New England Students Protest Their Schools' Investments in Fossil Fuels
Cambridge, Mass. - About 150 students from at least 10 New England universities assembled at Harvard Sunday to call on their schools to yank their investments in fossil fuel companies.
The rally—part of a nationwide effort to escalate the university divestment movement following rejections from a number of university administrations—peaked with the drop of two large banners off the Weeks Footbridge in Cambridge, and ended with actions and delivery of a joint letter at individual universities. Harvard students, for example, rallied on campus and Tufts students made a visit to university President Anthony Monaco’s house to do some climate-themed caroling.
“We’re going to have to escalate our tactics to the point that siding with us becomes the more convenient option,” said Harvard Divinity School student and climate activist Tim DeChristopher, speaking at the rally. “The goal of this campaign has to be to make sure that condemning our generation to an unlivable future will never be the convenient choice. There should be nothing convenient about that whatsoever.”
The divest movement is a nationwide effort to attack the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry, attempting to make stock holdings in oil, gas and coal companies toxic, following the footsteps of earlier divestment campaigns against apartheid and the tobacco industry. Organized loosely by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, campaigns encourage institutions like universities, churches, and local governments to pull their investments from these companies. Divest Harvard has been in the spotlight because its huge $30 billion endowment, the largest of any university in the world, would be a major blow, symbolically at the very least.
According to 350.org, eight schools have committed to divest, as have 22 cities including Cambridge and Amherst. But many other campus campaigns have received firm rejections from their administrations, including Harvard, Brown University and Boston College, prompting the rallies Sunday.
Participating schools delivered to their administrations a joint letter, more or less rejecting their rejections:
“The stakes are too high. No is just a sign to escalate our tactics. No is just the motivator we need to build our power until there's no option but yes. And we will not stop until the false choice between investing in immoral assets and our thriving institutions is smashed. We won’t stop until our campuses have divested from fossil fuels.”
Rallying at the Footbridge were students from Harvard, but also Northeastern, Brandeis, Boston College, Boston University, Wellesley, Tufts, MIT, Olin and Lesley.
Campuses rejecting the idea have cited that divestment could have the effect of weakening a university’s financial power, strength as an educational institution and even the ability to otherwise engage with companies in the fight against climate change. As Nan Keohane, member of the Harvard Corporation who has met with Divest Harvard members, told the students in a letter in the spring:
“I want to underscore my sense that divestment could well have the practical effect of diminishing the University’s ability to engage and influence companies constructively in regard to matters of renewable energy and environmental sustainability,”
But for those in the divest movement, sticking with investments in fossil fuels equates to hypocrisy, and lining up on the wrong side of history as climate change worsens.
“We need to let them know that despite how uneven the power system looks right now, despite how risky it would seem to join us in this campaign, that our generation is taking names,” said DeChristopher, who spent more than a year in prison for disrupting an oil and gas land lease auction. “And that we will never forget to honor those that stood by us despite the odds, and we will remember with disgrace those who cowered in the face of entrenched power.”
One notable trait of the divest movement and 350.org is, in contrast to campaigns to encourage lifestyle changes or even to pass climate legislation, the message is about aggressively going after and publicly assigning blame to the oil, gas and coal companies. Rather than talk of solar panels and wind turbines, they speak of immoral business models and complicity in global catastrophe.
For example, Wellesley student Ashley Funk shared her own reasons for backing the campaign at the rally, explaining that she grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania and saw firsthand how coal mining devastated her hometown.
“A lot of the time, we feel like we need to do these individual things, like reduce our carbon footprint and recycle, but that’s just placing the blame on the consumer, that’s placing the blame on us, and it’s not our fault. It’s not my fault that I grew up in a community that was trashed by the fossil fuel companies.”