Divestment: a necessary political statement for Vassar

As a new school year starts, it may be beneficial to reiterate the motivations, ideals and goals of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign here at Vassar College for the incoming students and as a reminder of why we continue this endeavor for the second year.

What is the Divestment Campaign advocating? We are asking the school administration to stop investing our endowment in the fossil fuel industry. We ask this because we believe it is wrong for the school to be financially supporting corporations that make their profits from extracting fossil fuels; the burning of such material causes immense and proven damage to the environment, not to mention the extraction methods themselves. We furthermore see it as hypocritical that the school funds such environmentally-damaging corporations given that we say we are striving for sustainable practices and lower human environmental impact.

The rarefied arguments over investments and endowments can easily obscure what the fundamental situation is. Essentially, the administration has used money donated to Vassar by alumni and other sources to fund companies that extract and burn fossil fuel. And the profits of polluting the environment come back to us as “returns on investments,” which are touted by the administration as vital to the college’s finances. How can we morally accept that our college is partially sustained and financed by profits made from activities that exacerbate global climate change?

The argument most often raised against divestment is that it will negatively impact the college’s financial base, given that stocks in fossil fuel companies are reliable and profitable. However, colleges have divested before—from South Africa, from Darfur—without severe financial consequences.

Furthermore, as Macrae Marran, too, pointed out in his article, “While a complete divestment from fossil fuels might dent our endowment’s short-term income, assuming the capital was invested competently, there is no reason to think that it would have a long-term effect upon the college’s operations.” (The Miscellany News “Impacting environment goes beyond merely divesting from fossil fuels” 9.26.2013) The fossil fuel industry is not the only reliable and profitable investment open to the college. Indeed, in the coming years, profits from fossil fuels may wane as demand shifts away from dirty energy and world governments set caps on how many reserves can be burned.

Other objections have been raised against divestment, some of which were reiterated by Marran. One is that Vassar owns such small percentages of the corporations that it would do no economic harm to them even if we divested completely. Furthermore, even if all colleges and universities in the USA divested from the fossil fuel industry, the impact would be negligible. However, the aim of divestment is not to financially hamper the corporations; it is a political public statement. Countrywide divestment by educational institutions and other organizations—whole cities such as Seattle have divested—would send a strong political message that would discredit the corporations and stand as a powerful indictment of their environmentally destructive practices. It would force the country to address the issue of the fossil fuel industry more seriously, hopefully leading to stronger regulations and spurring legislation for sustainable energy.

Another counter-argument formed the basis of the lecture given last year by Board of Trustees member Christianna A. Wood ’81. It goes that Vassar College should be using the power it has as shareholders in fossil fuel corporations to vote for measures that make the company more sustainable. This argument neglects the fact that Vassar has as weak a voice in a corporation as the economic impact it would make if we divested.

Though those who charge we will be giving up our “power” to change a corporation from the inside often pair their argument with how negligible divestment’s economic impact would be, they seem to rarely make the connection that with few shares of a corporation come few votes in its decisions.

The fact is that we have basically no voice and no ability to push through any radical reformation that would uproot the entire basis of a fossil fuel corporation—that is, stop it from extracting coal, oil, gas, etc. It is surely more realistic to divest and reinvest in existing renewable energy companies than trying to engineer a U-turn, transforming a gas company into a wind turbine manufacturer. After all, we do not want to have “slightly better” coal mining companies where we’ve miraculously voted in a few minor reforms. We want there to be no coal mining or burning at all.

At Vassar we speak often about “systemic changes.” Does divestment not target the system that fuels environmental destruction? It would certainly make an impact if the world stopped buying fossil fuel energy and completely switched to renewable. But analysis has long established that corporations shape public opinion and consumer practices to their profit, not the other way around.

Moreover, there is no possible way people could all make the switch right now. There aren’t enough renewable energy generators, nor is there sufficient infrastructure to get that power to everyone; not in the USA, nor in the rest of the world.

Through slow government action and fossil fuel industry obstruction, among other reasons, this country is technically incapable of making such a switch, even if all consumers wanted. And if consumers can’t make a switch, how will they exercise their supposed powers to affect the market?

The political statement divestment would send is precisely one of the ways we can make that choice available to all by undermining the industry, pressuring government legislation, and, yes, changing public opinion.

The public is not unanimously in support of renewable energy, and seeing institutions divest will contribute to changing it. Perhaps then everyone will want renewable energy instead of the cheapest option. Divestment may be a symbolic gesture, but as the modern era—our era of images—has taught us, symbols can be immensely powerful.

Finally, divestment is not in any way exclusive of other efforts to create a sustainable future. We can divest and use fewer resources. We can divest and drive fewer cars. We can divest and compost our waste. We can divest and recycle. We can divest and install solar panels. We can divest and become a carbon neutral campus. We can divest and buy our power from renewable sources. But we can and must divest.

 

—Martin Man ’16 is a student at Vassar College.

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