This Thursday, three Swarthmore Honorary Degree recipients, labor organizer and anti-war activist John Braxton, linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, and Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Hochschild called on the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. On Tuesday, MIT Professor Emeritus of Management Lotte Bailyn added her name to the letter. These three individuals are amongst the distinguished members of society that Swarthmore College has bestowed Honorary Degrees on for their moral, social and scientific contributions to the world. They represent the values we purport to uphold as an institution, and we ought to heed their advice when they call on our college to uphold its moral responsibility as a global leader: “Climate change is without doubt one of the most important moral, economic, and political issues of our time. We call upon you to exercise intellectual and moral leadership by implementing a plan to divest from fossil fuels over the next few years.” Our institution should join the ranks of these leaders in combatting the greatest threat of our generation by divesting from fossil fuels.
Communities around the globe are facing an unprecedented crisis at the hands of anthropogenic climate change and the rogue fossil fuel industry. Communities of color, those of lower socio-economic means and the global south are disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of global reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and air and water pollutants devastate lives, drive global conflict, and bring us closer to the brink of ecological collapse. There is no greater threat to humanity in the 21st century. The devastating effects of inaction now will be placed upon the shoulders of our generation and impact our lives in untold ways. We know what the consequences of inaction are, yet the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry and its inertia have over our political process threatens to drive us off the cliff. Only a sustained, popular campaign that capitalizes on collective power to tackle the fossil fuel industry can counter the political inertia that surrounds us and drive industry and government alike to act.
The fossil fuel divestment movement offers an alternative: driven by collective action colleges, pension funds and governments around the world are divesting in ever increasing numbers, sending a message to politicians, corporations and financial markets that fossil fuels hold no place in a just and sustainable future. Financial institutions have responded by highlighting the investment risks of fossil fuel stocks if action is taken to curtail fossil fuel consumption, devaluing the industry. Some energy corporations have responded by taking steps to reduce their carbon impact and directly citing the social change that divestment creates as a core reason. But the industry is fighting back. Just this past week, the Supreme Court blocked the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in a 5-4 decision while litigation pends brought by 27 states and the fossil fuel industry charging that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have authority to restrict total CO2 emissions. The need for action has never been greater. Will our institution sit idly by while the most important political battle of our generation is waged?
We have an opportunity to lead, to live up to our values as an institution and support social justice, but we are wasting it. Every initiative Swarthmore takes to combat climate change rings hollow when we continue to invest in the very industry that drives it. By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, we are actively betting against a just and sustainable future where those stocks will no longer be solvent. Future efforts devoid of divestment smack of nothing more than window dressing in light of the significant financial ties that powerful board members Rhonda Cohen, Harold Kalkstein and Samuel Hayes III have with the fossil fuel industry. They must recuse themselves to maintain the integrity of future discussions on divestment.
The majority of Swarthmore students and faculty support divestment, and now John Braxton, Noam Chomsky, Lotte Bailyn and Arlie Hochschild have added their voices to the chorus calling for change. It is time for our institution to respond to these leaders; the price of inaction is too grave to do otherwise. As John Braxton said in his 2010 commencement speech, “There is a major economic and ecological crisis looming, and the lives of literally billions of people depend on our solving these problems. The curvature of the crisis is exponential and the nature of exponential problems is that they are hard to take seriously until it is nearly too late.”
Members of the Swarthmore community, please join us to rally and hear John Braxton speak this Friday, February 19th at 1:00 p.m. on the front steps of Parrish and deliver a strong message to our board of managers. Swarthmore, please don’t let it be too late.
Braxton, John. (2010, May). 2010 Commencement. Speech presented at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. http://www.swarthmore.edu/past-commencements/john-braxton-70