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.
Dear Swarthmore Board of Managers,
As history students at Swarthmore College, we support the campaign to divest our school from the fossil fuel industry. Our classes in the Swarthmore History Department have taught us about the appalling long term impacts of resource extraction. From the coalfields of Appalachia that prompted the second largest armed rebellion in United States history, to the oil reserves of eastern Europe that caused some of the bloodiest battles of both World Wars, to the overseas fueling stations of imperial Britain, fossil fuel extraction has been inextricably linked to histories of colonization, racism, social marginalization, and ecological degradation. Stephen Bensch’s classes on medieval Europe and the Mediterranean have demonstrated that resource competition has fueled expansionist warfare and slavery for millennia, and Allison Dorsey’s work on the American West has exposed the links between environmental managerialism and the oppression of minorities in the modern era.
Our history professors have taught us how to unpack the myths of the fossil fuel industry. The discussions they lead and the texts they assign have shown us through example after example that resource extraction is not just about turning on the lights or about running our cars. Robert Weinberg’s courses on Russian and Soviet history have shown how fossil fuel elites employed common rhetorical strategies—evoking images of national renewal, scientific progress, and social fulfillment—across multiple regimes with vastly different political ideologies. These themes remain as potent for the propaganda purposes of contemporary extraction companies in the United States as they ever were in Tsarist or Soviet Russia. Pieter Judson’s courses on nations and nationalism have shown us that fossil fuel extraction, whether in interwar Galicia, Nazi Germany, or fascist Romania, is always about dispossessing communities of their basic rights. It’s about calculating the financial gains but leaving out the human and environmental costs. It’s about buying off policymakers and monopolizing even the most democratic of political systems. It’s about money, influence, and the destruction of our planet.
While we may have learned about resource extraction in our history classes, we know that it is anything but an issue of the past. Shane Minkin’s work on postcolonial North Africa and the Middle East has shown how old power struggles over fossil fuel holdings continue to dominate the region today. Farid Azfar’s courses on early modern Europe and the rise of capitalism have taught us about the increasingly global nature of resource exploitation, and we know from Lillian Li’s class on modern China that fossil fuel development and the massive pollution it engenders affect developing countries just as much as the industrialized West.
The fossil fuel industry of today is more powerful and destructive than ever. Extreme practices like mountaintop removal and fracking threaten lives, communities, and ecosystems in our own state of Pennsylvania. The greenhouse gas emissions that are the lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry are responsible for massive climate change that has already unleashed droughts, floods, and superstorms across the globe. And as has always been the case with the environmental effects of resource extraction, it is those least responsible and least able to adapt who will confront the worst impacts of changing weather patterns. William Turpin’s courses on Greece and Rome have shown that this was true in the ancient world. And as we have learned from Tim Burke’s courses on Central Africa and Robert DuPlessis’s class on the Caribbean, in the pursuit of natural resource wealth, bureaucratic elites, military personnel, and international investors routinely label local populations as inferior and dispensable, causing them to disproportionately suffer from famine, disease, and forced migration.
Our classes may have demonstrated the enormity of the problems inherent to fossil fuel extraction, but they have also equipped us with the tools necessary to approach a viable solution. If history has taught us anything, it is that major social change comes about not from above, but from broad based movements. Marjorie Murphy’s courses on union struggles and contemporary social movements have made clear the ability of mass mobilization to disrupt business as usual. The hard-won fights for the eight hour day, civil rights, and the right to collective bargaining demonstrate the power of many to challenge industry standards. Bruce Dorsey’s courses on United States history and Diego Armus’s classes on Latin America have identified grassroots organizing and local activism as sites of crucial resistance among those marginalized or displaced by imperialist ideologies.
Swarthmore College, with its Quaker heritage and strong tradition of social activism, should know the value of collective action better than most. Student-led campaigns for a Living Wage, the establishment of the Intercultural Center and Black Cultural Center, as well as earlier generations of students’ robust involvement in the civil rights movement are all intimately connected with the college’s foundational mission. They draw on the passion for innovative learning, peace, and social justice that guided the committed abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and pacifists who established our institution one hundred and fifty years ago. Just as many Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff have taken meaningful action against injustice, we too refuse to support a status quo that exploits people and land for profits and that threatens the viability of our collective future. Business as usual—in terms both of the fossil fuel industry and of Swarthmore’s current investment practices—cannot be allowed to continue.
Through fossil fuel divestment, Swarthmore should affirm its core values as well as its position as a leader in higher education. Such bold public action would add critical weight to the divestment campaign spanning more than 300 campuses across the country. By inciting us to rethink how we relate to energy, the economy and one another, divestment has the potential to change today’s national conversations about resource extraction while building the political pressure key to enacting substantive climate legislation.
As history students, we draw on a rich history of struggle in those communities historically and currently affected by resource extraction, and we act in solidarity with their resistance. Frontline communities have challenged the fossil fuel industry for centuries, making change on the picket line, in the union hall, and in the jail cell. Divestment is just one, crucial piece of a broader movement for climate justice, and it is our chance to stand on the right side of history. Just as divestment helped bring down South African Apartheid, we believe that today, it can help save our planet. We look forward to attending the Board of Managers meeting on May 4, where we hope you will commit to a concrete plan for divesting Swarthmore’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
Op-ed submitted by Kate Arnoff ‘14, Ben Goossen ‘13, Alison Roseberry-Polier ‘14, Aaron Freedman ‘14, James Ivy ‘14, McWelling Todman ‘14, Alexandra Willingham ‘15, Maria Mejia ‘15, Sarah Diamond ‘13, Charles Hepper ‘13, Zachary Nacev ‘13, Thomas Powers ‘13, Emily McAfee ‘13, Emily Rosen ‘13, Emma Thomas ‘13, Marjani Nairne ‘13, Thomas Boucher ’14, Jusselia Anais Molina ’13, Robert Fain ’14, Amanda Beebe ’15, Nicholas Borkowski ’14, Andrew Hernandez ’13, Eva Taeubel ’15, Alejandro Sills ’13, Daniel Browning ’14, Rachel Berger ’16, Thera Naiman ’14, Kira White ’13, Treasure Tinsley ’15, Andrea Jacome ’14, Jessica Arian ’15, Anna Stitt ’13, and Julia Finkelstein ’13.
History majors and minors who would like to sign the letter to the Board of Managers can do so here.