes here?
While there can be little doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change, the predictions as to timelines and vicious cycles are widely divergent even among scientists who firmly believe in global warming. Predicting exactly how and when the climate will change, and how human technology will develop to address the problem, is nearly impossible. However imagining the immediate results that would ensue if fossil fuel production ceased abruptly is easy: the country would be plunged into a pre-Industrial age with pre-industrial life styles. I doubt the protesters have spared a thought for what that could look like.
Despite the tremendous gains that have been made in recent years in renewable energy technology, more than 90% of the world’s energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels. The energy is not just used in cars and airplanes, but also to heat and cool our homes and to make and distribute all the products and services that make our lives easier.
Industry is working hard to find renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels (other than clean and reliable nuclear power which the left doesn’t like for purely arbitrary reasons) but the solutions are not easy and progress is steady but slow.
Contrary to the activists imagination, fossil fuel companies don’t want to pump oil and gas. They want to make money. They do so by drilling and pumping. If they could make money without drilling and pumping they would be thrilled. In our system, those who can figure out how renewable energy can be realistically produced and efficiently stored in a manner that meets our needs will be rewarded with ALL the money. The riches that would flow from such breakthroughs will dwarf the fortunes made by the tech billionaires. The companies want to get there, but the technology is difficult and progress is slow, but steady.
But what would the country look like with 90% less energy? First off, air, auto and rail travel would become a thing of the past. We could still get around by walking, biking and sailing (like Saint Greta). But going more than 50 miles away from where you are would essentially be out of the question. 90% less energy also means far less transportation for food and goods. No petroleum means no plastics and no ability to forge metal. So kiss goodbye that alloyed bicycle. It also means almost no heating and cooling…and don’t think about burning wood because that releases more carbon than natural gas. In short, we would live like our great great grandparents. Ice cream and hot showers will become luxuries again. I guarantee that no one will be happy about that.
And even if the United States did decide to commit industrial suicide in order to “lead the world,” it is delusional to believe that India, China, and the rest of the developing world will follow suit. They have never enjoyed the prosperity that the students at Harvard and Yale want all of us to discard so casually. So their plans would only insure that the U.S falls into irrelevance as the rest of the world develops.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The protesters left the field and the game resumed. And while I don’t believe in divine intervention, sometimes you have to wonder.
The fourth quarter was the stuff of legend. Trailing by 17 with just 9 minutes to play, Yale mounted a dramatic comeback that featured two fourth down conversions, an onside kick recovery, and a last second touchdown to tie the game and send it to overtime as twilight descended. With television cameras straining to catch the action in near darkness, the teams battled until the last possible second when Yale stopped Harvard on a fourth and four to secure a dazzling 50-43 victory. Immediately the game was called the best in the history of the series, and that includes the legendary “Harvard beats Yale 29-29” game.
The incident showed a contrast between those who think that American traditions are worth celebrating and preserving and those who think those traditions need to die, so that a better, more inclusive, America can emerge.
In an interview after the game, one of the leaders of the protest said that they knew that their actions would be controversial and disruptive but that it was “a sacrifice they were willing to make.” But given that the protesters were not heavily invested in the game itself, or the interests of people who played or watched it, would it not be more accurate to say that it was a sacrifice that they were prepared to impose on others?
Wouldn’t an actual sacrifice involve living with the severely diminished energy usage that they are demanding? In my opinion, real leadership is accomplished through example, not moral shaming. As they fly home for the holiday in a commercial jet that spews more carbon in a minute than a third world family produces in a year, I would ask them to practice what they preach. Then we can talk.
Like it or not a culture is defined largely by its celebrations. Without some common celebrations, our bonds diminish. The Harvard-Yale game may not seem that important to many, but as the first flowering of our nation’s sports culture, it is ingrained in our DNA. When families get together for the holidays they take out the shoe box full of old pictures. They sit together and think about the way things used to be. One of those pictures has a couple with wire glasses and raccoon coats, standing by a Model T, waving pennants.