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Engaging to Disengage: Mark Wallace Inaugurates the Faculty Fast for Divestment

in Campus Journal by

When Professor Mark Wallace first came to Swarthmore, he introduced one of the first environmental studies courses into the religion department curriculum: “Religion and Ecology”, a course he still teaches today. Recently, in keeping with the widespread darkening of our environmental future, he has added a new course offering that also pairs religious and environmental thought — a first-year seminar on the apocalypse.

Deeply inspired by Bill McKibben’s book, “The End of Nature,” when he encountered it in the early nineties, Wallace’s involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement at Swarthmore since its inception has largely been spurred by an awareness of impending cataclysm. This sense of urgency also motivated Wallace’s decision to begin a weeklong fast this past Monday in order to express his concern about the Board of Managers’ refusal to divest from fossil fuels. As outlined in a campus-wide email sent by Professor Lee Smithey on April 20, Wallace will be the first of three faculty members who will fast until the Board meets in early May. At this meeting, President Smith has promised to introduce the results of the student referendum to overturn the college’s 1991 ban against considering social impacts when investing the endowment, which passed with 87 percent student support.

The timing seemed coincidental — Smithey announced the faculty action less than a week after prominent gay rights attorney David Buckel had committed suicide by self-immolation in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in protest of the fossil fuel industry. Though obviously of vastly differing scales, there seemed to be a certain shared physicality to the protests.

“There is some continuity between self-immolation and practicing a bodily discipline where you don’t take food,” said Wallace when I brought up the incident. “It’s a way of signaling to yourself and to others how dire the circumstances are.”

However, when I met with Wallace for an interview on the first day of his fast, the end of the world seemed far away. The weather was perfect, and Wallace and Smithey sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs in front of Parrish, where there had been a small student rally for divestment. The two professors had hosted office hours outside of Parrish, talking to anyone who stopped by about divestment at Swarthmore and beyond, and the future of the fossil fuel industry more broadly. When I walked over, Wallace and Smithey had already been there for several hours but remained deep in discussion, integrating me into the conversation without missing a beat.

While we were in the middle of discussing why the administration refuses to divest, Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown suddenly emerged from Parrish and walked down the front steps, passing between Wallace and Smithey. The greetings exchanged on both sides were only slightly tense.

This moment drove home a sense that activism at Swarthmore is a family affair. Faculty are protesting the actions of people they know and work with every day, which makes the stakes feel a bit higher. Yet it also seemed like a moment of Quaker interchange: unflinching but civil disagreement.

Later, in describing his reasons for fasting, Wallace repeatedly situated his actions within the Quaker tradition of nonviolent social protest and expressed his feeling that the college had strayed from its roots.

“I want to put pressure on the college to square its investment policy with its social values. I don’t think there should be some aspect of the college’s common life in which we take social responsibility off the table,” he said.

He went on to note that almost any action supporting sustainability — such as installing a green roof — will have a certain financial cost, but taking such actions remains an important part of our role as environmental stewards.

“We’re at a time in our history where climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels is an existential threat to the future of the planet,” he continued. “If we don’t integrate that concern into all aspects of the college, we run the risk of living an incoherent and contradictory life, together.”

Wallace clarified the terms of his fast, as several students had expressed confusion to him about the fast.  He isn’t going on a hunger strike, which would mean refusing to eat until the college agrees to divest.

“I might be dead if that were the case,” he said, chuckling.

Rather, he will simply abstain from any sort of food for a week, only drinking water. Wallace has fasted for periods of one or two weeks throughout his life, but always as part of a private, spiritual practice. Yet he feels that there is a natural continuity between his personal and public fasting.

“This is also a kind of spiritual, symbolic protest,” he said. “It’s a way of saying I’m withdrawing from food because I want the college to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry, so I’m going to symbolically engage in this ritual because I want the college to disengage from an industry that’s destroying the planet.”

For Wallace, fasting serves both to symbolically enact the sort of abstention that he believes is necessary for the college to display as well as to symbolize and connect with the suffering caused by climate change and environmental degradation.

“In times when I’m undergoing a painful transition, I find that fasting helps me to bring into myself the suffering that I’m feeling and to hold it without the distraction of food, and that’s kind of how I think of this personally — we need to quickly transition to a fossil-free renewable economy, and Swarthmore College refuses to do that. I think of fasting as a kind of self-imposed suffering — I want to connect with the suffering of others, and through this very mild suffering I am undergoing this week, all of us become more cognizant of our complicity with a toxic industry.”

