Divestment: Where’s Williams?

Raymond Beltran

On March 31, Amherst College announced it would officially divest from fossil fuel interests and move toward full carbon neutrality by 2030. Almost immediately following the news, Bill McKibben — founder of 350.org and a national stalwart in the modern environmental movement — asked: Where is Williams in this conversation? Good question.

In the mid-2010s, Williams was home to its own divestment movement — one that garnered the support of over 70 percent of the student body and hundreds of alumni, as well as College faculty and staff. Yet Williams never divested from fossil fuels. Instead, in 2015 the administration and Board of Trustees promised to cut emissions 35% below 1990 levels by 2020 in addition to purchasing carbon offsets and achieving carbon neutrality by 2020. While I applaud the College for its efforts, I was disappointed at the beginning of the fall semester when it announced that it was going to fall short of even these goals. The College cannot brand itself as a leader in sustainability while mainly trafficking in tentative solutions to the climate crisis and directly supporting some of the most environmentally damaging actors on the planet through the Trustees’ investments in commingled funds, or more simply, pooled investments done through a fund manager.

By continuing its support of these companies, the College is implicitly condoning their actions. As the administration correctly told divestment advocates in 2015, divestment is not a solution in its own right. The work of one institution is not enough to move the needle — not even close — but it must be part of the solution. Tacitly accepting the fossil fuel industry as a necessary evil or as a useful tool to grow the College’s financial portfolio is nothing but a sign of hypocrisy on the part of the institution and a microcosm of the broader issues that plague our efforts to solve the climate crisis. The College’s focus on spending its way out of the issue denies the real need to address the systemic roots of the threats posed by climate change. By all means, the College should make efforts to invest in green solutions, but it matters very little if it’s not paired with divestment as well. When elite actors like Williams spend money and spin PR instead of making real changes to their behavior, they highlight an inability to sacrifice in the name of any greater good. 

On the topic of sacrifice: If the College wants to really make a difference in minimizing its carbon footprint, it needs to reduce its energy consumption in the short term as it works on long-term solutions like geothermal energy. So, yes, I’m calling on the student body to take personal action. Turn off the lights when you leave a room; wear a sweater instead of cranking up the heater. It may be unpopular, and it might take a little more effort, but what ground do we stand on criticizing an administration for its hypocrisies if we’re hypocrites ourselves?

However, it’s important to note that even if every university and college in the United States were to achieve carbon neutrality, there would be little or no effect on the climate crisis. Divestment and personal action are largely symbolic, but we’re at a point where symbolism matters — people respond to a unified message. The College originally discredited divestment as trivial and not worth its time, but in light of Amherst’s recent decision to divest — as well as that of over 1300 other institutions (including non-academic ones) across the country who manage a combined $14.56 trillion in assets — I’d argue that it’s time for Williams to reconsider. As an institution in this position, as a global leader in academics, and as the manager of an endowment exceeding $2.8 billion, Williams’ voice (and money) matters. While we haven’t thus far shown an ability to be a leader in the movement, it’s never too late to add another prominent voice to the crowd. 

Raymond Beltran ’24 is from Lake Elsinore, Calif.

Correction: This op-ed previously stated that 97 percent of the College’s endowment is invested through Vanguard or Fidelity; none of the College’s endowment is invested through either firm. We regret the error.