“You can’t just appeal to morality, you have to put power to power to get anything done.”
In April of 1980, Stewart Massad, frustrated by the unyielding inaction of the trustees of Williams College in the face of numerous proposals, candlelight vigils, resolutions and rallies, led a hunger strike and sit-in of Hopkins Hall. He gave the College a simple ultimatum: he wouldn’t eat or leave the building until the trustees agreed to phase divestment from companies supporting the white supremacist South African government as he had proposed. The next morning the trustees woke up to local and national press coverage of the event, and, fearing public relations repercussions, gave in to the demands of the Williams Anti-Apartheid Coalition, of which Massad was a founding member. In three years of student activism, the trustees had done nothing substantive on the issue. It took one day of public shaming for them to act.
Massad told me that the trustees were preoccupied with only one question: making money. “There was no sense that there was another responsibility to advocate socially redeeming interests.” Cigarette companies, gun manufacturers, defense contractors, nothing was off limits. The only way to compel them to act differently was to beat them at their own game – to leverage power against the powerful.
The efforts of today’s divestment advocates appear far tamer. Student activists sign petitions, pass College Council resolutions, write the occasional editorial and voice their concerns in the Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. They seek not to disrupt the system, but to work through it, believing that Williams will succumb to the morality of their plea. It is possible that times have changed, and that the administration and Board of Trustees has acquired a conscience. After all, in 2006 Williams divested itself of 28 companies that “support the Sudanese government’s ‘genocidal actions’ in the Darfur region” without much pressure from the student body. On the other hand, Williams may very well have succumbed to peer pressure, as the entire University of California system, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Brown, among others, had already divested by the time Williams joined the effort. Williams has never acted first, sacrificing financial gain in the name of a moral principle, without the comforting confirmation of its peers. To act in accordance with its values when to do so would produce no other benefit and alleviate no other pressure is the true test of moral conscience, and it is one that Williams has never striven to fulfill.
The fossil fuel divestment movement is not widely supported by this nation’s institutions of higher learning. The only universities that have so far divested are Hampshire College, College of the Atlantic, Sterling College, Unity College and Green Mountain College. Drew Faust, president of Harvard, recently rejected increased calls for divestment, as have many college and university presidents around the country. As a result, Williams faces little to no pressure from its fellow institutions to divest.
Consequently, it is up to the student body to force the administration to act in accordance with what is right. Corporations should not profit from the destruction of the planet, just as they should not profit from the perpetrators of genocide.
The question of effectiveness has often been brought up in conjunction with divestment initiatives. Students and administrators alike ask, how would divestment from fossil fuels of a small college with no more than a few million dollars at stake affect a corporation worth billions? It would not directly affect the company’s share price or economic performance in any significant way, so what reason would the enterprise have for taking the act seriously?
Firstly, as we have seen, the actions of one institution impact the decision-making process of its peers. Williams divesting from fossil fuel companies would send a message to its peer institutions that inaction on this issue is immoral and irresponsible, increasing the pressure on these institutions to follow its lead. The Amherst College Board of Trustees, for example, has stated that it would be willing to divest its stake in coal, if a peer institution were to agree to do the same. If Williams, one of this nation’s most prestigious institutions, acts, it could cause a ripple effect that unites the entire higher education community. One college divesting may not have a dramatic economic effect, but 200 certainly would.
Nevertheless, the primary impact of divestiture is not economic, but political. By publicly rejecting the fossil fuel industry, Williams sends a message to Washington that the educated and progressive mind stands against this industry. If the nation’s colleges and universities act in unison, the message is an exceedingly powerful one. Politicians constantly drill into us that higher education is something everyone should strive for, implicitly supporting the values and positions of the academic community. If the entire academic community repudiates the fossil fuel industry, the affirmation, in addition to ostensibly reflecting the views of millions of
college students and professors, will hold significant weight with a large proportion of the population, counteracting, at least to a certain extent, the political power of the wealthy lobbying machines of fossil fuel companies.
Politicians may receive money from corporations, but they also depend on political support, and when it becomes politically detrimental to be associated with certain industries they will act in accordance. We cannot convince Exxon to stop selling oil, but we can greatly weaken the political support that it has won. As McKibben said, “the U.S. government should put a price on carbon – every economist I know of, left, right and center, has by now endorsed that idea. But it won’t happen until we break the power of the fossil fuel companies, who have been strong enough in D.C. to stop any action. We can’t bankrupt Exxon, but we can politically bankrupt them.”
Michael Druker ’17 is from Albany, NY. He lives in Williams Hall.