When asked about the reception of the fast from students and administration, Wallace was circumspect.

“I think there is a large number, probably a majority, of students who share my deep, existential terror at the prospect of continuing climate catastrophe. I’d say there’s a minority of faculty and board members who share that concern to the point that they think we need to divest from fossil fuels, and so tragically, this debate is in part a generational debate. My generation is spending the capital that your generation is going to need to live a healthy future.”

I asked what his response is to critics who argue that divestment is a merely symbolic tactic.

“To me it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “It’s one of the many tactics that we can use to attach a social stigma to the fossil fuel industry — to say, this is an immoral industry that is betraying our collective future. I think of the fossil fuel industry as a merchant of death, just like I think of the nuclear weapons industry that way, or the chemical weapons industry, or the tobacco industry — these are merchants of death that need to be stigmatized, quarantined, and hopefully driven out of existence through regulation.”

Wallace and I discussed his history of involvement with divestment on campus, which he says has historically been hampered by an association with a brand of white environmentalism that is negligent about the needs of under-resourced human communities.

“It’s important to integrate the story of fossil fuel investment with the story of how in concrete, particular situations, the fossil fuel industry is toxic to particular people and particular communities, and in that way it’s not an environmental issue — it’s a social justice issue,” he said.

Beyond campus, Wallace is currently involved with a group of activists trying to stop the construction of the Mariner East pipeline, which would run through the Delaware watershed. I asked what his overall outlook is after several decades of environmental agitation — has he managed to maintain a sense of optimism about the future?

“Not optimism but fragile hope,” he said, before qualifying himself further. “Not optimism but very, very, tenuous, fragile hope.”

He discussed how in the 19th century, America had a whale-blubber-based fuel economy that we only transitioned away from because of the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.

“Is there something in front of us now more impactful than the discovery of oil? I’d say negatively yes — it’s the existential threat to the planet based on carbon emissions. Will that motivate us to move to a renewable economy? Unfortunately, human nature is inherently addictive. Unlike other species, like oak trees, or box turtles, or …”

He trailed away, looking off across Parrish Beach as if waiting for the perfect species to cross his field of vision before continuing:

“… red-tailed hawks, for example. We as human beings can’t be happy with the habitat that’s been offered us.”

Wallace finds addiction to be a powerful metaphor for understanding our relationship to fossil fuels and once formed a group on campus called the Carbon Addicts that developed a twelve-step program to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s like alcoholism — it’s a collective social disease,” he said. “And like any mass social disease, it requires intense intervention in order to help people to move away from their addiction. And addiction by definition is irrational, so a person who is struggling with alcohol knows that this is not a healthy way to live, but she can’t stop, and that’s how we are as a society. We know this is not healthy, but now we can’t stop.”

This may seem like a bleak vision that allows little possibility for change, but, as in A.A., Wallace sees a potential way out through belief in a higher power. This may be in a traditionally spiritual sense, or it may simply be through developing a belief in the importance of protecting life on earth that is strong enough to drive one to inconvenience themselves in nontrivial ways, such as fasting or, perhaps, divesting.

“I’m cautiously hopeful that we will develop a spiritual orientation to life, such as we see the planet as our friend, or, in my religious language, as the body of the gods and the goddesses, as the living flesh of divinity,” said Wallace. “Not as an exploitable resource to be used and abused.”

Professors fast to pressure Board to repeal 1991 ban

in News by

On April 20, two days after a referendum demanding that the Board of Managers repeal the 1991 Investment Committee ban passed with an 87% approval rate, Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey announced that three professors would be fasting for one week at a time until the Board meets in mid-May, beginning with Religion Professor Mark Wallace. The referendum passed with a higher margin of victory than any SGO referendum in over 30 years. According to Smithey, the professors participating in the fast want the Board to “institute a new investment policy that takes into account both long term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility.”

The fast is one event in a long history of Sunrise’s protests against the endowment’s holdings in the fossil fuel industry since the movement began as Mountain Justice in 2010, including a 32-day Parrish sit-in and marches in April 2017. According to Sunrise core member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, the fast and the referendum convey the community’s concern.

