As a young writer in my 20s, not long after publishing one of the first books for a general audience on climate change, I was invited to Swarthmore to speak. I’ve never forgotten that trip. For one, the glorious campus trees were in bloom. But far more, it was the spirit of the place. The students were engaged, serious, concerned — for a few hours after my talk we sat and talked some more. Though I’ve lectured on hundreds and hundreds of campuses since, Swarthmore always stuck in my mind as an ideal, almost an idyll. In a cynical age, informed earnestness is attractive beyond measure.
Which is why it’s been so painful to watch from a distance as Swarthmore’s Board of Managers has gone steadily about the work of diminishing the college’s reputation.
Climate change is the great question of our time — we’ve just come through the hottest year in human history, and drought now stalks those places not threatened by flood. On an ocean planet, our seas are turning more acidic with each passing month. This is by now unnecessary — we have much of the technology we need to turn off the fossil fuel and replace it with renewable energy. And yet our civilization does so little to respond, mostly because of the power of the fossil fuel industry, the richest enterprise in human history and perhaps the most irresponsible. (Having watched the Arctic melt, the oil companies lined up for the licenses to drill yet more oil from the thawed waters — top that for amorality).
Swarthmore has had the chance to stand its moral weight up against that financial power. It’s had the chance for years, since students were so early to begin this divestment battle. But the Board — with its tight connections to Wall Street — always refused.
And so now the chance to be a leader is past. Dozens of schools, from Stanford to Stockholm, Sydney to Scotland, have done the right thing. Entire religious denominations — the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians — have taken the step. Everyone from the World Bank to the Bank of England to Deutschebank have now pointed out the essential problem of the “carbon bubble”; the UN itself has called for divestment. As have those crazy radicals, the Rockefeller family. If the heirs to the largest fossil fuel fortune on earth have decided it’s neither moral nor prudent to hold on to their coal and oil and gas shares, then what is Swarthmore’s excuse?
Its excuse has always been, “This might cost us a little money.” But in fact if Swarthmore had acted when students first made their request, the endowment would have avoided the plummeting fortunes of the coal industry, the drop in the price of oil. Fossil-free portfolios are handily outperforming broader indexes; as is sometimes the case, Swarthmore could have done well by doing good.
Instead its board chose cynicism. Its members know better — one has made a superb documentary series on climate change. But as often with people of wealth and power, the desire to cling to the past is strong, and nowhere is it stronger than on Wall Street, from where many members of the Investment Committee hail. Though they are doubtless fine women and men, the investment experts who have been largely responsible for the Board’s entrenchment on this issue, have in fact damaged not just the planet’s but Swarthmore’s future. Viewed from a distance, the only thing Quaker about them on this issue is the way they’ve quaked before the status quo.
And so students have been forced to take the time-honored step of engaging in civil disobedience to underline the moral seriousness of this cause. Around the world people are paying attention: I’ve heard from our volunteer organizers in places like Vanuatu, ripped apart this month by Cyclone Pam, that the divestment movement is an ongoing inspiration for their work. Swarthmore divesting would be the most powerful act of solidarity it could take, by revoking its consent to the fossil fuel industry’s destructive and polluting practices across the globe.
As often happens, the trustees seem to be moved (or at least embarrassed) by the non-violent dedication of their students. They’ve said they will discuss in May the idea of divestment yet again. But if they mean it, let them match in some small way the dedication of their students. We have this thing called Skype: it would be easy enough to hold their meeting now, and show the world that even if Swarthmore has been slow, it still remembers the ground where its roots were sunk.
It will be a pleasure for me to be in Swarthmore again today — too early, maybe, for the flowering trees, but right on time for the flowering of concern and commitment that is the thing the country treasures about this campus.