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.
Those who read The Daily Gazette last year are familiar with the ubiquitous DG “Op-Ed” (from “opposite the editorial page”). Such posts, which are generally written by members of the community for the sole purpose of being published on The DG, are written ad-hoc as various issues come up throughout the year and are posted virtually without editing. Though the practice described above will continue, we are recasting “Op-Eds” as “Letters-to-the-Editor.” We believe this more accurately reflects the nature of these posts–neither planned, coordinated, nor solicited by the paper. And, since we sparingly publish “Staff Editorials,” there’s usually no editorial page to be “opposite”!
Letter by members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice:
Mountain Justice and its allies appreciate the Board of Managers’ response to our request for a report on fossil fuel divestment. While the “Open Letter” sent out on Wednesday does not constitute the requested full investigation into the logistics of divesting, it is nonetheless an important moment of transparent communication with the entire campus community that we find commendable. We hope this will set a precedent for future open communication between the Board and student groups raising a multitude of concerns around college practices and policies. That said, we find the Board’s understanding of its responsibilities regarding climate change, divestment, and its own processes to be troubling at best.
First, we don’t find the Board’s approach to mitigating climate change appropriate. It is misleading and unjustifiably self-congratulatory for the Board to talk about “carbon neutrality” or “reducing our carbon footprint” at the exclusion of discussion of strategies for immediate institutional change, especially when they’ve given themselves 22 more years to achieve carbon neutrality. Already climate change and extraction are painful daily realities for communities across the globe and in our own backyard today. This framework also masks the true gravity of the crisis facing our planet. The Board’s letter neglects that the bulk of the effects of climate change are borne by people of color, low-income people, and people living in the Global South, whose marginalization has been historically ignored. For those on the frontlines of extraction and climate change, transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based economy is not a matter for concern, but one of survival. Their health, culture, and quality of life depend on the immediate transition away from fossil fuels. These issues are ones that Mountain Justice has personally highlighted to the Board repeatedly, always to the same response of dismissal. Understanding the suffering people are enduring from extraction, as well as the scientific consensus on climate change, the timeframe to address these issues needs to be within the next two years, not the next two decades. Most importantly, this is an urgent issue of justice.
Not once in the Board’s response to Mountain Justice is the word “justice” used, except in reference to Mountain Justice. There is not a single appeal in the letter to principles of equity or justice in addressing climate change. In one particularly striking instance, they blatantly ignore the suffering caused directly by the process of fracking when they prescribe efforts to merely patch methane leaks. Justice and equity lie at the core of our understanding of climate change, environmental justice, and institutional responsibility, as well as the stated values of the college itself. Many of us chose to attend Swarthmore out of a belief that it would be an institution and community committed to working towards a more just world. By working in solidarity with existing communities of resistance to remove fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, divestment helps to address injustice across the world.
Most climate researchers agree that we must drastically curtail emissions and move towards elimination of emissions and, by extension, extraction by 2015 in order to avert climate catastrophe. Given this urgency, 2035 is far too late a date for Swarthmore to reach “carbon neutrality,” which, as outlined in the College’s Climate Action Plan, would be achieved largely by purchasing carbon credits to be cashed in the Global South. Not only are these carbon credits incapable of addressing the true nature of the climate and extraction crises and corporate and governmental emissions, but the carbon credits that Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan relies upon support plant monoculture development, a project that has been linked to poverty, violence, and water scarcity around the globe, and which proliferates the false idea that we can simply buy our way to a better world. Setting aside the negative externalities of carbon offsets, their use to negate our carbon footprint is a limited approach. While valuable in their own way, these consumption-based approaches to helping the environment don’t address the political power of the fossil fuel companies: a key reason why there are few competitive alternatives in the energy market. Swarthmore is a relatively small consumer of fossil fuels, but, given its size, holds a disproportionately large amount of moral and financial capital as a prestigious and well-funded institution. We believe it is imperative for Swarthmore to use both of these manifestations of its capital to combat climate change and other injustices.
The Board’s equation of personal consumption with morality is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the Board’s over emphasis on personal consumption decisions fails to recognize the larger, structural barriers to “choice.” Framing the fight against climate change exclusively as efforts to reduce personal consumption perpetuates racism and classism. It is often only those who are already economically and, more often than not, racially privileged who can reasonably consider significant energy consumption reduction. Second, if Swarthmore desires to be a moral institution, it must consider as a body the moral consequences of all its actions, including, among others, its investment policy, decision-making processes, admissions policies, and curriculum. Equating morality with personal choice ignores the reality that structural decisions also have deep moral implications. The logic of “personal sacrifice” obfuscates the stranglehold fossil fuel companies have over the energy options available in this country and throughout the world. By divesting from fossil fuels – and calling out directly the business model of fossil fuel extraction – Swarthmore can help to create a space in which alternative forms of energy are viable options for students, faculty, staff, and Board members. If we are morally culpable for our energy use, we are also morally culpable for not challenging a system that is destroying the planet; in the big picture, we see the latter moral failure as the more serious one. It is a moral imperative to challenge the current paradigm of extraction and runaway emissions, as well as that of endless, unhinged growth–either of the fossil fuel industry, or of college endowments. We see divestment as one method among many of addressing these concerns, all of which ought to be actively pursued.
