Yesterday, SGO announced the results of the student referendum on fossil fuel divestment. The referendum passed by a landslide: 80.5 percent of voters agreed that Swarthmore College should divest from fossil fuels with 55 percent voter turnout. The results of the referendum demonstrate a clear mandate from the student body for the Board to take action on divestment.
Despite this mandate, President Valerie Smith and Board Chair, Thomas E. Spock ’78, released a statement Wednesday afternoon in which they upheld the Board’s 2015 decision not to divest while ignoring the referendum’s popular support on campus. The Board’s decision to immediately cast aside this referendum and refuse to seriously engage with the issue of divestment in unacceptable, particularly as the fossil fuel industry partners with the Trump administration to push forward climate policies that will threaten millions of lives.
Mountain Justice’s fossil fuel divestment campaign is not the first divestment campaign on Swarthmore’s campus. Swarthmore students began to organize against apartheid in South Africa as early as 1965, and in 1978 they launched a divestment campaign with a petition highlighting the injustices of apartheid, the College’s investments in companies involved in South Africa, and the College’s Quaker values.
The anti-apartheid divestment campaign spanned eleven long years: eleven years of being ignored, sidestepped, and rejected by the Board. Students circulated petitions, staged sit-ins, invited speakers, formed human chains, and slept on Parrish porch. Despite the Board rejecting divestment four times, students and faculty persisted, taking increasingly escalated action, and in 1989 the Board committed to a plan to divest from apartheid by 1990. Due to student efforts, the College finally decided that it was morally and politically unthinkable to continue to support apartheid.
As President Smith and Board Chair Spock cited in their email, following the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board adopted new investment guidelines stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” While we understand that some restraint around using the endowment for social purposes is important, the Board’s blanket rejection of any social concerns with our investments is morally unconscionable. Our investments do not exist in a vacuum. Investing in these companies directly undermines the social and political work the college advocates and pursues both on campus and beyond. Unless the Board thinks that divestment from apartheid was a mistake, their current objection to any divestment proposals is morally and politically inconsistent.
As our “Fossil Fuel Divestment Finances Fact Sheet” points out, our current proposal not only sidesteps the past financial concerns of the Board but could also ultimately serve as a financial boon to the College. Additionally, we find it deeply disturbing that the reasons President Smith and Board Chair Spock cited for ignoring the student referendum — these guidelines as well as previous rejection of fossil fuel divestment — would have prevented the College’s divestment from apartheid had students not persisted. Of course, the system of apartheid in South Africa and the fossil fuel industry are by no means the same. However, both the apartheid regime and the fossil fuel industry are rogue social actors that pose mortal threats to millions of people.
Today, we stand at a turning point in history on the brink of climate disaster. The devastating effects of climate change cannot be understated: sea levels and temperatures are rising; droughts, floods, and extreme weather patterns are increasing in intensity and frequency; and those most impacted by the crisis — indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities —are met with brutal force and militarized police when they peacefully resist the pipelines, incinerators, and refineries routed through their land and lives.
Despite this increasingly urgent reality, we are rapidly going in the wrong direction. From appointing as Secretary of State the former CEO of Exxon, a company that funded climate denialism and hid the truth from the public for decades, to appointing Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, a man who sued the agency he is now supposed to run over a dozen times during the Obama administration, the Trump administration has made it clear that it cares more about profits than people’s lives and the environment.
Now more than ever, we need institutions like Swarthmore College to be a leader and take action on this urgent issue. Neutrality is no longer an option; continuing to invest in companies that place profit over people, trample indigenous sovereignty, fund climate denialism, and poison our air, water, and land is not a neutral stance.
Nor can action be limited to efforts on our campus. We must stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and revoke their social license to operate. Teaching students about sustainability and adding a carbon charge are important examples of climate action. However, continuing to invest in the very companies that fund climate denialism and lobby Congress to block meaningful climate action ultimately undermines these efforts. By stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, divestment will help create the political will for these other important initiatives.
Believing that it is urgent for Swarthmore to send a powerful moral message in this political moment, we have offered a compromise: our proposal for partial divestment avoids the main concerns, such as a potential loss in financial gains, that the Board has cited in the past. And yet, the Board refuses to listen to the student body, telling us that the situation has not changed in the past two years.
But the situation has changed. Not only does the proposal in the referendum avoid the Board’s previous financial concerns, but a mandate from students and a political situation that demands institutional leadership creates a new imperative for divestment.
The Board has refused to listen to the student body before on matters of divestment. Had students not persisted, the College may never have divested from apartheid in South Africa. Now, like then, we must demand leadership from our institution, or we risk looking back, years down the line, and realizing that we stood on the wrong side of history. We cannot stand idly by and let that happen.