“We’re emphasizing the fact that this is not just divestment, this is not just being called on by students, that this is the Swarthmore community as a whole that is really invested in making sure that our futures are safe, so it’s definitely just an emphasis on the fact that we are all coming together to ask the board to acknowledge that we’re all together on this,” Shiney-Ajay said.

Sunrise, which proposed the referendum and campaigned for student votes, launched the fast on Monday, April 23 with a rally on the steps of Parrish. Sunrise core member Jissel Becarra ’20 shared a personal story about the way in which Hurricane Irma affected her father’s job in the poultry industry. Wallace then spoke on his reasons for supporting the divestment movement through a fast in which he would only drink water for a week.

September Sky-Porras ’20 announced that the group would share a student’s story about how climate change affected them every day that week through the group’s Facebook page. Many of these stories involved hurricanes that have hit the U.S. in recent years, whose intensification is connected to warmer oceans, higher sea levels and increased atmospheric moisture, according to a Yale Climate Connection article.

“I was really excited at the fact that campus realized how ridiculous the 1991 ban was and I was just really enthused by the fact that the united the campus seemed to be on this issue,” Becarra said. “We had a pretty good turnout and I think this is a big step towards moving towards divestment, especially with the promise of Val Smith to present the results of the referendum at the next board meeting.”

The 1991 ban, which states that “the Investment Committee manages the endowment to achieve the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives,” was established shortly after the Board divested from Apartheid South Africa. The Board decided not to divest in 2015, citing the 1991 ban, and reaffirmed this decision in 2017 after students passed an SGO referendum on partial divestment.  According to Wallace, this ban stands in contrast to the Board’s decision to significantly increase entry-level wages for college staff in the late 90s, though that decision was not related to investment of the endowment.

“We really lobbied the Board hard on that issue and the then-president of the college [Al Bloom] and the Board ceded to that request and significantly raised the entry-level wage,” Wallace said. “So they saw that as a social justice issue, they saw that as an issue that reflected the values of the college, and I think even though other institutions in Delaware County weren’t willing to do that, I think the college stepped out and took a leadership role. So I think the President and the Board of the college have the capacity to do the right thing, but on this particular issue the Board hasn’t done that.”

Wallace feels the 1991 ban prevents the college from applying social considerations to all aspects of the college’s behavior, which he finds unacceptable.

“We need a college that will integrate all aspects of its mission and all aspects of its activities with that same kind of moral reflection,” he said. “And the fact that the college has taken its investment policy off the table and [said] ‘Yes, everything else at the college is ethically reflective, but not our financial decisions,’ to me is a monstrous violation of its core mission.”

According to Becarra, Wallace’s and other professors’ are fasting in protest of what they see as an ethical stance instead of a neutral stance, and to stand in solidarity with students who have personal experience with the effects of climate change.

“The point of the fast is really just to emphasize the moral weight of this decision that the board has taken, both in terms of looking at apartheid divestment and looking at the stories of climate disaster that so many people on this campus have lived through,” Becarra said.

Faculty in support of divestment have spoken to Board members in casual conversation since the divestment movement began, according to Wallace. But because faculty and Board members only convene once a year at an hour-long reception each spring, there are no established means of feedback from faculty to the Board.

“The college discourages consistent long term interactions between board members and faculty,” Wallace said. “I think that’s because the college prefers that the board exist independent of faculty pressure, say on this issue or the Title IX, O4S issue or other controversial issues on campus … Unfortunately what that means is that faculty and the President and members of the Board can’t work together collaboratively to solve this crisis and it means we are always in a protracted state of low-intensity conflict. Again, this is a fundamental violation of the Quaker heritage that encouraged consensual decision-making across all sectors of the community, not a top-down command structure.”

While Sunrise members have met repeatedly with Brown, President Smith, and other faculty members, Shiney-Ajay feels that the Board has not adequately responded to Sunrise’s proposal, which recommends that they divest only from endowment investment managers that offer fossil-free funding options, which would prevent them from having to find new managers.

“The thing is they continue to use the financial [aid] critique but we keep on asking them, ‘What are your specific critiques of our proposal for partial divestment,’ and we’ve just never heard a response.”

From the fast’s message to the Board about the stake that faculty have in divestment to the referendum’s margin of victory on the 1991 ban, it seems that the community’s main frustration with the Board may not be their refusal to divest or to partially divest. Rather, it’s their refusal to engage sufficiently with discussions surrounding the college’s ideals and social responsibilities.

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