Divestment from fossil fuels promises to bring about a people-powered transition to a sustainable world. Though the atrocities of fossil fuel may seem far from our campus, Vassar’s endowment—like that of so many other institutions—is invested in corporate conglomerates like BP, Exxon, and Halliburton. In order to distance Vassar from oil rigs in the Gulf, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, Vassar must assume the moral imperative to divest.
Divestment is, by nature, a symbolic gesture, a strong statement that Vassar stands against the abuses of the fossil fuel industry: air filled with toxic coal smoke, oil spills on our shores, and catastrophic climate change. Divesting would put Vassar’s money where its heart is and demonstrate a concrete commitment to a healthier planet. Today, oil, coal, and gas companies are among the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet, using their immense resources to mine and drill the earth to extinction. Without divestment, this monolithic fossil fuel apparatus will go on unchallenged and unchanged. Divestment tells the fossil fuel industry that extraction must end.
The point of divestment is not to send economic ripples, but political ripples across the spectrum of U.S. society. In acting with hundreds of colleges across the country, Vassar can shift the global political landscape in order to combat climate change and promote sustainable environments, societies, and economies.
While opponents of divestment may argue that Vassar’s endowment should not be used to make political statements, we must acknowledge that being invested in certain industries is a political statement in itself. The act of investing in fossil fuel companies is a passive statement of assent to the continuing extraction and use of nonrenewable carbon energy; divestment aims to be an active statement of dissent.
Divesting from fossil fuels fits beautifully with Vassar’s progressive tradition. From our founding as a women’s college to our divestment from apartheid in the 1980s, Vassar has never been afraid to challenge the dominant political structures that too often oppress people and the earth. As we look today to fight oppression on and off campus, Vassar should consider divestment as merely one tool among many to combat global systems of inequality.
Perhaps most importantly, divestment is a fight for justice. It brings Vassar students one step closer to the communities that the fossil fuel industry decimates. Though many of us know the abuses of oil, coal, and gas companies firsthand, there are many of us who don’t—and so divestment becomes a means of solidarity with those most exploited. From Shell’s myriad oil spills in Nigeria to the decimation of Canadian First Nations’ land by tar sands extraction, the fossil fuel industry treats local communities and their land as mere vehicles for pollution. On the backs of human beings, the fossil fuel companies gain an ever-increasing profit.
After all, the brunt of the climate crisis will be felt in communities that are already silenced and oppressed. Those with the fewest resources will be hit hardest, exposing vast rifts between the wealthy and the poor. For those marginalized communities at home and abroad, divestment becomes a moral necessity. It is one way of righting the wrongs of a system of wealth that is built on oppression.
Divestment on its own will not end the abuses of the fossil fuel industry, nor stop climate change in its tracks. However, it is a fundamental stepping-stone in the larger fight for justice that seeks to reshape the narrative of climate change around equity and integrate marginalized communities around the globe. The fight against fossil fuels is also one for the voices of the marginalized to be heard and obeyed.
Divesting from fossil fuels is only the spark of a larger social movement against climate change and towards a just, equitable, and sustainable planet. To help move the world into a fossil-free age, and to end the worldwide desecration caused by coal, oil, and gas multinationals, divestment is Vassar’s ethical duty.
—Gabe Dunsmith ‘15 and Erin Boss ‘16 are members of the Vassar Greens.