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.
Editorial by the Opinions Editor, Aaron Dockser ’13.
Hello DG readers. You don’t often hear from me or see me, but I am the invisible mouth through which all of your op-ed’s, opinions columns, and editorials pass. I am the too loose or too tight lips you praise or about which you complain. I am the editor, and I come to you from the high editorial mount bringing a single tablet of wisdom. To mix metaphors, this may be a difficult tablet to swallow; it doesn’t dissolve innocuously; you see it and feel it all the way down. But back to the original metaphor, on this tablet is a commandment: Until thou art perfect, thou must continue to change.
This is a commandment not deduced only from the long arc of history, nor from my experience reading all of the pages of opinions which bee-doop on my gmail, but one I gain from my everyday experience as a human being. Until you are perfect, you have an obligation to continue to change. Not because of outside pressure, but precisely the opposite. You have an obligation to become what you are (actualized), which is perfect.
Now while this may seem philosophical, and admittedly and unabashedly it is, like the best philosophy, this rational abstraction demands to be applied, to be realized. Swarthmore, until we are perfect, we have an obligation to ourselves and to the world, to change. With no dearth of criticisms, allegations, protests, and proposed reforms coming in, this obligation takes on a frenzied tone. We don’t have to make every proposed change. But until we are perfect, we do have to consider every one.
Swarthmore, the first change we are obligated to make is to listen. Swarthmore, we are obligated not to get defensive. Swarthmore, when we are accused of hurting someone or making someone feel uncomfortable or delegitimizing someone’s experience or destroying something valuable, we are obligated not to say “No,” not to point the finger and say “you’re wrong,” but rather to say “how so?” and “what can I do better?” Swarthmore, we are obligated to hear things which have not been heard before. Swarthmore, we are obligated not just to know that we, now, are not perfect, but to accept this doctrine and act accordingly.
One way we are not perfect is that as a campus we still invest our resources in companies whose profit is based on unsafe levels of carbon emissions.
The profit we make off of investments in fossil fuel companies is grounded by projections based on a consumption of energy that would trigger irreversible climate change (see Mountain Justice’s explanation here). We participate in an untenable system. We do it to the detriment of future generations, but also to countless peoples in the global south in the present, who already experience the effects of global climate change that we will barely feel for years. We have an obligation to change. And we have a way: Divestment. We have an obligation to take a look at what we are doing wrong: unabashedly profiting off of support of companies that disable the functioning of our Earth and our place on it.
Look, we all agree, fossil fuels are bad, mmmmkay? We all acknowledge their destructive impact. But what continues and perpetuates this impact? An idea that the free market and our investments are somehow unpolitical, outside of the realm of what creates or solves problems. But free trade without conscience reinforces the continuation of our dependence on fossil fuels. Taking no action on this front means active support of this system, this idea that where our money goes is separate from what is happening to our world. Divestment then is a form of illumination, of journalism even. It calls attention to the fact that our actions, even with our money, have real world consequences. It lifts the blindfold we have willfully kept over our eyes as to what people do with our money. And it shows us that when we don’t act, when we don’t look at what our money does, it keeps doing it. Divestment is a scathing review of the fossil fuel industry written in green ink.
As the editor of a newspaper, as a student of a college that could bring light to this issue with its decision, as a citizen of a world that desperately needs this system to change, I must advise the board to divest and I encourage you all, fellow students, to stand with Swarthmore Mountain Justice this Saturday at the Board Meeting.
And the facts are clear: we can change. From evidence pointing to divestment’s negligible effect on the endowment, to previous accounts of endowment divestment in the past, to the examples set by our peer institutions who have already divested, we know change is possible.
No one claims this is the end. Divestment is not the end of the change we need to make. It is one of many changes. But we do, right now, have an obligation to become actors in a political movement that demonstrates the unsustainable practices of making money without conscience, of making money while destroying homes and lives. We have an obligation to recognize the flawed energy system we have become addicted to, and to begin disengaging from it, first in the feasible, tangible ways that are available to us. We have an obligation to divest in the interest of the future implementation of a carbon tax that will both limit fossil fuel consumption and promote greener alternatives in the FREE MARKET. How can Swarthmore support such a carbon tax while still holding stocks that will be negatively impacted by this legislation? And how can such a carbon tax gain support if even intellectual havens like Swarthmore are unwilling to take a stand?
There is no slippery slope here. There is the fact that our money does something that we cannot afford to let it do. If in the future this is the case, we must take similar action. It is not necessary to promise to oppose any other social cause in order to justify this one. We have many problems. We are not perfect. The counterfactual conditional about another argument using a similar justification is not one that holds any water as a criticism. If another situation arises which has the exact same moral grounds, in which the very future (and present) of our world is at stake, then it should also be acted upon accordingly.
And yes, divestment means change. Change is more difficult than maintaining the status quo. But why aren’t we all forcing the Board to figure out how to make this work? Why aren’t we all freaking out about the fact that we need to do something about climate change? Why are we busying ourselves finding ways of saying “no” to a tactic that at the worst will only discredit companies with stock in the destruction of our future? Why aren’t we saying “yes” and continuing to find other ways of combatting climate change?
If divesting won’t hurt financial aid and it won’t significantly impact our endowment, what are we still arguing about? If the political implications of the action will clearly shift us from blind support of the unconscionable business practices of fossil fuel companies and it will serve to further tarnish the reputation that protects these companies from scrutiny (as it already has with all the media attention the campaign has gotten), what are we still arguing about? If divestment draws attention to the fact that not caring where your money is coming from actively allows these companies to thrive, and it has the power, with over 200 campaigns, to shift political opinion and lead to powerful legislation, what are we still arguing about? We must divest.
We have a contract with ourselves to ceaselessly improve. To not divest would be in breach of that contract: because of laziness, because we can always divert responsibility, because the problem of climate change involves a multiplicitous system which it seems any one action cannot undo. Yes, the entire system must change. And it starts here. It starts now. Complexity has the potential to be paralyzing. We cannot let it be.
Swarthmore, we have an obligation to open our eyes to the ways in which we are profiting off of destruction. We have an obligation to take the actions available to us to change this world, and therein ourselves, for the better. It is practical, it is reasonable, it is feasible, and it is right. Swarthmore, we must divest.