The call for divestment from the fossil fuel industry is reverberating stronger than ever at Vassar College. In 2016, 91 percent of Vassar students voted in favor of divestment, yet the trustees at Vassar have dismissed three separate divestment proposals in the last few years for various reasons. While I will leave the policymakers at Vassar to make their own informed decision, I can’t help but feel dismay that my beautiful college continues to fund an industry that puts me, my country and its people in an existential crisis––a crisis not just approaching in the near future, but one that is ravaging millions of lives right now.
While Vassar students debate with fervent conviction the very real threats the fossil fuel industry poses to our beloved planet’s future, to me it is more personal, more frustrating, more disappointing. My home country Bangladesh, with over 160 million people, is one of the worst-affected by the climate crisis. Bangladeshis are feeling the brunt of the West’s disproportionately high contribution to man-made climate change. Just this year, a third of my country was underwater, displacing millions and leaving millions more people wondering when they would get their next meal or when they would have clean water to drink. The future many of my Vassar friends are so afraid of is already the reality my people in Bangladesh experience daily. Their struggle goes unreported, their cries never cross the Atlantic.
I am deeply appreciative of all Vassar College has provided for me. Vassar has given me a community outside of Bangladesh that not only allows me to celebrate my distinct Bengali Muslim identity, but has also allowed me to forge relationships with people and ideologies from all over the world. I have taken classes from History to Economics to Film to Psychology––a wide range of academic interests almost impossible to pursue anywhere in Bangladesh. I attended riveting jazz concerts in Skinner Hall and ardently listened to lectures on existentialism in Rockefeller Hall. Vassar has given me the best education I could have received with my means and abilities and has opened doors for me that I did not even know existed. When the U.S. Embassy at Dhaka refused to provide me a student visa and wanted to do additional background checks prior to my matriculation at Vassar, the International Director at Vassar, Andrew Meade, frequently checked up on me and assured me that there would be a place for me at Vassar no matter what. And then a month after I set foot on campus, I read with horror about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas just across my country’s border and how my Prime Minister, against any economic sense but only on humanitarian grounds, embraced nearly a million refugees in my already impoverished country. The college’s then-newly minted President Bradley hosted me and three other friends in her house with tea and biscuits and conversed with us on how to shed much-needed light on the issues surrounding the Rohingya people and my country, Bangladesh, to the greater Vassar community. I was sure then and I am sure now of Vassar College’s unwavering commitment to its international students and its distinct effort to create global citizens in an increasingly polarized world.
Today, Vassar’s refusal to listen to its students and take a leading role in the fight against climate crisis feels like a blatant betrayal to the very beliefs fostered on campus. The climate crisis is not a mere “social issue”––it is a global existential threat. And any argument that such divestment of Vassar’s large endowment is not economically feasible can be easily disputed. Fossil fuels are no longer a sure-fire investment and sustainable investments are now the more economically viable option. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management company, called sustainability its “new standard,” while companies like Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Starbucks all made sustainable investments their most important goals of this decade. Most interestingly, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund came out in support of the divestment campaign––a family with deep ties to both Vassar College and the Standard Oil company. Vassar SEED has created a detailed report offering compelling arguments for divestment considering the increasing volatility of fossil fuel companies, and it is without question that sustainable alternative investment opportunities can be found with greater research and analysis. In fact, Vassar could go a step further to show its support for climate crisis-affected people by making relatively small investments in sustainable energy in countries like Bangladesh, which are leading the charge in combating climate change.
Just like Vassar, my country is breathtakingly beautiful, and adorned with large-hearted people who will welcome you with open arms and limited resources regardless of your creed, color, religion. It is a country with a deep-seated relationship with its nature. When we stand for our national anthem, we profess our love for our blue skies and rich air. When our boatmen venture out in our beautiful rivers, they sing Bhatiyali songs––a timeless folk culture that unites the waters and my people.
To me, even a single penny of Vassar’s $1 billion endowment that goes to the fossil fuel industry is not for financial support for the college’s academic goals but is a penny towards my country and the current death warrant against its people. It is a rebuke to my childhood teacher who lost his home to the rising water level in the Meghna river. It is a rebuke to hundreds of hungry kids I met in Sunamganj––made possible by the climate crisis––just one month prior to coming to Vassar.
A penny for the fossil fuel industry is a penny against my existence. And for that reason, my college must divest now.