Guest Post: Wesleyan Needs To Be On The Correct Side of the Climate Change Fight

“For almost 40 years I have been so proud of Wesleyan students and alumni. But I am not seeing the level of activism that is necessary for this existential fight.”

Pictured: Lauren Steiner '79 speaks at the Los Angeles Tar Sands Blockade Solidarity Action in March, 2013.

Pictured: Lauren Steiner ’79 speaks at the Los Angeles Tar Sands Blockade Solidarity Action in March, 2013.

Several weeks ago, members of a student group calling themselves Wes, Divest! put together a petition calling on President Roth and the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels. The petition has since amassed more than 250 signatures, many with accompanying messages of support. President Roth hasn’t yet publicly responded. When asked about the possibility of divestment at a WSA meeting in March, he suggested that it was highly unlikely—and argued that Wesleyan’s endowment shouldn’t be a “vehicle for social change.”

As the push for divestment first starts to heat up at Wesleyan (as it already has at Tufts, Amherst, and much of the ‘Cac), we’re presenting a guest perspective by Lauren Steiner ’79, an environmental activist and Wes alum who urges all Wesleyan students to take up the fight now, before it’s too late:

“Plant trees, create recycled art, tour a chestnut orchard, work on an organic garden and much more during Earth Month at Wesleyan!” So reads the first sentence of an article in the latest edition of The Wesleyan Connection emailed to me in April. As an environmental activist who attended the first Earth Day celebration 33 years ago at age 12 and who planned an LA solidarity rally to the D.C. Forward on Climate Rally this past February, I found this quite dismaying. When I was at Wesleyan between 1975 and 1979, when we hadn’t even heard of climate change, we were actively protesting threats to the environment and human health. In 1976 and 1977, activists from Wesleyan joined the Clamshell Alliance protesting the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Where is that activism now when environmental threats are so much worse?

It is estimated that we have warmed the planet beyond the point of no return. Even if the developed world stopped using fossil fuels this minute, we could not reverse the change we have started. And we could hardly convince China and India, who are modernizing at a rapid pace, to prohibit their citizens from having new cars and refrigerators and all the other consumer products we have. The environmental NGOs inside the Beltway have done precious little to combat climate change, which is why a mild-mannered professor at Middlebury College named Bill McKibben founded 350.org in 2007. Through thousands of events all over the world, people spread the message that we needed to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. As McKibben said at the Forward on Climate Rally, where over 50,000 of us froze our butts off, he wants to start a “grassroots movement for the environment.” For it is only when you have masses of people behind a cause, like the Civil Rights movement, can meaningful change really occur.

That is why the Sierra Club, for the first time in its 120-year history, changed its policy against civil disobedience. And that’s why thousands of activists all over the country have gotten themselves arrested by blocking the bulldozers constructing the southern half of the Keystone XL Pipeline in Winnsboro, Texas, and chaining themselves to the speakers at a pipeline conference in Dallas; and thousands of people young and old locked arms around the White House — all of them protesting the northern half of this same pipeline which will transport dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Koch Brothers’ owned refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. As tar sands oil is far more carbon intensive than regular crude, releasing it will be “game over for the environment,” according to foremost NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Further, we will despoil our environment and threaten human health for no reason. Permanent jobs will be few once the pipeline is built, and the oil will be sold to the highest bidder on the open market, which will most likely be China. So this won’t even contribute to energy independence.

There were about 59 actions during Tar Sands Blockade Action Week in mid-March, including one I spoke at here in L.A. I don’t see any stories in The Wesleyan Connection about students or alumni joining this brave fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, although I’m sure there must have been some. And I didn’t see anything about the new Wesleyan chapter of 350.org’s latest campaign where students try to get their college to divest from fossil fuel companies. In fact, when I was at Wesleyan last December, I ran into President Roth, who attended Wesleyan with my graduating class, and asked him what he thought of the likelihood of Wesleyan doing this. His reply was very dismissive. Not only did he not see Wesleyan divesting, he also questioned the efficacy of the campaign during our era to get Wesleyan to divest from companies that did business with South Africa when I broached the analogy. He said he didn’t believe that campaign was responsible for bringing down the apartheid system. Well, maybe it was not entirely responsible. And maybe if every college divested from fossil fuel stocks, that would not make a significant dent in the use of fossil fuels in the U.S. But like all divestment campaigns, it would lend credence to the moral argument that we can no longer support the extraction of every last natural resource from the planet in increasingly dirty and unsafe ways, especially when there are renewable technologies we can invest in instead.

