When Jacob Hershman (C’20) was fourteen, he was pretty sure that the world was going to end on December 21st, 2012.
“I was preparing to die,” Jacob says. “At least I got to see the first couple of months of high school. I thought, ‘I’m not going to get anything other than that.’”
But despite Jacob's deep existential certainty, doomsday didn’t arrive on December 21st. The day came and went.
“I just woke up,” he admits. “I just woke up the next day. And went on.”
Jacob has been “attuned to the certainty of destruction” since he was nine or ten years old, after seeing an exhibit in the Museum of Natural History about galactic collisions. Jacob loves astronomy; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is one of his favorite books. He also likes the show River Monsters and reveres the Grateful Dead (he has a tattoo of the band’s “Steal Your Face” logo). He has a major in English, a minor in philosophy, and five facial piercings.
And although his life did not end in 2012, Jacob still feels like he’s “living this undead sort of post–life projection.” He thinks about the possibility of meteor impacts every day.
To Jacob, the 2012 apocalypse was supposed to be “life–ending" or “planet–ending,” but the rest of the universe ought to go about its cosmic business as usual. That’s a relief for him, not a curse. It was comforting that matter would continue to exist beyond the limits of his own planet, considering the advent and inevitability of catastrophic global climate change.
As a campaign coordinator for Fossil Free Penn, Jacob played an instrumental role in the planning and execution of the protest calling for Penn’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry that shut down a Board of Trustees meeting in November. It was at this protest that a Board member told a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter that he was in the fossil fuel industry. According to Jacob, that’s exactly the problem at hand. If members of the Board have a personal stake in fossil fuels, what interest could they have in divestment?
Over 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is not only real but also the direct result of human actions. Jacob feels a strong moral obligation to do anything he can to stop this encroaching disaster, one that is already wreaking global havoc, from completely shattering human reality. He knows what it’s like to feel that the end is coming, but it seems as if the rest of the world can’t grasp the severity of the disaster.
“You have to be completely imbecilic to think nothing can ever happen that will completely shake the foundations of this world that you think you understand. Like an asteroid. Or someone dying. Or some freak accident. And then there’s climate change, which is like that, to the tenth. That, to the hundredth.”
The world Jacob wants to save is a beautiful one. It has iridescent blue tree swallows that sit meditatively in birdhouses in Philly's Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. It has Van Pelt Library, which holds carrels where Jacob wrote a found poem with words taken from the spines of books. It has the Grateful Dead club, a vestige of Jacob’s legacy at the high school he attended, and it has the works of T. S. Eliot. It has the catharsis of Judaism and the reboot of Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It has Lucy Corlett.
Jacob feels he must always try "to scale the great heights of the human emotional experience.”
His universe is as gorgeous as it is fragile, but to him, the thin glass of his reality has already splintered into pieces. He paraphrases a Buddhist saying: don’t worry about precious things breaking, because once you come to terms with this sacrifice, some of the fear and anxiety surrounding the loss is alleviated.
He doesn’t have to be good at this sort of thinking, Jacob claims, because there is no way for him to escape it. That doesn’t detract from the necessity of living, though. It is in these things like the tree swallows and Grateful Dead music and poetry that Jacob says he can find meaning.
“I only am trying to save the world because ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was written," Jacob says, his tone entirely serious, but carrying a private levity. "If it hadn’t been..." He smiles. "Well, I wouldn’t give a fuck.”
At Fossil Free Penn’s November protest, Jacob screamed for over thirty straight minutes. He wept openly. He grew so exhausted that he lost his voice entirely and for some time could not produce a single sound. But when he could no longer yell, he found that the noise his fellow activists was making was no quieter.
“The notion that my voice was bigger and that they needed me and that the moment required me, personally, to be involved, couldn’t have been less of the case,” Jacob says. “My voice was an important contribution, like everyone else’s, but the collective voice was so much more powerful.”
The community Jacob fostered among the members of Fossil Free Penn was so tight–knit that most of those participants in the November protest chose to risk arrest and to be arrested should the circumstances become so extreme. When he was in the same room as the Board of Trustees—and dozens of others willing to go to jail for their cause—if someone’s voice fell silent from exhaustion or emotion, everyone else picked up the slack without thinking.
“In this infinite cycle of moments, everyone was supporting one another in a million different ways,” he says. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”