Fossil Fuel Divestment: Good for Smith, Good for the World?

1 Nov
Last Friday, CEEDS hosted the first in what will be a series of campus community discussions about Fossil Fuel Divestment. The series, inspired by the positive experiences of CEEDS-led faculty learning circles about the Deep Water Horizon disaster and sustainable food, is being planned similarly– with each gathering building on the next, following the threads of shared conversation and questions raised by participants. The goal of this first event was to lay the groundwork for the longer conversation, and since it was students in the Divest Smith College (DSC) org who have proposed that the College divest, it made sense that they should be the ones to help frame the issue. After a welcome by CEEDS Faculty Fellow James Lowenthal, members of DSC gave a 15 minute presentation about some of the the dangers of fossil fuels, the history of divestment and its place at Smith, and why DSC students believe that fossil fuel industry divestment is the right choice for the College. The presentation was followed by 20 minute round table discussions (facilitated by members of DSC) with the approximately 100 attendees.   

IMG_1668Divest Smith College students set the stage…  IMG_1680                          for the community conversation                          

I first heard about divestment from fossil fuels a little under a year ago in my micro economics class, when one of my classmates mentioned the movement in a discussion about economics and the environment. What prompted me to follow up with her afterwards, and eventually become involved in the movement myself, was the incredibly exciting notion that environmental activism is not just about recycling, light bulbs, and sustainable food (though those things are very important!). It is also about the corporate world, it is about assets, and about where we put our money. Fossil fuel companies inflict immeasurable damage on not only the environment, but also on people. This damage is observable in every stage in the life of fossil fuels: through extraction, processing, to the use of coal, oil, and natural gas. These effects are not only felt by the people and the environments of these extraction communities, but by everybody, in every area of the world. It is becoming increasingly difficult to escape the realities of climate change, and it will become more difficult as time goes on.

The Responsible Endowments Coalition defines divestment as “the act of selling all of one’s shares of a given company or type of asset for an explicit political or social reason”. College and university endowments are like savings accounts, and their operating budget is made up in part by the returns on the endowment investments. If Smith College were to divest from fossil fuels, that would mean selling the portion of our endowment that is invested in fossil fuel companies, making a public statement that Smith does not support their activities. Students at Smith began the divestment campaign about a year ago, at the time joining just a handful of schools in the effort. There are currently about 400 campaigns on college campuses around the world (most in the U.S.), and a number of organizations and cities that are also involved. Some of the schools/cities/organizations that have already committed to fossil fuel divestment are:

  • The City of Northampton (MA)
  • Hampshire College
  • The United Church of Christ
  • The City of San Francisco (CA)
  • Green Mountain College
  • The City of Madison (WI)
  • The City of Boulder (CO)
  • Unity College

Some key points about divestment and Smith College:

  • Smith is not new to divestment. The college has previously divested its endowment from Apartheid South Africa, the tobacco industry, and Sudan.
  • In 2010, Smith committed to being carbon neutral by 2030. The plan is called SCAMP (Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan) and is part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Greening the college’s endowment through fossil fuel divestment would fit perfectly into this already exisiting campus sustainability commitment.
  • The goal of divesting the College from fossil fuels would not be to financially harm the fossil fuel industry- college endowment investments in the industry are not nearly large enough to financially harm them in the slightest. The goal is to revoke their social license and stigmatize their harmful practices through a financially-minded campaign, much like was done to the tobacco industry 20 years ago.

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As a member of Divest Smith College, I was incredibly pleased with the results of this event. This is not because I believe that as a result of this single event that our new President and the Board of Trustees will necessarily decide to divest, but because it brought attention to the issue here on campus. I have heard more discussion about divestment from individuals not directly involved with the effort than ever before. Students, their family members, faculty and staff are asking questions. They want to know more. It brought attention to not only the issue of fossil fuel divestment, but to the question of sustainability in general. As more students and faculty pay attention to the ramifications of the College’s decisions and actions, the more they will pay attention to their own. This is incredibly important because we don’t really have a choice anymore. For the sake of human health and well being around the world, big changes need to be made. Whether the college decides to divest from fossil fuels or not, this movement as a whole makes a statement : every day, more and more people around the country and around the world are thinking about the impact of their decisions – food, transportation, housing, purchases, and investments – and how they can use the power of these decisions to positively impact the world. Because these positive decisions, to be perfectly honest, are our only chance.

-Savannah Holden, ’16

To learn more: come to a Divest Smith College weekly meeting (email sholden@smith.edu for more info) and check out the links below! 

http://gofossilfree.org/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/08/campaign-against-fossil-fuel-growing

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/07/29/divesting-from-fossil-fuels-means-a-cleaner-safer-and-more-resilient-future/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/global/the-climate-change-endgame.html

http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2013/05/16/after-bubbles-in-dotcoms-and-housing-heres-the-carbon-bubble/?mod=e2tw&mg=blogs-wsj&url=http%253A%252F%252Fblogs.wsj.com%252Fcorporate-intelligence%252F2013%252F05%252F16%252Fafter-bubbles-in-dotcoms-and-housing-heres-the-carbon-bubble%253Fmod%253De2tw

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