Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) made the front page of The New York Times’ website as the group’s campaign to to divest Swarthmore’s endowment from fossil fuels continues to gather momentum.
“I definitely think we’re part of a huge movement,” said Ali Roseberry-Polier ‘14, a member of MJ, in a late-night Skype conversation.
“We’re just starting to see the sort of mass action that we know is going to first win divestment campaigns and then force strong action for climate justice,” said MJ member Will Lawrence ‘13, also present in the Skype interview. “This needs to get enormous, so much bigger than where it is now. So I think we’re just at the beginning of it. It is really taking off right now.”
The reporter who wrote the story covers environmental issues for the Times and was put in touch with MJ by the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a non-profit that was co-founded by Morgan Simon ’04.
The article outlines the mission of MJ and the efforts of 350.org, a non-profit led by national environmental advocate Bill McKibben that urges institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
“We hope that that can be the beginning of a process that will lead to divestment for Swarthmore,” Lawrence said. “The administration has expressed to us that they share our concerns about environmental injustice.”
Fueled by the success of countries and colleges that divested from apartheid in South Africa, MJ and other groups are hoping to use the same strategy to make a meaningful change in the way students view their environment.
“I think that the Administration genuinely is concerned about the crisis that we’re facing right now,” Roseberry-Polier said. “I think that it’s hard not to be.”
MJ is well aware, however, that the Administration doesn’t yet share their belief that divestment is the proper means to achieve climate justice.
In the Times article, Treasurer and Vice President for Finance Suzanne Welsh is quoted as saying “To use the endowment in support of [social] missions is not appropriate. It’s not what our donors have given money for.” This response is echoed by numerous colleges across the US, especially those with multi-billion-dollar endowments, according to the article.
MJ is unwavering in its faith that the Swarthmore administration may someday join their side.
“The message that this community as a whole needs to communicate to them is, if they want to do something, divestment is where the movement is right now,” Lawrence said.
In that vein, MJ is staging a what Lawrence calls a “mini-rally” in front of Parrish at 12:30 on Friday, setting up a line of dominoes as a visual representation of the political momentum behind the divestment movement.
Also Friday is The Board of Managers Luncheon. Representatives of MJ will be meeting with members of the Board to begin what Lawrence hopes will be the beginning of a serious conversation about divesting.
Yesterday, Middlebury College announced an exploratory process on the issue of divestment, according to Roseberry-Polier. Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have already committed to divest, and a Harvard University student government referendum has also supported divestment.
“Bryn Mawr does have a campaign right now, and we’ve been working with them a fair amount,” Roseberry-Polier said. “Swarthmore’s really in a position to be a leader on this. A few months ago there were six schools doing divestment. Two years ago we were the only school with a divestment campaign. And now there are well over a hundred.”
Featured image courtesy of The New York Times and Swarthmore Mountain Justice
honest question: how is divestment w/r/t highly profitable petroleum companies supposed to work when the whole purpose of these companies’ existence is to create and promote the consumption of fossil fuels? it seems crucially different from the situation during south african divestment campaigns, when the purpose was to pressure companies to stop doing business in south africa, and in turn pressure the south african government to end the system of apartheid. it is the companies themselves that we want to pressure in this situation, correct? but it seems unclear what we want to pressure them to do. stop existing? obviously i and i think many swarthmore students would probably say yes (with various qualifications) but provided the massive financial incentives involved in fossil fuel production remain, it seems that the divestment of a few socially conscious groups will be largely irrelevant to the companies’ operation. whereas the south african divestment efforts ultimately led to concrete federal action on the issue, fossil fuel corporations are so deeply entrenched in our political system that i just don’t see how this action could lead to anything larger. now, this is my general intuitive grasp of the issue. if anyone more educated about the particular details of implementing this strategy could explain how divestment in this case is supposed to work, i would sincerely love to be convinced otherwise.
Thanks for writing! Quick disclaimer: we are all MJ members, but none of us are writing as representatives of MJ.
The divestment campaign is not asking these companies to do anything. The corporations that comprise the “Sordid Sixteen” are perpetuating climate change, committing countless human rights violations, and destroying the economies, livelihoods, and health of communities living on the frontier of climate devastation. Our goal with divestment is to weaken these companies politically and socially by creating public stigma around their operations, bringing their practices into the political spotlight, and ultimately making it unacceptable to invest in them. We are not fighting the single operations of any of these companies, but rather, believe that the industry as a whole needs to halt production in order to delay catastrophic climate change. By loudly taking our money out of these industries and explaining our reasoning (that they are fueling climate change, perpetuating existing inequalities, not representing costs, and monopolizing our political system unjustly), we aim to put the pressure on public officials and on other decision-makers to stop subsidizing and supporting these industries.
Here is some stuff from our website that speaks to your concerns:
“Divestment campaigns find strength in numbers. When one investor sells its stock in a company, another investor simply buys that same stock. In isolation, this does not have a significant impact on the viability of the company. However, when many investors sell the same stock, the stock price will drop. This effect is compounded when money managers create special portfolios in response to a divestment campaign. For example, during the apartheid divestment campaign, investment managers created apartheid-free mutual funds. This created a serious disincentive for corporations to support the apartheid regime.
Divestment also has a serious political impact. National divestment movements affect the way ordinary people and the media think about and portray an issue. This inspires action in the political arena. Using again the example of apartheid, the apartheid divestment movement caused the United States government to change its political relationship with South Africa.
In just 4 months, the number of student groups running fossil fuel divestment campaigns has jumped from 6 groups to over 120 groups. As large numbers of people get behind divesting from fossil fuels, we can change the political dialogue around the fossil fuel industry, and will help to dismantle the extraction industry’s social license to operate. Our ultimate goal is to delegitimize the fossil fuel industry and inspire strong political action from state and federal governments.”
Sara, Pat, Laura, & Ben
One thing I would add to this is that, while we might approach these companies with an eye toward changing them in some contexts, it is clear that these companies are desperately clinging to their outdated and destructive practices. Instead of putting money and resources into developing wind and solar technology, these companies are turning to risky practices such as mountaintop removal, the tar sands, deep-sea oil drilling, and fracking. Despite massive public outcry, resistance from impacted communities, climate science, and all the rest, these companies have shown their dedication to exploitation.
I don’t know that this answer anz’s question totally. The “pressure” aspect is what I’m confused about.
“we aim to put the pressure on public officials and on other decision-makers to stop subsidizing and supporting these industries.”
How does divestment do this? And even if public officials and “decision-makers” (this term is pretty vague) did stop supporting these industries, the fact remains that they are still highly profitable industries as long as Americans (and Chinese and Indian people for that matter) continue to buy fossil fuels. It seems like a better campaign would be to encourage people to not purchase gasoline (which has already resulted in the successful production of hybrid and electric cars, which are certainly a step in the right direction). So where’s the pressure? Do oil companies absolutely need the investments of institutions like Swarthmore? Is there any real research to gesture to or is it speculation?
I like this idea philosophically but I’m a little concerned about the specific goals, which seem to end after “divest money from oil companies.” This project potentially puts financial aid on the line so I hope there are very specific goals rooted in good research in mind. I don’t think being philosophically opposed to the oil industry’s actions are quite good enough.
Congrats to Swarthmore MJ for this coverage! The magnifying glass is on Swarthmore now–I wonder how the Board will respond. I hear that they’ve basically ignored the issue until now
One alum, and supporter of the Lorax fund, salutes the students.
Andrea Palmer ’51