The momentum that has built on campus around the issue of divestment is unparalleled in the College’s recent history. From distributing orange squares and stickers, to dropping banners, to hosting events on campus, to writing op-eds and garnering coverage in local papers, Divest Williams has made its presence felt on the campus. At this point, it would be hard not to know about the movement. With the upcoming student referendum on the College Council ballot, this week is, in many ways, the culmination of all the energy that has gone into the campaign so far.
Climate change exacerbates every kind of social injustice in the world. If we claim to stand for justice, we cannot drag our feet on the climate justice movement, as we did on apartheid in the ’80s. We have a responsibility as people of privilege to effect positive change “to a degree disproportionate to [our] number,” as President Adam Falk wrote in an Oct. 8, 2013 online letter to the Williams community. Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense for the College to be preparing its students for the brightest possible future while simultaneously investing in the destruction of that future.
Some people ask why we should focus on divestment instead of individual changes or other actions, such as green buildings. Most people don’t get to make these meaningful choices about what kind of energy they use because the fossil fuel industry spends tens of millions of dollars making sure that they have only one option. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide to use fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry is undeniably in control of our politics; the Koch brothers, for instance, whose businesses profit from the sale of fossil fuels, are raising $889 million for the 2016 election, a sum comparable to what each of the two major parties are planning to spend on their upcoming presidential campaigns, according to The New York Times. We cannot fight that kind of power as individual consumers. But when different groups combine efforts – when colleges, churches and towns speak together with clarity and conviction – we can make ourselves heard. We can fundamentally alter the political climate to one in which fossil fuel companies can no longer maintain their grip on our political and economic systems. Divestment is about reshaping the political arena to one in which the policy changes we need, like a carbon tax, will actually become possible. It’s about stigmatizing the fossil fuel industries whose business plans are to burn through all of their fossil fuel reserves. If these companies’ plans are followed, they will exacerbate climate change and cause irreversible damage. Divestment is about changing the systems of power that undermine our democracy and fuel our destruction.
Some students are concerned about the cost of divestment for the College. Of all the other colleges, cities, foundations and other institutions that have divested, none have seen significant losses. Over the last 10 years, mutual funds that were not invested in fossil fuels actually performed better than those that were. In reality, a very small portion of our endowment is invested in fossil fuels. But divestment is not intended to cripple the fossil fuel industries. Instead, divesting less than three percent of our endowment that is invested in fossil fuels will send a moral statement that the College is committed to leading in environmental initiatives.
Furthermore, the College is embarking on a capital campaign – a massive effort to raise $700 million over the next 10 years just to grow the endowment. This is a perfect time to step back and evaluate our priorities and values as an institution. The longer we wait to divest, the more challenging it will be to change the systems that are in effect now. And then there is the obvious urgency driven by climate change itself. The longer we wait to start creating real change, the faster our planet warms, the more erratic our weather becomes and the more we lose.
Divestment is at a critical moment as we head into the student referendum, which is part of College Council elections. The referendum will show the trustees that this is a growing movement and an issue that the majority of students care about. Students can vote in the referendum Thursday through Saturday via the link sent to their inbox. Whether you love Williams and want to make it a better place or are simply concerned for the well-being of our planet, it’s time to take a stand and send a message to the trustees. The trustees want to act in the interest of the student body; they were once students at the College, too, and they have as much interest as we do in making the College as great as it can be. We are invested in our future. Williams should be as well.
Erica Chang ’18 is from Pittsburgh, Pa. She lives in Sage. Sarah Vukelich ’16 is a political science major from La Mesa, Calif. She lives in Morgan.