If you’ve been on the Williams campus in recent weeks, you’ve probably noticed orange squares safety-pinned to students’ backpacks. These orange squares are the international symbol for fossil fuel divestment. The student group Divest Williams has distributed hundreds of squares to students who support its mission: to make Williams College divest (withdraw its investments) from the 200 fossil fuel companies with the most carbon left in their reserves. Environmental divestment movements have surged in recent years; the University of Glasgow and Stanford University are recent success stories. Many institutions have been loath to back these movements, however. You can find extensive arguments for and against divestment online, but essentially, many claim that endowments should be solely used to generate profit, not to make political statements. We can’t separate those two spheres, though – the privilege of wealth lends an individual or institution a voice. Due to its $2 billion endowment, the world hears Williams’s voice loud and clear.
The most famous divestment movement is probably the 1980’s push for universities to divest from South Africa during apartheid. It’s easy to reflect approvingly on those efforts and reject their modern-day parallels, but the movement to divest from fossil fuels reflects strikingly similar humanitarian concerns.
Last week, a group of students from Divest Williams fasted for 24-plus hours to demonstrate commitment to divestment in solidarity with Divest Harvard. According to that group’s Facebook page, their fast concluded with over 250 participants. We therefore took action not in isolation but as part of a growing national and global effort. After dinner on Tuesday night, I abstained from all food and beverages save water until 9 p.m. on Wednesday when members of Divest Williams crowded around a table at Lee Snack Bar to socialize and break the fast. Fasting makes people acutely conscious of their place in the world; it allowed me to reflect, reconsider my priorities and reorient myself toward the humanitarian issues that are too often sidelined by “more pressing concerns.” It also fostered a sense of community within the Divest Williams group that inspired us to push forward together.
Fasting won’t “change anything” on its own; it simply demonstrates that climate change action isn’t optional. It’s not an ideal that we can pursue when it becomes easy or convenient. It will never be easy or convenient because it’s incompatible with the comfort of a thoughtless consumer lifestyle. Fasting serves the same symbolic purpose as the orange squares. We must show the College administration that student support for divestment is loud, strong and serious.
Divestment itself is a symbol. It will assert that our institution doesn’t condone the destruction and inequality propagated by the fossil fuel industry. If our college were a frontrunner in environmental action, it would set the standard for other institutions, and we could claim unequivocal pride in something far more significant than college rankings.
Climate change isn’t dangerous because “our children might suffer someday.” Privilege affords this limited, theoretical rationalization. Who are “our” children? Who are “we”? Suffering is now. The global “us” includes inhabitants of low-lying Pacific islands and low-lying Bangladesh. It includes indigenous populations in this country who suffer from the fossil fuel industry’s immorality. It includes the underprivileged who suffer most from extreme weather. Inaction is doubly immoral: It defies our moral obligation to the land and plays into existing systems of social injustice and oppression. Williams College must divest now because it reflects a time-sensitive imperative. It’s invalid to say that we must have degrees or hold positions of power to fight for change. Not only does that elitist attitude invalidate millions of voices worldwide, but if we wait, it will be too late. We cannot afford to take no for an answer. No is unsustainable and unacceptable.
I love the Williams College mission statement. Everyone should read it. Here’s my favorite excerpt: “We ask all our students to understand that an education at Williams should not be regarded as a privilege destined to create further privilege, but as a privilege that creates opportunities to serve society at large, and imposes the responsibility to do so.
At the same time, being itself privileged by its history and circumstances, Williams understands its own responsibility to contribute by thought and example to the world of higher education.”
I love the College’s mission statement because it’s beautifully ironic when contrasted with our daily existence. “Williams should not be regarded as a privilege destined to create further privilege” is an idealistic line that too often contradicts reality. Elite higher education doesn’t change the world – its potential for social mobility is limited and it inherently creates further privilege – but it absolutely imposes the responsibility to serve society at large. We must feel this imposition. It demands that we challenge our institution when it fails to fulfill the responsibility in the second paragraph cited above.
Orange is not one of Williams’s colors. Our colors are purple and gold, and whether we acknowledge it or not, those colors too are heavy with symbolism. As we enter Homecoming Week, a time of celebration and pride, we need to reassess our priorities. Let’s prove that our pride is merited. Please “like” the “Divest Williams” Facebook page for updates about upcoming events. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to take a more active role. Read up on divestment, pin an orange square to your backpack and get uncomfortable.
Abigail Rampone ’17 is from Castleton, Vt. She lives in East.