It bothers me that our current president seemed so apathetic to the most crucial issue of our day. And it troubles me even more that two of our most illustrious alumni, both of them Democrats, are actually on the wrong side of this issue. Alumnus Michael Bennet ’87, who is the junior senator from Colorado (and Wesleyan’s 2012 Commencement speaker, as well as the son of former president Doug Bennet ’59), just voted with all the Republicans and 16 other Democrats in favor of a non-binding GOP amendment tacked onto the budget bill, which supports the construction of the KXL Pipeline. It was said that the other Democrats who voted for this come from oil producing states and face tough re-election fights. Apparently that is not the case with Bennet. So why would he do it? Maybe it’s the same reason why our other distinguished alumnus from Colorado, John Hickenlooper ’74, the state’s current Governor (and Wesleyan’s 2010 Commencement speaker), would sue the city of Longmont (and threaten to sue the city of Fort Collins), Colorado, after they voted to impose bans on hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, within their city limits.

For those of you who don’t know, fracking is a relatively new process that has devastated towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, West Virginia. and New Mexico, among others. Companies inject a mix of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground at high pressures to release natural gas or in some cases oil. Anyone who has been following this issue knows that these chemicals, the identities of which are unknown due to former VP Dick Cheney exempting the fracking industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act, can leech into the aquifers. Anyone who has seen the movie Gasland watched people who live near fracked wells turn on their tap, light a match, and set their drinking water on fire. Farm animals all over the country are getting sick and many have died from the contaminants which have leeched into the soil.

In California, where they frack for oil, they are fracking in the middle of L.A. The Inglewood oil field is the largest urban oil field in the country. There is a cancer cluster there as well as increased incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Citizens are bravely fighting back here and all over the country. We are working to get a ban on the fracking in California before it ramps up. They just found 15 billion barrels of oil under the Monterey Shale. Due to pressure from fractivists, the State of New York just extended its existing moratorium on fracking another two years. And another illustrious alumnus, Peter Shumlin ’79, Governor of Vermont, just signed that state’s ban on fracking. But former oil and gasman John Hickenlooper seeks not to support his constituents in their efforts to protect the environment, health, and livelihoods but to arrogantly defy local decision-making by threatening lawsuits. He has even bragged about drinking frack fluids.

For almost 40 years I have been so proud of Wesleyan students and alumni. I attribute much of my zeal for activism to what I experienced at Wesleyan both in the classroom and out. But I am not seeing the level of activism that is necessary for this existential fight. I have two sons, one in high school and one in college. And I have seriously considered advising them not to have children. That is how dire I think the situation is today. It’s all well and good to plant trees and grow organic gardens. We’re certainly going to need them when conditions really deteriorate and we can no longer grow and ship food the way we currently do. However we can’t grow enough trees to counteract the degree to which we are destroying the ability of the planet to sustain human life.

It’s time to take to the streets, people. In the next edition of The Wesleyan Connection, I want to read about the progress of the divestment campaign. Maybe they’ll revive the old Wesleyan tradition of sit-ins in the administration building until Roth agrees to recommend that Wesleyan sign on to the campaign. I want to ask students and alumni in Colorado who are reading this to flood Bennet and Hickenlooper’s offices with calls expressing dismay with their actions and a request to be good environmentalists like their fellow Wesleyan alum Peter Shumlin. In fact, everyone should look into the voting records of their representatives and make their voices known. But most importantly, we need people out in the streets organizing their neighbors, protesting, and practicing peaceful civil disobedience now, before it’s too late.

Stay tuned for a Wesleying feature on Wes, Divest!, the student group calling on Wesleyan’s administration to divest from fossil fuels companies. In the meantime, like the group on Facebookfollow them on Twitter, and sign their petition if you agree. Also, read about similarly minded activist efforts at Tufts and other schools.

