Fossil Fuel Divestment

I’ll admit my bias up front rather than pretend I don’t have one: I’m part of this campaign, which indicates already that I find it both persuasive and important. This piece of journalism will not be a neutral evaluation of every viewpoint (no piece of journalism is): it will instead seek to demonstrate the urgency of reacting to global climate change now and how a fossil fuel divestment campaign at Dartmouth fits into the scheme of a good reaction.

It’s true that the earth periodically undergoes ice ages; it’s also true that we are not currently in an ice age, which means that (assuming that the earth continues in the same pattern, which isn’t necessarily a valid assumption but also not one necessary for this argument) we are between ice ages. There. Look. I admitted that the earth has gone through cycles even without humans present upon it. However, humans do happen to be present upon it at this time, and we are not a factor to be ignored. What this means is that we have an effect upon the planet on which we live and that planet has an effect upon us. My argument will proceed upon the value-judgment that the non-racist, non-imperialist, non-classist survival of the human species is good. If you’d like to argue with me here, I welcome intellectual dialogue with you.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that, “heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase” (Klein, “Capitalism vs. Climate”). Thirteen thousand nine hundred fifty peer-reviewed articles since 1991 confirm anthropogenic climate change while only twenty-four do not – it’s hardly a matter of attaining consensus at this point. This last decade was the hottest on record. Drought is decreasing the area of arable land, further excuse for genetic modification companies to bankrupt farmers. Sea levels are rising, causing devastating floods in countries that cannot afford complex levees, most of which have suffered from and continue to suffer from imperialist exploitation. Weather worldwide is becoming more extreme–hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy being only three examples – and the people most negatively affected by such weather are those without a financial safety net..

Buying greener products clearly isn’t going to cut it; capitalism, a system that prioritizes profit over people and the planet, is driving global exploitation of resources, and they’re running out. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, writes in her article “Capitalism vs. Climate”: “The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover—we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally.”

Even if you’re not yet a proponent of the end of capitalism, climate change is going to affect you – whether you’re rich or not, white or not, American or not. Annie Laurie Mauhs-Pugh ’14 explains, “Our goal is to work and learn with the entire Dartmouth community. This is a campaign about our futures – all our futures. It is intrinsically intertwined with global health, social justice, environmental issues, economic sustainability, and much more. I invite the entire campus to join us in the learning process as we investigate the nature of investment, climate change, and our best path forward.”

A humanly inhabitable planet will affect all of our futures. In the words of Morgan Curtis ’14, “This isn’t a fight we’re fighting for the ‘environment’ – this is a fight we’re fighting for you, and me, and the global community.” This is why students all over the country and in various parts of the world are taking action to get their schools to divest from fossil fuels. Curtis continues, “We’re living in a way that is destructive to our own futures, and there’s a growing movement leading us in how to not do so. The divestment campaign is part of that movement.”

Divesting from the two hundred companies that own the majority of privately held coal, oil, and natural gas reserves is one strategy to work against the urgent threat of climate change. Divestment would make, according to Mauhs-Pugh, “a public, dramatic statement that our educational institutions do not support the use of fossil fuels beyond our allotted ‘budget,’” as well as reduce the huge clout these companies have in D.C. through demonstrating lack of public support for them and providing “policy makers with a ‘policy window’ to act in a just and sustainable way.” Additionally, divestment would help to ensure that our communities – our own funds and institution – are doing as much as possible to provide for our collective future. As Mauhs-Pugh urges, climate change is real: “It has already damaged the lives of people all over the globe; it threatens the existence of the world’s most vulnerable populations, it threatens the landscape that I grew up in and love.  And we can do something about it.  This campaign is the most tangible way available to create large scale change and slow the effects of climate change.”

Meanwhile Justin Anderson, Dartmouth’s Director of Media Relations, demonstrates that the college, currently, takes a different approach: “Dartmouth does invest in fossil fuel companies. It’s important to point out that we believe a very effective way to make fossil fuel companies more environmentally accountable, while also acting in the best financial interest of the institution, is for Dartmouth to use its status as a shareholder to vote for “green” shareholder resolutions, such as those that call for sustainability reporting and strategies that lower companies’ carbon emissions and boost clean energy efforts.” He does, however, attest, “it’s important to know at the outset that promoting sustainability is a vital component of how Dartmouth operates as an institution” and cites several campus initiatives such as the “Platinum LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the top honor for energy- efficient and sustainable building practices” for the new Life Sciences Center, Dartmouth’s fifth LEED-certified building, as well as campus waste centralisation.

Campaigns have kicked off at Brown and Harvard; five Middlebury students sent out an email from a fake administrator claiming plans for divestment from arms and fossil fuels; Unity and Hampshire have taken positive stances to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy. Why isn’t Dartmouth on the bandwagon?

Dartmouth students are on the bandwagon, though Amalia Siegel ’16 cautions, “we are really trying to take the time to think over and develop our campaign’s goals, objectives, and tactics. We realize that this is a complex issue and that there are a lot of factors to take into account. Therefore, we are trying not to jump headlong into it without considering all of the complexities of the issue. We want the administration and the public to know exactly what we are asking before we put out any statements about our demands.” Leehi Yona ’16 adds that members of the campaign look forward to positive interactions with the administration and board of trustees.

As the Radical’s own adviser Jeff Sharlet has pointed out, divestment campaigns can be seen to endorse capitalism by indicating that consumer choice is the most effective means of driving change. However, like campaigns that involve fair contract negotiations, unions, or redistribution of wealth pre-distributed by capitalist systems, they also provide opportunity for the development of the critical, radical consciousness that opposes capitalism.

Of course, Dartmouth’s actions would be more in line with its mission statement including responsible leadership by ceasing to invest in companies that make our planet humanly inhabitable, and this indeed seems a goal of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. We should also note that these campaigns at institutions of higher education will put climate change at the forefront of the minds of a generation of college students.. Yona emphasizes that this “challenge of our generation transcends all borders” and that it isn’t merely a campaign for Dartmouth – it should also bring climate change to the attention of legislators.

Leftists: get on board: climate change is the most irrefutable evidence that capitalism isn’t working.

Environmentalists: it’s time you acknowledged that you’re radicals.

Everyone else: you live on this planet too. You should probably make sure our children’s children can too.

Mauhs-Pugh notes, “we move forward with humility. If you have suggestions or critiques, we welcome them. Nonetheless, we cannot remain bound up in second guessing forever. It must be with humility and hope that we look towards the future.”

Get involved: email

-anna winham


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