Over the past several months, Swarthmore Mountain Justice has been challenged to work more closely in solidarity with those on campus demanding a College that deals justly and effectively with sexual assault, diversity and inclusion and the treatment of undocumented students. While we continue to work towards the college’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the frustrations and demands expressed by those present at the Board meeting in May are frustrations with business as usual at this college and demands for a more equitable institution. Members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice stand by these struggles, and are committed to making sure that any action the college takes on climate change and extraction does not come at other students’ expense. Mountain Justice will not accept a plan for divestment that impacts financial aid. While members of Mountain Justice are grateful for the generous financial aid that Swarthmore has provided, this does not render us incapable of demanding that what makes our education possible does not also make possible the destruction of our future and so many others’ presents. We will address why financial aid reduction, or indeed, likely any reduction at all, will not be necessary in the near future. Should the Board of Managers choose to cut financial aid, it would be out of choice, not necessity.
By framing the rationale for divestment solely around climate change, the Board is failing once again to engage with the question of fossil fuel extraction. Though we and the Board do share a commitment to fighting climate change, we disagree severely in the urgency needed with which to address this crisis, and the very real effects that communities–predominantly low income communities and communities of color–are presently feeling and fighting against due to the burning and extraction of fossil fuels. Divestment may not be the only way to shift us away from a fossil-fuel-based economy, but, as an institution with a $1.9 billion endowment, our financial footprint is far bigger than our carbon footprint. If Swarthmore were to divest, it would have real effects – it would likely make huge ripples, encourage other peer schools to divest, and highlight divestment as a tactic to defame fossil fuel companies. The Board’s letter mentions that the President’s Climate Plan sets an exciting precedent for governmental action on climate change. We see divestment as another avenue to facilitate the social and political climate where such legislation is plausible. We might also remind the Board that if they really do hold hope for legislation sufficiently drastic to combat climate change- that would keep 80% of current oil reserves in the ground- it might be unwise to be invested in companies that suddenly lose that much of their capital. We also encourage the Board to remember President Obama’s climate speech that introduced the initiative they cited: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks that there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
Despite an overstated potential for economic setback, if Swarthmore College is truly committed to stopping runaway climate change, its chief concern can no longer be the rapid and uninhibited growth of the institutional endowment. Endless growth is a false methodology that inherently prioritizes money over human, moral and environmental concern. It is the same logic on which the fossil fuel industry has operated since its inception, and what has driven us to our current economic and environmental crises.
A crucial component of Swarthmore’s and, by extension, the Board’s philosophy is that the College’s primary method of enacting change is by educating students to be elite decision-makers and powerful people, who then go on to enact change. As many of our professors have noted education is not only something that happens in the classroom. It is not enough to merely preach that climate change is an urgent issue; we must also act in accordance with that belief. By divesting – and thus showing students and people across the world how to act in accordance with stated values – Swarthmore can provide a prime educational opportunity not only for its students but for the nation. Swarthmore as an institution – through its budget, its hiring practices, its investments, its energy uses, its formal and informal programs – is implicated in this crisis in more ways than one. Any serious proposals for the institution to address climate change and extraction must reflect this.
This semester, Mountain Justice will continue to push the Board for Swarthmore’s full divestment from fossil fuels, as well as for increased accountability to the rest of the Swarthmore community. For the past three years, we have consistently attempted to collaborate and work within Swarthmore’s institutionalized decision-making bodies. Mountain Justice members have sat on Student Council, the Sustainability Committee, the Climate Action Plan Committee, the Committee on Investor Responsibility, and the Social Responsibility Committee of the Board. We have had multiple meetings each with the Sustainability Committee, with Rebecca Chopp, with Maurice Eldridge, and with the Board. We have tried negotiation, and they have refused to engage in a way that would make the negotiation productive and democratic. Instead of trying to work with Mountain Justice on divestment, or even responsible investment, the Board stymies change without proposing real alternatives upon which they are willing to act. They, not Mountain Justice, are the ones refusing to collaborate and work together. A huge range of other student causes on campus have been met similarly. Climate justice and the variety of issues with which it intersects demand an urgency of action in which the Board appears uninterested. Our actions this semester will reflect this urgency, and we invite all members of the community to join us.