Related:
Wes, Divest! Garden Party
Middlebury Students Send Fake Administrative Email to Encourage Divestment
Video: Pro-Divestment Student Group Interrupts Tufts Information Session
Argus: We Must Divest From Dirty Energy
Argus: Students Initiate Fuel Divestment Campaign

  • Here is the latest article on the devastation that fracking is causing to the state of Colorado with the aid and approval of John Hickenlooper. http://www.alternet.org/fracking/why-citizens-colorado-cant-keep-oil-industry-out-their-backyards?page=0%2C0&akid=10485.104599.zYCKUT&rd=1&src=newsletter845591&t=21

  • Alum 08

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00Med0treVE Wes can/should/will (I think, I hope) be a leader on climate change too…

    • This is great. I was just in New York City two weeks ago where the students were occupying the president’s office making demands about the kind of college they wanted to attend. You have the power. Use it!

  • Since I wrote this article, I found out that Wesleyan is also planning construction of a co-generation plant powered by natural gas most likely gotten through fracking. Apparently the students weren’t consulted on this before it was presented to and approved by the Board of Trustees. Instead of spending all those precious millions on this dirty plant, why not build a co-generation plant powered by biogas. In London, they will power 40,000 homes with kitchen grease.

    Consider the possibilities for Wesleyan. A science professor can design this with his or her students. They collect the kitchen grease from restaurants in Middletown. That way it becomes a service learning class. And Wesleyan gets clean power and probably tons of good PR. Why isn;t our president and board of trustees thinking this way? Why is it only a few students who see something wrong with this current plant?

    • Jesse Ross-Silverman

      Slight addendum: when students found out about the cogen plant, they did speak against it. To Roth’s credit, a student was invited to make a presentation to the Board against it. The student representative(s?) to the Board voted against the plan (every other trustee voted unanimously in favor), which I believe was the first recorded ‘no’ vote in the Board’s history.

      • “…which I believe was the first recorded ‘no’ vote in the Board’s history.”

        Wait, what?

        • Jesse Ross-Silverman

          They don’t usually bother to record individual votes, only the outcome.

  • alum

    Is Lauren Steiner going to donate the millions of dollars the Wes endowment would (supposedly) lose as a result of divestment? There’s a reason Bowdoin has said no, Swarthmore has said no, and even Bill McKibben’s dear old Middlebury has said “probably not.”

    It’s one thing if Wes had the endowment of Swarthmore. However, Wes recently ended need-blind. We aren’t in the same league as our peer schools – we don’t have anywhere near the financial resources. If it can be proven that divestment would not lose Wesleyan a single cent, then yes, it should happen. If it means further eroding scholarship support, etc. then we shouldn’t be sacrificing pragmatism (actual scholarship money for students on campus) for idealism (taking a few million dollars away from multi-billion dollar companies). One can only put one’s money where one’s mouth is if one has money. Wes does not.

    • It so happens, I spoke to a member of the Board of Trustees. The only problem he sees with divestment is that Wesleyan has a small endowment which, for fiduciary reasons, has to be divided among multiple managers. He told me that because the amounts are relatively small, they already have trouble finding the best managers. So placing conditions on them might possibly reduce the field even more. That said, this trustee, whose company has $80 billion under management, by the way, told me that if Wesleyan chose to go this way, he would be fine with it. I would imagine that our endowment already has certain investments that they do not allow, such as cigarette and alcohol companies. There are plenty of profitable companies to invest in. I’m sure the reason the other universities are not doing it is that it is complicated to effectuate not that it would be unprofitable.

      • alum

        And that’s just it. While I think divestment is laudable, would endowment returns suffer? Wesleyan is already at a competitive disadvantage, most importantly with regards to financial aid and a lack of a need blind policy. I would have no issue with divestment if our endowment per student was up there with Swarthmore/Bowdoin/Amherst. Unfortunately, it’s not even close.

        Bowdoin did, however, put out a number that if it had not invested in oil/gas,etc. it would be $200 million poorer. That’s a lot of money, though I have no idea how they arrived at that figure.

        Thank you for the reply!

  • optimist

    It’s too late.